More than a Race: How NASCAR’s Pivot Towards Festival Weekends Will Change Motorsport Viewership

Photography: Brad Sillars

  • NASCAR’s Next-Gen car ushered in exciting new regulations and venues over the last two years to bolster viewership and interest in the sport.
  • Chicago’s lakeshore course was the first-ever street race in NASCAR’s 75-year existence.
  • This Midwest race was the most-watched Cup Series contest since the Daytona 500 and was the most-streamed race in NASCAR history.
  • Shane Van Gisbergen and Cole Custer were the inaugural winners in NASCAR’s Cup and Xfinity races respectively.

There’s no better reason to go big than to celebrate an anniversary. 2023 marked NASCAR’s 75th year and to kick things off, America’s most popular racing series introduced a brand-new car that boasted significant updates — aero and downforce improvements, Öhlins suspension, and larger diameter BBS wheels to name a few — but crucially, the “Next Gen” car promised closer competition for spectators.

More bumper-to-bumper action was only part of the equation. NASCAR famously transformed Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track and not for a one-off exhibition. No, this half-mile dirt race was for points like every other round on the season calendar. This, along with its stunt to re-purpose the LA Coliseum (this is a football stadium, mind you) into a track, showed that NASCAR had the confidence to think differently to wow its fans. Which brings us to Chicago.


NASCAR’s visit to the second city is a big deal. The Chicago stop is the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series street race and repurposes some of the city’s more iconic roads adjacent to its unmatched skyline — from the museum campus to the lakefront — as its course. The start-finish line even lines astern with Buckingham Fountain, which is a real treat. To snake its way around these stops, NASCAR’s map here resembled something closer to a lemniscate than a more typical oval, but the re-think was worth the effort to ensure unique backdrops were a priority.

“This race has always been about celebrating what makes Chicago one of the best cities in the world, and we are proud to partner with these local luminaries for the inaugural Chicago Street Race Weekend,” said Julie Giese, Chicago Street Race President.

The race weekend featured the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series lineups — called the Grant Park 220 and The Loop 121, respectively — and both tackled the 12-turn, 2.2-mile street course on their own time.


Any Chicago event in July runs the risk of inclement weather and, perhaps begrudgingly to some, the rain came down hard. Still, even with the truncated race running — the Cup Series race was shortened from 100 laps down to 75 — the fans didn’t seem to mind hanging around for the weekend.

Indeed, the crowded field, mixed with the downpour on a brand-new street circuit, provided plenty of theatrics. Lap 13 saw Noah Gragson dramatically bury the nose of his No.42 Chevy into the barrier at the course’s midpoint (Turn 6). By the end, there were nine total cautions in the Cup Series race.

Shane van Gisbergen in the Trackhouse Racing No. 91 Chevrolet showed us why he was a three-time Australian Supercar Champion and made a pivotal pass on Lap 71. The effort was enough to secure victory and he crossed the checkered flag 1.259 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. But, more than standing on the top step of the inaugural contest, it was the first time in 60 years that a driver has won on their NASCAR debut. In true NASCAR fashion, the New Zealander’s victory was celebrated with a gratuitous smoke show for the fans.


While it would’ve been easy to call the new venue a win on its own, the Chicago stop had more to offer. Both race series were accompanied by several headliners like Miranda Lambert, The Chainsmokers, Charley Crockett, and The Black Crowes. Although they didn’t get to play because of the torrential downpour and threatening lightning, the sheer fact that this level of talent was booked for a motorsport event was still very special.

Indeed, this festival-like platform feels familiar to what Gridlife has done over the years, but that doesn’t take away an ounce from the impact of the event. Even though a large portion of the ticket holders may have come as NASCAR fans, Chicago’s unique programming meant there was much more to take in than just the race. On the equal and opposite end, a sizable sum came because of the unique venue and star-studded entertainment but left appreciating the thrill of motorsport.

I guess you can say that Chicago’s spectatorship was a bit like the chicken or the egg question: there isn’t a clear-cut answer on which mindset or approach is best, but the resulting numbers tell their own story. This Midwest race was the most-watched Cup Series contest since the Daytona 500 and was the most-streamed race in NASCAR history. Way to make a Chicago native feel proud, NASCAR.


It was rather fortuitous that Trackhouse Racing earned a victory here. The team owner, Justin Marks, has built a steadfast reputation for being NASCAR’s latest visionary.

Look back a handful of years and it was his voice that demanded that stock-car racing be brought to the people. He believed that cross-populating NASCAR with other global motorsport series would be a surefire way to achieve that. His team became hell-bent on attracting elite global talents, like Kimi Räikkönen and now Shane van Gisbergen, and putting them behind the wheel of a Cup Series race car. His team’s effort has attracted non-traditional NASCAR fans to see how their favorite drivers stack up against the predominantly American field.

The cumulative effect of Trackhouse Racing’s effort and NASCAR’s own pivots have come to a head here in Chicago and I believe that more people — fans and racing series bosses alike — will take notice. Truth be told, there will always be value in honoring heritage and storied achievements for nuanced motorsport fans. But in a world where these racing die-hards are the minority, it’s good to recognize when motorsport outfits understand the relationship between business, racing, and entertainment is much more closely intertwined than we ever thought before.