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Flooded roads in Chicago force NASCAR to cut short a downtown street race

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

NASCAR has struggled in recent years with declining TV audiences and attendance numbers. So the stock car racing organization tried something dramatically different yesterday to appeal to a different audience. For the first time in its 75-year history, NASCAR held its first-ever street course race in downtown Chicago. Reporter Michael Puente from member station WBEZ was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON CLAPPING)

MICHAEL PUENTE, BYLINE: Chicago isn't new to sports, but Sunday's NASCAR race through the heart of the city was truly unique.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

PUENTE: Attending her first NASCAR event, Ashley Jenkins had a front row seat as the green flag came down on Columbus Drive in Chicago's downtown Loop.

ASHLEY JENKINS: It's awesome. It's our first time being here. He's been watching it since he was a kid. I'm glad to be here and experience it.

PUENTE: Jenkins is African American and from the city's South Side. Her teenage son, Aden, is an avid race car fan. He's the type of person NASCAR hopes to attract by hosting events in urban areas instead of its traditionally Southern and white fan base.

ADEN: I like how fast you can go. And it's very interesting 'cause there's more to it than just going around in an oval.

PUENTE: Carson Epps, a native of Tulsa, Okla., moved to Chicago three years ago. Epps, who is Black, says having a street race in the heart of the city is a good way to get people into car racing.

CARSON EPPS: It got us here. I've never been to a NASCAR event. This is the first one. So I think for early-on fans, it got us here.

PUENTE: NASCAR told drivers that 80% of the tens of thousands of attendees had never purchased a ticket to a NASCAR event before. Hendrick Motorsports pit crew member Jarius Morehead knows he's a role model for young African American children.

JARIUS MOREHEAD: I never grew up thinking I was going to do this. So I was going to play football and all that, and I got into this and I loved it.

PUENTE: This was also Jennifer Green's first car race, and she was ecstatic to see some of the best stock car drivers racing down Michigan Avenue.

JENNIFER GREEN: History - history for Chicago, and I'm here.

PUENTE: And they were treated to a little history. New Zealand's Shane van Gisbergen took the checkered flag, the first driver in 60 years to win his Cup Series debut.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Puente in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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