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The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty for Chicagoland Speedways Future

Chicagoland Speedway
In a file photo from 2018, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Red White & Blue Toyota, celebrates after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on J in Joliet, Illinois.(Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

By TED SLOWIK

The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty in many areas. Lately, it seems, a lot of uncertainty involves Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.

NASCAR fans looked forward to this year’s race events June 18-21 at the Will County track. But on Friday, this year’s Chicago-area race was canceled.

Five Lincoln-Way area elementary school districts had planned to hold drive-through graduation celebrations for eighth-graders on the 1.5-mile oval track.Those events also were canceled.

But a proposal to develop warehouses on part of the track’s surplus land seems to have generated the most uncertainty regarding the future of the 20-year-old racetrack.

“Exclusive: Is Chicagoland Speedway being reduced to an industrial complex?” asked a headline of a post published Sunday on a media site that covers motorsports.

The post was widely shared on social media and was based on documents presented at an April 16 meeting of the Joliet Plan Commission. The panel at the time tabled until July 16 consideration of a request to subdivide part of the track property to allow industrial development.

Rumors swirled about the track’s impending closure and demolition and prompted the city of Joliet to issue a “clarification” news release late Monday.

“There may have been some public confusion and misinformation about the Chicagoland Speedway being sold, as some of the maps and other supporting documents in the Plan Commission packet show that a portion of the proposed subdivision would include a portion of the racetrack,” Interim City Manager Steve Jones said in a statement.

Jones said that the city’s subdivision regulations require that preliminary plats “shall include all contiguous holdings of land in the same ownership.” Documents submitted for the Plan Commission’s consideration correctly included 423 acres that covered the racetrack, Jones said, though warehouses were proposed for just 82.3 acres.

Developing surplus land around the racetrack makes a lot of sense from a business perspective. The excess property is like outlots surrounding a shopping mall that typically are developed as restaurants and free-standing stores.

Several factors may have contributed to social media users believing the misleading report that warehouses might replace the entire racetrack. For starters, warehouses are becoming as ubiquitous in Joliet as sea shells on Florida beaches or pine needles in the Northwoods forests of Wisconsin.

Warehouses are everywhere in Joliet, and more are coming. Residents are so numb to the endless parade of requests for more warehouses that people could be forgiven for believing the racetrack would be torn down to make room for more of them.

Then, there is the issue of NASCAR’s declining popularity. The sport has lost 50% of its audience since 2005, according to multiple reports.

“The 2019 Daytona 500 drew about 9 million viewers,” The New York Times reported in February. “Yes, sports ratings as a whole are down, but NASCAR’s fall is alarming: Daytona 500 viewership from 2001 to 2009 ranged from 16 to 19 million.”

Last year, Forbes reported that the stands appeared half-full at the start of the annual NASCAR Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in July, and that was after seating capacity in the stands had been reduced to 47,000 from 55,500 during the off season.

“NASCAR still is in Chicagoland, but it appears as if Chicagoland is not as thrilled as it used to be about NASCAR,” Forbes said.

Last week’s announcement that NASCAR was canceling this year’s race weekend at Chicagoland Speedway might also have contributed to doubt about the track’s future. Ticketholders may receive credit for the full amount of tickets plus an additional 20% of the total amount paid to apply towards future race events, the track announced.

NASCAR returns to competition on Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, but without fans in the stands.

A recent ownership change of the Joliet track may have contributed to belief that another sale of the property was plausible. A year ago, NASCAR announced a $2 billion merger with International Speedway Corp., which owned 12 NASCAR tracks including Joliet, Daytona and Talladega.

Then came the disappointing news late Thursday that local school districts looking forward to holding graduation celebrations on the Joliet track in coming weeks would have to make other arrangements.

Districts planning graduation events at the track in late May were New Lenox School District 122, Frankfort Township-based Summit Hill School District 161, Mokena School District 159, Frankfort School District 157-C and Manhattan School District 114.

“As you may have heard through news reports, the Chicagoland Speedway released all their employees earlier this week and closed their facility,” Summit Hill Superintendent Barb Rains wrote Friday to parents of eighth-graders. She provided a copy of the message to The Daily Southtown.

Chicagoland Speedway was deemed a nonessential business and thus not allowed to open during the state’s stay-at-home order that remains in effect. Summit Hill is now working with the Will County Sheriff’s Office on plans for a drive-through graduation event May 29 in the parking lot of Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, Rains wrote.

“We want to thank the Chicagoland Speedway for its generosity in the initial planning of such a memorable event and understand its decision to close operations in these uncertain times,” Rains wrote.

Chicagoland Speedway President Scott Paddock declined comment.

The track seems to have suffered from a “perfect storm” of circumstances that led many to doubt the facility’s future. However, it wouldn’t make sense from a business standpoint to pull the plug on such a major investment.

NASCAR and many other businesses that rely on crowds may be facing their toughest year of business. Nonetheless, the track should remain a popular destination and viable entertainment option for many years to come.

By TED SLOWIK – DAILY SOUTHTOWN |MAY 12, 2020 | 3:42 PM