NASCAR’s four big mistakes from the Chicago street race weekend

Elizabeth Blackstock
Christopher Bell races on a wet track during NASCAR's Chicago street race weekend

Christopher Bell races on a wet track during NASCAR's Chicago street race weekend

NASCAR, America’s premier stock car racing series, just wrapped up its second-ever street race in Chicago, Ill., and a promising weekend unfortunately turned sour when the Cup Series race was forced to end early on Sunday evening.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with the racing — which was truly compelling stuff when conditions allowed for it. Instead, the big issues really came into play on the organizational front, which thankfully means NASCAR will have a great chance at continuing to hone its street racing credentials.

Mistake 1: A late start, a hard cut-off

The primary problem with NASCAR’s Chicago street race is its scheduling.

The green flag for the race was scheduled for roughly 3:30 p.m. local time… but because the track isn’t outfitted with a robust lighting system, racing needed to come to an end by 8:20 p.m. local time.

On a normal day, NASCAR would have been able to easily stage the entirety of its 75-lap race around Grant Park with ease, but unfortunately, Sunday was not a normal day.

The start of the race was delayed for weather, as NASCAR gave its drivers plenty of opportunities to scope out the racing surface and swap from wet tires to slicks, or vice versa. Then, by the time the race finally got started, heavier rain forced a lengthy red-flag period.

Soon, it was no longer a battle to complete the race distance; it was a battle to beat the clock.

Part of the issue stems from the fact that, as many other series have done, NASCAR’s Chicago street race isn’t only a race — it’s a full-on entertainment event packed with concerts and other non-motorsport activations. The goal is to introduce NASCAR racing to an audience that may otherwise never engage with the sport in an effort to develop a new fanbase.

At most other tracks, NASCAR would move the start of the race earlier to avoid what could be race-altering weather events, like the storm that wracked Chicago on Sunday. However, because NASCAR knew it was engaging with an audience unfamiliar with its weather protocols, and because Keith Urban was performing just before the start of the race, the series was stuck. It couldn’t change the start time.

Unfortunately, that meant the race had to be shortened to accommodate that 8:20 p.m. cut-off time.

Should NASCAR continue bolstering its street circuit program, it’ll need to work with its venues to create contingency plans for future events like this. Otherwise, it risks looking severely unprepared.

Mistake 2: Yellow, yellow, yellow!

When the Grant Park 165 restarted after its red-flag period and several crashes resulted in yellow flags, it became clear that the event would be dictated by a clock, not by its scheduled distance. And yet NASCAR preserved an unnecessary procedure that results in a long yellow flag.

See, NASCAR racing features something called ‘stages.’ In an effort to spice up the racing, the series effectively divided its races into three (or four) segments by scheduling two (or three) mandatory caution periods in each event. Unfortunately, NASCAR opted to preserve its stage break cautions, even while fighting against the clock.

While I do commend NASCAR for not making any sudden changes to race format that may have caused serious issues to any active in-race strategies, it should have been clear before NASCAR ended its red-flag period that extra unnecessary cautions would decrease its chances of completing the scheduled distance. Removing stage breaks at that point would have been both possible and preferred.

Instead, NASCAR preserved the stage breaks, even as race control threw multiple cautions for on-track crashes. It resulted in an amateur-ish feel for the race, which kept stopping before it truly got good.

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Mistake 3: A hard-to-dry track surface…

The biggest cause of frustration at the Chicago street track during its two NASCAR weekends thus far? Rain.

There’s not much NASCAR — or any of us, for that matter — can do about rain. Damp tracks have impacted racing action at the majority of the stock car series’ races in 2024, to the extent that it can sometimes feel as if a rain-free weekend is an oddity. Thankfully, the street layout meant the series could actually race in the changeable conditions, something it wouldn’t have been able to do on a larger oval.

But the street circuit format presents one big problem: It’s hard to dry.

This kind of issue is prevalent on a lot of street courses. Because street circuits are inherently narrow, and because they require heavy concrete barriers as lining for that narrow track surface, drainage can become a problem. If it rains, there’s just nowhere for the water to go.

On oval tracks, rain can be easily jetted off the track and into the infield. On many road courses, there’s plenty of run-off in which to blow standing water.

But on a street circuit, there’s just nowhere for the water to go. NASCAR deployed a fleet of jet dryers and vacuum trucks to help displace the water, but it was a much more tedious process than usual.

On top of that, painted areas of the track also remained especially slick compared to unpainted asphalt sections of the track. Add more pooling water into the mix, and you’ve got a slippery recipe for plenty of crashes.

This is one of the frustrations of hosting a street race, and it isn’t entirely NASCAR’s fault that a street track is challenging to dry. However, when paired with the late scheduled race start followed by the late actual start due to weather, it felt as if NASCAR and the Chicago street race organizers were caught entirely off guard — which is especially damning, considering weather impacted the 2023 race as well.

It would be costly to implement new drainage systems, but NASCAR and Chicago should sit down to find other ways to reduce pooling or running water on track — including analyzing the particularly wet sections of track over the past two years and setting up vacuum trucks outside of those turns to collect water before it hits the track.

Mistake 4: …And inexperienced rain-racing drivers

Most full-time NASCAR drivers have had little experience racing in the rain, since NASCAR has long avoided doing so. Even with wet-weather tires available, it’s too dangerous to compete on high-speed ovals when the surface is damp. So, even though NASCAR has begun experimenting with more wet-weather racing in 2024, many drivers remain inexperienced.

NASCAR’s push to race in the rain should be commended; it’s a much needed evolution in the sport. But the “trial by fire” attitude, where drivers effectively learn wet-weather race craft on the fly, can make some deeply frustrating racing riddled with rookie errors that put a hold on any potentially great racing.

For example, one of the highlights of the weekend was the on-track performance of Shane van Gisbergen, a former Australian Supercars racer who has come to compete in NASCAR full time after his successful debut at the Chicago street course last year. Part of what made him so compelling to watch is his experience with both street racing and wet-weather racing. Van Gisbergen was able to make moves no one else thought possible.

Motorsport is great when we’re able to watch highly talented drivers display their skills for the world to see. Van Gisbergen was a pleasure to watch for that exact reason — but in comparison, it made the regular NASCAR field look a bit foolish.

There is unfortunately no real way to quickly train a full field of experienced oval racers in new and unique forms of race craft — especially because it’s impossible to simply schedule a wet-weather test. But for unfamiliar events like Chicago, NASCAR needs to perhaps consider a greater amount of practice to help its drivers perform at their best.

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