Sweet home Chicago: Street circuit coming to iRacing, Pro Invitational Series

This story first appeared on NASCAR.com on March 24, 2021:

Street-course racing is headed to NASCAR, at least in a virtual sense, as series officials confirmed that iRacing is developing a street circuit set in the downtown Chicago Loop. The layout is scheduled to debut on the racing simulation later this spring and host the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on June 2.

The tentative configuration of the virtual circuit measures roughly 2.2 miles and connects some of Chicago’s landmark streets, including Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, lapping the perimeter of Grant Park with the downtown skyline as a backdrop.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president, strategic initiatives, says he’s taken a test drive on an early unreleased version of the Chicago course, estimating that development of the track is 80 to 90 percent complete. He said the project was a joint effort among NASCAR officials, iRacing, The Specialized Marketing Group Inc. (TSMGI) agency, Chicago Sports Commission and the City of Chicago, which allowed the simulation team to laser-map the streets and surroundings under the cloak of early morning darkness last fall.

“Definitely not a traditional scan, and credit to Steve Myers and the group out at iRacing for being able to pull this off,” Kennedy said. “But it was one Sunday night in October at about 12:30 in the morning that they sent a scanner out there in the middle of the night and just made laps around the course. They were there for a little bit, captured some pictures and videos and some of the data that’s necessary to build that out.

“From there, they were able to build kind of that generic model and as you guys will see in some of the content today, you can really start to see it come to life with the buildings and walls and fencing and some of the street posts and lighting. Still a work in progress and we’ll have the final product on June 2nd to see, but certainly a very unique course and I think it’ll be an exciting one for our fans.”

Even though the rumble of racing engines echoing through the Chicago Loop will be a virtual one, city officials embraced the simulation’s debut there and the chance to host the real-life Cup Series drivers who participate in the invitational series.

Chicago Map D2

“On behalf of the City of Chicago, I am thrilled to work with NASCAR and iRacing to showcase our great city to NASCAR fans who will be watching this cutting-edge event from around the country,” said Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “Through this exciting and innovative exhibition, fans will be able to see and experience Chicago’s iconic downtown in a way that has never been done before. I am excited to partner with NASCAR and iRacing to produce this event and look forward to providing a new, uniquely Chicago experience to those near and far.”

Said Kara Bachman, executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission: “Today’s announcement marks a huge milestone for Chicago and the Chicago Sports Commission. CSC and its partners, such as TSMGI who has been integral in securing this event, have long awaited the opportunity to collaborate with NASCAR. The iRacing Pro Invitational Series is the perfect virtual launching pad and a testament to NASCAR’s innovation.”

NASCAR officials announced in January that the iRacing Pro Invitational Series would return for a second season in 2021, starting with Wednesday night’s opener at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track (8 p.m. ET, FS1). When the first five dates were announced, the site of the fifth race was left to be determined. Wednesday’s Chicago announcement fills that slot. The second half of the Pro Invitational Series’ 10-race schedule — to be broadcast by NBC Sports — will be revealed at a later date.

iRacing has scanned existing street circuits before, and the sim service offers virtual versions of the streets of Long Beach, California, and the Belle Isle circuit in Detroit. Chicago represents iRacing’s first street-course project based on a real-world location that’s yet to be raced on in real life.

RELATED: See a lap of the course | Could Chicago Street Course become NASCAR option?

“Certainly something new to us. I think the big things are really creating a good racing product for our fans at the end of the day, so wide streets, good corners and unique characteristics to the track, too,” Kennedy says, noting the natural chicane that Congress Plaza Drive creates and the circuit’s dogleg near Lake Michigan’s shore.

“I think that’s what led us to it and then compile that onto just the iconic location of it, right along Lake Michigan. You have the Chicago skyline in the background and then the middle of Grant Park. Such a unique opportunity and it will be really neat to see it all come together in the virtual world.”

NASCAR has a history of racing in Chicago’s vicinity, dating back to a Cup Series race in 1956 at Soldier Field — not far from the iRacing street circuit. NASCAR held two Camping World Truck Series events (2000-01) at the short-lived Chicago Motor Speedway in Cicero, Illinois, on the city’s outskirts. And Cup Series events were held from 2001-19 in Joliet at Chicagoland Speedway. Officials indicated they continue to work with the Chicagoland track on possible options beyond 2021.

This Chicago venture marks the latest collaboration between iRacing and NASCAR, a partnership that gained prominence under dire circumstances when the sports world shut down after COVID-19’s global outbreak a year ago. The Pro Invitational Series helped fill that void, allowing stock-car racing’s stars and cars to trade paint in pixelated form from remote locations.

More recently, iRacing helped create a sim model for Auto Club Speedway’s proposed reconfiguration into a short track, helping NASCAR officials determine the feasibility of the concept. That same modeling and cooperation will soon transform Chicago’s bustling city streets into a virtual racing venue for iRacing subscribers and NASCAR’s invitational field.

“I think the idea really came together in collaboration with the group out in Chicago and then really integrating iRacing throughout the process,” Kennedy says. “They’ve been great to work with whether it’s on the Auto Club project and what the redevelopment of that track looks like, as well as a handful of other developments as we think about what future tracks could be or look like. It’s been a great collaboration so far. This one is kind of a concept right now more than anything else, but certainly need to have them a part of the process.”