Since the iRacing Pro Invitational Series debuted the Chicago street course last summer, it’s been almost a foregone conclusion that NASCAR will end up racing on closed public roads sooner or later. IndyCar added a new street race in Nashville last year, and with Formula 1 planning to stop in both Miami and Las Vegas in the coming years, it seems like street racing (the legal, sanctioned, closed-off-streets kind) is on the rise in this country. I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing.
Not to get too much into anthropological theory, but the core appeal of motorsports is its excess. Racing takes something familiar (cars driving around) and makes it brighter, louder, and most importantly, faster. It is awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to watch the rules that usually govern the behavior of cars and drivers get broken. Way too loud, way too close, and way too fast, it’s the addicting thrill of the taboo that gives fans a visceral reaction of awe and keeps us coming back.
This spectacle is only exaggerated by putting race cars on public roads. Yes, we know that it’s allowed, the streets are closed and the race is sanctioned, but the contrast between regular road and incredible race car plays up this unique appeal of our sport, and the most memorable aspect of it to a new fan.
At a street race, you can watch all the chaos from the patio of a restaurant, the second story of a shopping center, or just wandering along the sidewalk. Your brain will constantly be reminding you that this is all kind of ridiculous. Somehow, it doesn’t add up. This feeling of astonishment, almost disbelief, is the feeling I associate with watching a race in person, and it’s been the strongest at street races. I’ve also found that street races tend to offer the most value, in terms of on-track product, for the price of a ticket. Because the track is only usable for those few days each year, organizers stuff the schedule with support races, meaning there is almost always something happening on track.
The experience of being a spectator at a street race is different from the usual NASCAR experience. Instead of sitting in your seat and seeing the entire track in front of you, fans are encouraged by the twisty layout and full program to spend the day exploring, finding different vantage points from which to watch the action. Spectators are surrounded by the glorious sights and sounds of racing for the entire day. One of my clearest memories of being at any race is crossing a pedestrian bridge at Long Beach and identifying the IMSA cars by the engine noises echoing against the corrugated metal.
This different type of experience is the secret sauce a street race could bring. For die-hards, the usual oval-track experience of sitting in a grandstand seat, refusing to miss a single lap of a four-hour race is great. We already know and care about the drivers, so going to the track replaces watching the race on TV: it gets us closer to the action of the sport we already love.
But since NASCAR wants to attract fans for whom going to the race replaces some other entertainment on their Sunday afternoons, the attraction of having endless things to do within the all-consuming, awe-inspiring world of motorsports over the course of a day could really make a difference.
NASCAR desperately wants to attract casual fans. A street race, if done properly, is a fantastic way to do that. It emphasizes the things that make our sport special, immerses spectators in motorsports’ sensory soup for the entire day, and it’s a much easier ask for someone than convincing them to drive way out of town to get to a purpose-built track. Even better than stadium racing, it encourages people to stumble across the event.
Saturday morning, as I made my way to the general admission gate at the Long Beach Convention Center, a man stopped me to ask if there was a race today. He was just out on a morning run, had heard some race car noises, and wanted to know what was going on. I told him, “There are a bunch of races! The big one is IndyCar tomorrow. Look, you can see the track right through there!”
He decided he’d check it out tomorrow.