Mar 9, 2023 - News

Chicago NASCAR street race disrupts summer traditions

Photo of people at a street festival

Thousands of food lovers turn out for Taste Of Chicago in 2017. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

NASCAR and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are disrupting Chicago's big summer traditions in Grant Park.

Driving the news: First the city kicked out its famed softball leagues to make way for the new street race through downtown in early July. Now reports say Taste of Chicago will be uprooted to Navy Pier.

Why it matters: Taste of Chicago has long served as a tourist magnet and has attracted millions to Grant Park since 1981.

  • Leagues have played 16-inch softball in Grant Park dating back almost 100 years.

What they're saying: "The administration was in such a rush to approve the NASCAR race without the advice and consent of the local alderpeople that they forgot the Taste of Chicago was to happen there the following week," 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly told Axios.

  • Reilly said Lightfoot's administration "decided unilaterally" to move the free food festival to Polk Brothers Park in front of Navy Pier.
  • The city didn't respond to Axios' request for comment on the potential relocation.

Meanwhile: The 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame is ticked with the city for displacing the softball leagues in Grant Park.

  • When leagues went to sign up this year, the Park District informed them that they couldn't play on the Grant Park diamonds because of the NASCAR race and concerts planned for mid-July.
  • "The Park District should have told everyone sooner and had new field options for the teams," 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame co-founder Al Maag told Axios.
Photo of people playing softball
Softball played in the '30s in Grant Park. Photo courtesy of the 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame

The other side: The Chicago Park District told Axios in a statement that it's exploring "the availability of athletic fields in Grant Park, including during event set-up and tear-down."

  • "The goal is always to maintain as much public access as possible in a safe manner."
  • The mayor's office didn't respond to Axios' requests for comment.

Context: In the last 20 years, the Park District has squeezed the Grant Park leagues by bringing in summer festivals like Lollapalooza and, more recently, the Latino music festival Sueños.

  • Participation has also dwindled due to schedule limitations, parking restrictions, the price to play and fewer people working downtown.
  • In the '80s, more than 350 teams played on Grant Park diamonds. In 2022, there were only six teams still playing across four leagues.

Of note: Taste of Chicago, once 10 days long, has shrunk in recent years due to budget and labor constraints. Last year it ran only three days.

Between the lines: Ald. Reilly argues that the city "is getting dangerously close to violating the Supreme Court decisions that have protected Grant Park from development and privatization."

  • "People in Chicago should be able to enjoy that lakefront without paying an admission fee."

Be smart: Grant Park isn't the only local park facing accusations of prioritizing big events over park users.

What's next: The softball leagues, which usually play between April and August, are trying to relocate to nearby parks on the Near West Side.

  • The NASCAR deal places its race and concert in Grant Park for the next three years.

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