Chicagoland Speedway's 1.5 miles (2.4 km) tri-oval in Joliet, Illinois, opened in 2001 and became a home for NASCAR in the Chicago area, hosting the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup for many years. The 47,000-seat, $130 million Speedway is the largest sporting facility in Illinois and occupies over 1,300 acres.
Until recently, it was also a host for open-wheel racing and could boast to being the venue at which the IndyCar Series recorded its closest ever finish.
Sadly, the 2019 season was the last to feature sanctioned racing, with the NASCAR race postponed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic and the track dropped altogether from subsequent schedules. Rumours abound that the track may be sold off for development, though there is no official word from NASCAR.
Chicago had long been an untapped area for oval racing and various proposals came and went over the years without reaching fruition. Proposed venues in Kankakee, backed at various stages by Pocono Raceway owner Joe Mattioli and A.J. Foyt, and the Quad Cities, with support from Bruton Smith, fizzled out for financial reasons without ever breaking ground. Against this backdrop, in 1995 Bill France's International Speedway Corporation and Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George formed an alliance to search for a suitable site for racing.
Under the banner of the Motorsports Alliance, various sites were explored but each met with a similar lack of success, until Indycar team owner Dale Coyne stepped in to put the group in touch with local officials in Joliet, to the southwest of Chicago. Coyne had successfully built Route 66 Raceway, a drag strip and dirt oval facility, in the area and suggested the land adjacent might be favourable. An impact study revealed the new speedway would generate $300 million for the Joliet and Will County region and create over 3,000 jobs.
Joliet city council unanimously approved the speedway proposals on January 19, 1999 and Will County signalled their approval by extending an enterprise zone in order to give a tax break to the speedway developers. In May of that year, the Motorsports Alliance combined with Route 66 Raceway to form Raceway Associates with Coyne as president alongside George and France. Joie Chitwood III was named vice president and general manager of the massive facility. With all of the pieces finally in place, development of the 1.5 mile speedway could now begin in earnest.
Architecture and engineering firm HNTB, which had built stadiums and arenas such as the RCA Dome, Los Angeles Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, was selected to lead the design of the facility, while Bovis Lend Lease headed the construction of the speedway. Workers moved onto site in August 1999 and groundbreaking took place on September 28, 1999.
Circuit hosts NASCAR and IRL events
By May 2000, the new venue had been officially named as Chicagoland Speedway and the first races announced as Winston Cup, Busch, and IRL events. Construction continued throughout the year and into 2001, with completion in spring 2001. The circuit was officially opened on Saturday, June 23 in a special 'meet your seat' day attended by around 6,000 eager fans, who watch on as Joliet Mayor Arthur Schultz cut the ceremonial ribbon.
The NASCAR Tropicana 400 quickly became a sell-out event and the IRL event was also popular, with the track quickly gaining a reputation as one of the most competitive oval circuits in the IRL calendar. Many races saw extremely tight racing and close finishes, most notably 2002 when Sam Hornish, Jr. edged Al Unser, Jr. in a photo finish, officially by .0024 seconds, the closest in Indycar history. The battle had raged for the final 22 laps as the pair headed a huge ten-car two-abreast drafting pack. The following year's race was just as close, with Hornish again the victor, this time by .0099 seconds from Scott Dixon and Bryan Herta in a three-wide finish.
The Chicagoland race became the Indycar finale from 2006 to 2008, witnessing an epic battle for the title between Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon in 2007, resolved when the New Zealander ran out of fuel on the last lap, handing the race win and title to Franchitti.
Indycar officials elected to drop Chicagoland from its schedule in 2011, leaving NASCAR as the major draw. In 2008, the track installed lighting allowing a switch to night racing for its Sprint Cup race and two Nationwide races, while the racing calendar is rounded out by a round of the Truck Series and a 150-mile ARCA race.
Racing comes to a shuddering halt
Sadly, none of these events would last. All racing came to a shuddering halt in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, with all events cancelled and a majority of staff laid off. Then on September 29, the speedway confirmed that it has been dropped altogether from future NASCAR schedules, its race transferred to Road America. This left the track effectively dormant.
According to documents on the Joliet.gov website, there are plans in place to replace Chicagoland Speedway with a number of warehouse developments. While these plans may never come to fruition, it does seem that NASCAR has no immediate plans to re-activate the circuit. With he value of the land considerably greater to the city for round-the-clock warehousing than as a once-a-year sporting venue, the omens do not look particularly promising.