NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace in a red baseball cap, trackside and talking with fans
Bubba Wallace is a professional stock car racing driver that competes in the NASCAR Cup Series. Credit: Zach Catanzareti/Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was a mixed-message week on the homefront. Mayor Lightfoot rolled out the red carpet for NASCAR the day before she arm-twisted the alderpeople into cracking down on speeders to make our streets safer.

So one day the mayor is cheering on stock car racers to go faster. And the next she’s sternly demanding motorists to slow down—or else!

Let’s begin with NASCAR.

On Tuesday July 19, Mayor Lightfoot and NASCAR officials gathered reporters downtown to announce good news! Starting next year, NASCAR would sponsor three years of stock car races at Grant Park on the Fourth of July weekend.

Well, the race won’t actually be in Grant Park. But along the roads in and around the park, including DuSable Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and Columbus Drive. The streets would be fitted with grandstands so racing enthusiasts could watch. 

As with all “good news”, Lightfoot’s learned from her mayoral predecessors to overestimate the benefits and ignore the costs. 

So she’s not said how much it would cost taxpayers to stage the event—including recompensing the owners of the parking meters who must be reimbursed every time closing the public roads keeps them from collecting parking fees.

As you can see, it pays to beware of mayors bearing “good news.”

Back to NASCAR . . .

It stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It was founded in 1948, and its headquarters are in Daytona Beach, Florida. Many of its original drivers were bootleggers who outdrove the law as they dropped their illegally produced moonshine throughout the south.

Traditionally, its politics have leaned right. NASCAR’s founder, Bill France Sr., was the campaign manager for segregationist George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign.

NASCAR’s still roiling from the fallout from the 2021 Sparks 300 race (at the famed Talladega Racecourse in Alabama) in which thousands of fans in the stands started chanting “Fuck Joe Biden.”

Apparently, it was their way of letting Biden know what they thought of his notion that the country is just one big happy family, eager to work together for the common good.

The chant was so loud that you could hear it on TV, forcing NBC reporter Kelli Stavast to tell viewers folks were actually chanting “Let’s Go Brandon!” in honor of Brandon Brown who had just won the race.

Thus, “Let’s Go Brandon” became a favorite MAGA rallying cry and meme. (Though according to my downstate sources, the signs of choice in MAGA Illinois remain “Fuck Biden” and “Pritzker Sucks.”)

If all goes as Lightfoot plans, thousands of NASCAR enthusiasts will flock to town next summer to watch the race. Here’s an idea—after the race, they can pose for pictures under the sign on Trump Tower, while wearing their “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirts.

I guess I should feel delighted at the prospect of MAGA fans flooding the city they love to hate and filling our coffers with their sales taxes. Of course, we shall see how many actually show up.

By the way, Brandon Brown was not at the press conference, but Bubba Wallace was.

Wallace is significant because he’s one of the only Black drivers on the NASCAR circuit. Also, the sponsor of his racing team is Michael Jordan.

As such, Wallace was called on to say a few words about how next year’s race might encourage Black children in Chicago to reach for the racing stars.

“Exposing this sport to this area is going to be super important,” said Wallace. “You’re gonna get that next Bubba Wallace that’s sitting in the stands like I was when I was nine years old to be like, ‘I want to do this one day.’”

That was Tuesday. 

The next day, at Wednesday’s city council meeting, the alderpeople passed a law, at the mayor’s urging, to crack down on drag racers who have been using lower Wacker Drive as their illegal racecourse.

And then the council finally got around to voting on a proposal to lift the threshold at which motorists are ticketed by speed cameras.

Originally, motorists were ticketed for going ten miles over the limit. Last year, Lightfoot, citing the need for safer streets, lowered it to six miles over the limit.

Alderperson Anthony Beale, who represents the ninth ward on the far south side, proposed to raise it back to ten.

Realizing she didn’t have the support to defeat Beale’s rollback, Lightfood and her allies employed one parliamentary maneuver after another to keep it from coming to a vote.

Beale argued that lowering the threshold was more about writing tickets and collecting fines than safety. And that Black motorists were unfairly getting ticketed more than white ones.

Indeed, the speed light ticket program has been biased against south and west side Black communities, according to exposés by ProPublica reporters Emily Hopkins and Melissa Sanchez. 

“A ProPublica analysis of millions of citations found that households in majority Black and Hispanic ZIP codes received tickets at around twice the rate of those in white areas between 2015 and 2019,” Sanchez and Hopkins wrote. “The consequences have been especially punishing in Black neighborhoods, which have been hit with more than half a billion dollars in penalties over the last 15 years, contributing to thousands of vehicle impoundments, driver’s license suspensions and bankruptcies.”

Part of the reason for the disparity is there are more speed cameras along streets leading to expressways in Black neighborhoods than white ones. Since drivers tend to speed up as they head for an expressway, that means more tickets for motorists in Black communities.

One obvious solution is to even things out by installing more cameras in white communities. But it’s one thing to upset a few Black alderpeople—it’s quite another to upset white north siders. So much for that solution.

The mayor got 26 alderpeople to defeat Beale’s proposal. Once again, racial inequality and unfairness thrive in Chicago.

Anyway, welcome to the Windy City, Bubba Wallace. If our city leaders treat you the way they’ve historically treated Black residents, they’ll make you start next year’s race a few hundred feet behind your white competitors.

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