Street circuits have been a defining factor in Formula 1 since the series’ inaugural year in 1950 — but the trend has exploded in recent years. In fact, even NASCAR has emulated the street-track trend by introducing its first event on public roads in 2023.

The Grant Park 165 takes place this weekend in what will be the NASCAR Cup Series’ second-ever attempt at a street race. The Chicago, Illinois track is unique to American stock car racing — but when it came time to evolve, NASCAR took a page out of Formula 1’s book.

NASCAR goes street racing for the second time in Chicago

When it comes to Formula 1, the push to include more street circuits to the calendar can be polarizing, but it makes sense. Monaco has been one of the most iconic Grands Prix in history, and in the modern era, a street track is an easy way to make bring motorsport to the people, rather than asking them to drive out to a race track.

But for NASCAR, street racing makes a lot less sense.

It’s no secret that American stock-car racing primarily takes place on oval tracks — and there are a lot of reasons for that.

First and foremost, America had a far less robust road network compared to Europe. The indigenous communities that inhabited the American continent before European settlers arrived tended to retain a more intimate relationship with nature; rather than conquer it with roadways or other forms of infrastructure, indigenous peoples lived closer to the land and traveled largely by foot or horse.

So, because centuries of war and innovation created a large road network in Europe, there were plenty of places for early drivers and racers to test out their automobiles, and lots of towns linked by those roads. In America, civilizations were grouped farther apart, and there were fewer roads connecting them; our racing had to grow from somewhere else.

As a result, in many communities, the easiest place to host a race of any kind was on a dirt horse track at a local fairgrounds. These fairgrounds were common meeting places for rural communities, and as technology evolved, horse racing soon gave way to grassroots automobile racing.

When racing evolved to become a more professional affair, it made sense for a series like NASCAR to simply scale up the operation it was already familiar with — oval racing — rather than pivot to a whole new form of motorsport.

More on NASCAR and Formula 1:

???? NASCAR heads to Chicago: The ‘road-course ringers’ coming out to race

???? F1 v NASCAR: How US racing is finally discovering the magic of rain

There’s another sticking point here, too. American race organizers attempted to organize European-style street racing in a select few towns across the country after World War II — but after a seven-year-old boy was killed at the Watkins Glen street circuit, racing on public roads was banned.

As street and road racing enthusiasts scrambled to transform disused airfields into compelling race circuits or build permanent road courses from scratch, oval racing still went on strong. That’s because those venues usually had ample spectator containment areas, or they were located on private land where legal expectations were different.

That being said, NASCAR has regularly included a touch of road racing in its calendars. The Daytona Beach Road Course appeared on the 1949 NASCAR calendar, while Linden Beach, Willow Springs, Riverside, Bridgehampton, Watkins Glen, Road America, and more began to filter onto the schedule in the 1950s.

In fact, there are only two seasons in all of NASCAR history that didn’t feature a road race: 1959 and 1962.

Non-oval races were a great way to draw crowds, challenge regular NASCAR drivers, and introduce drivers from other disciplines to stock car racing in a way that felt more familiar to them.

Street courses, though, have always been different. They’re usually narrow, with unforgiving barriers lining the track. The turns are also generally quite tight. These features aren’t a recipe for success when it comes to the heavy, wide stock cars.

But why is NASCAR going street racing?

Well, for some of the same reasons that Formula 1 is — and for some very NASCAR-specific reasons, too.

Why NASCAR is hitting the streets of Chicago

To put it quite simply, NASCAR is pushing its own boundaries in an effort to evolve.

Speaking to Front Office Sports last year, NASCAR’s SVP of racing development and strategy Ben Kennedy said, “This is part of our long-term strategic plan. About three years ago […] we put a number of initiatives in place to start to think about, ‘Hey, how do we take the sport and transcend it to the next level?’”

Those initiatives have been extremely broad.

In 2022, NASCAR introduced its Next-Gen car. This machine was designed with international GT3 regulations in mind, meaning that it could better tackle road courses while also lowering costs associated with with building and fielding a machine.

Part of the goal — aside from having a car better adapted to road courses — was also to attract top international talent to the series by creating a NASCAR car that felt more like a vehicle international drivers would have come into contact with in their careers.

(And that goal worked, by the way; the inaugural winner of the Chicago street race was Australian Supercars driver Shane van Gisbergen, who was competing in Trackhouse Racing’s Project91 car. Project91 is the name given to a car specifically dedicated to fielding international talent like van Gisbergen or Kimi Raikkonen.)

Further, NASCAR has been trying to evolve its fanbase. Anyone who follows any kind of motorsport likely knows about the stereotypes associated with being a NASCAR fan, and the series itself noticed that its demographics were stagnating.

Going street-track racing was an audacious move designed to attract a whole new demographic to NASCAR, and in 2023, it worked.

Before the inaugural Chicago event, NASCAR estimated that 80% of ticket holders were first-time NASCAR attendees. Many journalists reported on their impressions of the event, which generally included ample descriptions of audiences in thrall at seeing a race car at speed for the first time in their lives.

“We wanted to create options that appeal to everyone,” Ben Kennedy told Front Office Sports in 2023.

“So anything from a general-admission ticket where people can really walk around the entire park, see the drivers on the grid, go down and watch music for the festival, and really roam around, all the way up to our highest zone area.”

In 2023, the event got new eyes on the sport. It revitalized the passion of longtime NASCAR fans. It also made a hell of a lot of money for the city of Chicago. It was a risky event, yes — but it was a risk that paid off in spades.

Heading into this weekend, NASCAR is hoping that it can fine tune a race weekend formula that worked so well on its first attempt.

The Chicago race organizers heard the critiques that came in 2023 and have made plans to fix them, and they’ve organized an impressive slate of musical acts to offer a greater draw for anyone on the fence about going to a race for the first time.

Formula 1 fans have been critical of the sport’s greater push toward a street circuit-heavy calendar, but that weariness has yet to touch the NASCAR world. The Chicago street race is still new enough to be a novelty — but its true trial will come this year, when fans see if it’s the kind of show they’d like more of in the future.

Read next: Why so serious? Four valuable lessons F1 can learn from polarising NASCAR series