By Zane Miller
Chicago Motor Speedway is known as one of the biggest failures in recent motorsport history, as it held its first race in 1999, its final race in 2002, and was demolished in 2005 to make room for a Walmart.
It seems to me that most fans, both in NASCAR and IndyCar, collectively tend to forget that this track existed. CMS is hardly ever featured in any highlight packages, there is no marker dedicated to the track on the former site.
Construction of the Chicago Motor Speedway began in 1997 and was completed on schedule in 1999 at a cost of $70 million. It was owned by Charles Bidwill III, who is part of the Bidwill family that owns the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, as well as by NASCAR and IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi. CMS was a 1-mile long asphalt oval in Cicero, Illinois, intended to host both NASCAR and IndyCar events to serve the Chicago market.
The racing history at CMS began on Sunday, August 22nd, 1999, as the Indy Lights and CART series had a doubleheader to open the new facility. Future IndyCar legend Scott Dixon won the Indy Lights race, while the CART race, named the Target Grand Prix of Chicago, saw Juan Pablo Montoya outlast Dario Franchitti to win his sixth race of the season, while leading the most laps at 132. Montoya would go on to win one more race and win the 1999 CART championship, in a tiebreaker over Franchitti.
The year 2000 saw another major race added to CMS’s schedule, as the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series would compete at the track about a month following the Indy Lights/CART doubleheader.
On Sunday, July 30th, 2000, racing was back at CMS with the Indy Lights race, which Scott Dixon dominated again, winning what would be the only two Indy Lights races held at the track. Meanwhile, in the Target Grand Prix of Chicago, Montoya again had a strong race going, leading the most laps with 111. However, he would be done in by a fuel leak, forcing him to drop out of the event. The misfortune paved the way for Cristiano da Matta to lead the final 51 laps en route to his first career CART victory. da Matta went on to win a total of 12 races in his CART career, including seven victories in his 2002 campaign that saw him claim the series championship.
On Sunday, August 27th, 2000, the Truck Series joined in with their inaugural race at CMS, the Sears Craftsman 175. While Greg Biffle, who eventually won the 2000 championship, led the most laps with 70, he would be passed by veteran driver Joe Ruttman with just 15 laps to go on the way to the win, extending his record for the oldest winner in any of the three main NASCAR series as a 55-year-old at the time. This wouldn’t be the final win for Ruttman however, as he would go on to extend the record even further with two wins in the 2001 Truck Series season.
While the 2001 racing season would see essentially the same lineup of races minus the Indy Lights series, a crushing blow for the speedway’s future transpired as Chicagoland Speedway was opened that same year, as it hosted NASCAR Cup Series and Busch Series races, along with CART’s rival in the Indy Racing League. Chicagoland Speedway was built in Joliet, Illinois, less than an hour away from CMS, which Bidwill and Ganassi feared would cost CMS going forward.
Sunday, July 29th, 2001 saw the Target Grand Prix of Chicago kick off once again. Helio Castroneves led the most laps with 68, but faded late and was forced to settle for a seventh-place finish. Kenny Brack took the lead from Scott Dixon with 19 laps remaining and did not look back, taking his third win of the season. Although he held the most wins at the end of the season with four, Brack came up short in the standings by 36 points to 2001 champion Gil de Ferran.
Another noteworthy CMS fact is that it was used as a filming location for the 2001 film Driven, which was based on CART racing and has been panned as one of the worst motorsport movies of all time. The movie was criticized for its cliché plot, unrealistic crash scenes and poorly executed special effects, and as a result, it received seven nominations at the year’s Golden Raspberry Awards.
The final Truck Series race at CMS was on Saturday, August 18th, 2001, retaining the Sears Craftsman 175 name. The race is best known for seeing the first laps led in NASCAR by future Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who at the time was only 16 years old. However, it was Scott Riggs who took home the win, leading the final 12 laps for his fifth win of the season. Riggs would go on to finish fifth in points, 144 behind 2001 champ Jack Sprague.
The next season would see a decline in races at CMS, as the Truck Series would not return for 2002. This left CART as the only major race at the speedway, which was again moved up in the schedule by a month, possibly to capitalize on the popularity of the Chicagoland Speedway by having the CMS race held just a couple weeks before the Chicagoland race weekend. In any case, the CART event was held on Sunday, June 30th, 2002, renamed the Grand Prix of Chicago as Target did not renew their naming rights. 2000 race winner Cristiano da Matta took the victory in the final race at CMS, leading the most laps to boot with 82.
Due to financial hardships, Chicago Motor Speedway was officially closed in 2003. In a now-deleted NASCAR.com article, Ganassi said, “It’s tough, man. I've been a supporter of CART for so long. But we can't go on losing money.”
The track was sold to the city of Cicero in 2003 for $18 million, but was never reopened. The track was left empty for two years, until the grandstands were demolished in 2005. In October 2008, it was announced that the remainder of the facility would also be torn down in order to build a new Walmart Supercenter on the site. The remaining racing surface was indeed demolished in 2009, as construction began on the new Walmart. On Wednesday, May 21st, 2014, the Cicero Avenue Walmart was opened to the public, where it remains open to this day. According to Google, the Walmart is relatively well-received, earning a 3.7 star rating based on 4,742 reviews as of this writing.
From what I can tell, there are no historical markers or any references to the fact that there used to be a racetrack where the Walmart is now. I certainly find the story of the Chicago Motor Speedway strange for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is how it was given up on so quickly. Sure, it had been losing money, but if the track had stuck around, a two-track system could have worked, especially in a market as big as Chicago. For example, Indianapolis has both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lucas Oil Raceway, those two tracks have co-existed for 60 years. If CMS had worked on trying to bring in different forms of racing and keep a fuller schedule, then it might still be around today, especially with the general boost in popularity that motorsport experienced around the time of the track’s closure.
Thank you for reading!