5 burning questions for Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network)

After a month off, the NTT IndyCar Series drivers are back in action this weekend on the highly anticipated race on the streets of downtown Nashville. With that said, this is an inaugural event. There’s not much to base favorites or sleepers off of since we’ve never been here before. There’s not many track trends since this is a brand new course.

So, instead of having our usual weekly content for those, I’m sure those are questions most would have so lets just put them all here.

What’s The Track Comparable To?

Nashville being a street course is unique in the sense that we don’t have many of them on the schedule. Last year, there was just one – St. Pete. This year, we have a few more in Long Beach, St. Pete, Belle Isle and here. These are the best comparisons in the fact that the top drivers on those places are usually good at the others.

But, Nashville is also very different and yet unique in the sense that you can also trim out here and not do so elsewhere. The reason for that is due to this track having long straights and not too many slow corners either. That’s why landing the setup right is bigger at Nashville than any of those other street circuits on the schedule.

In St. Pete, Belle Isle or Long Beach, it’s more about going with max downforce and just tinkering with minor setup pieces. For Nashville, the box is more open.

“We’ve had those racetracks in the past, like Saõ Paulo, where, yeah, you needed all the downforce you could get in the corners,” Ryan Hunter-Reay told me. “But you have to get down those straights fast if you want to be able to pass or keep cars behind you. It could definitely go that way.

“We’re looking at first- and second-gear corners on the other side of the track connected by long straights, so when you consider that, we’re not going through any really high-speed corners where you where need downforce, so it definitely could go that way.

“We’re really just — we’re ready to be adaptive. We don’t know what the resurfacing — is traction going to be the key issue, trying to put down the power coming off these corners, or do we need to shift our focus to reducing understeer with the asphalt resurfacing sections where we will need a bit more mechanical front grip to get the car to turn, and change — compromising that traction window that we’re looking for.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a bit of a head scratcher in some areas because you’ve got these long straights, you’ve got to put the power down, but there are some kind of flowing sections that we need a good balance in the race car. At the moment it’s anybody’s guess. We’re kind of going with our typical bumpy street circuit setup and then we’re going to have to adapt from there.

“When you look at it, it’s a pretty short weekend compared to what we used to do. This is one practice on Friday and then we have the one practice prior to qualifying on Saturday. We’re going to have to make quick work of it, so hopefully Andretti Autosport with our four cars can do that in a timely fashion.”

Josef Newgarden at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - INDYCAR Media Site Photo Credit

Who Are The Favorites?

With this being an inaugural race, there’s no way for sure of knowing. So, lets look at past trends on other street courses.

We’ve had three street races this season with three different winners from three different teams.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Josef Newgarden is the only multi-time winner with three trips to victory lane on these types of tracks, two of which coming on the streets of St. Pete.

The big teams are strong on them with Penske winning four of those last nine races and Andretti scoring two wins and Ganassi two themselves. Arrow McLaren SP has the other victory in that span.

Andretti says this is their top types of circuits, where Penske is probably second in nature followed by Ganassi.

Colton Herta won earlier this season at St. Pete while Marcus Ericsson and Pato O’Ward won the two races at Belle Isle back in June. Do we see a fourth different street course winner in as many races this weekend? We’ve also had eight different winners in 10 races run on the season too.

Newgarden, Herta and O’Ward have been the strongest the last couple of seasons on these tracks and I suspect they will be again on Sunday. They went 1-2 (Newgarden, O’Ward) in the 2020 season finale at St. Pete and the only reason it wasn’t 1-2-3 was due to Herta’s late race misfortunes.

They went 1-2 again (Herta, Newgarden) at St. Pete back in March with Ericsson in seventh for a second straight year on the Florida circuit. In Belle Isle, it was 1-3 (Ericsson, O’Ward) in Race 1 and 1-2-4-9 (O’Ward, Newgarden, Herta, Ericsson) in Race 2.

Will Power is one of the most accomplished street circuit racers too, earning 15 of his 39 career Indy-car wins on these types of layouts but his last coming in 2016. He does have a pair of top-10 finishes in this season’s three street races, but his best effort actually came in the first race at Detroit where he finished 20th. He had led a race-high 37 laps and was leading when a red flag halted the race for an on-track incident. Power’s car would not fire back up due to an electrical issue when the race resumed with five laps to go and Ericsson became the benefactor of his misfortune. 

If you go back to Race 2 at Belle Isle in 2019 though, we’ve had six straight different winners on street courses (Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden, Herta, Ericsson and O’Ward). In fact, we’ve had seven different winners in the last nine if you throw in Alexander Rossi’s 2019 triumph at Long Beach too.

While the door appears to be open for the taking, I still think this is Newgarden’s race to lose.

Newgarden’s finishes on street courses since the start of the 2019 season?

1st, 2nd, 1st, 19th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 10th and 2nd respectively. While we’ve had parity, he’s the only constant up front with six top two’s in the last nine tries on them. He’s led 84% of the laps the last three races including a pole in all three and is also coming off of a victory the last time out in Mid-Ohio.

This is his hometrack.

Is The Weather Going To Be A Factor?

The weather is absolutely going to be a factor this weekend. The drivers haven’t raced since July 4 and now they’re going to be behind the wheel of cars with conditions in the 90’s and sunny on a street course. There’s already not a lot of airflow inside of the cockpit of these cars these days. That’s due to the addition of the Aeroscreen. It’s essentially a sauna in there and add into the effect that these drivers haven’t raced in over a month, with high heat and little to no air flow and you’re going to see a survival of the fittest race on Sunday.

How much of a factor is this going to be? I say a big one.

Also, the heat and the way the track is designed is going to cause chaos for the brakes and tire wear. The track has long straights with a lot of 90 degree corners. In saying that, with high ambient temperatures, keeping the brakes cool is going to be a huge part of the game on Sunday.

In wake of that, the tire life could fall off due to high temperatures too so managing your brakes, tires and your fitness levels may be the winning maneuver this weekend.

Is The Bridge The Most Iconic Part Of The Track?

Gephyrophobia. It’s not only a big word but it’s a legitimate phobia for thousands of humans on this planet. What gephyrophobia means is a fear of bridges. That will come into effect this weekend.

I mean, I’m partly into this group. Whenever I go over a bridge in a car, the thought goes into the back of my mind about that bridge collapsing or somehow my car making its way over the side and into the water below.

Well, leading up to this weekend’s race in Nashville, that fear has actually been brought up a lot. I mean, the bridge that the drivers will be racing on has been a large topic of discussion lately in fact.

You have iconic parts of race tracks around the world. The Pagoda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway comes to mind as a prime example. But, with the street race at Nashville, is the bridge going to be the thing that stands out over the rest?

I think so.

This event has been highly anticipated but racing over the bridge has been brought up the most in the lead up to the Grand Prix. I mean the track is 2.17 miles in length but the 3,578 foot Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge is what’s being talked about more than any other portion of the track.

The bridge runs over the Cumberland River and one of the only tracks in the world that goes over a larger body of water. With the bridge being so long in distance, speeds are expected to be around 200 mph over it.

“It’s one of those things, it’s a signature thing that everybody thinks about,” said Dario Franchitti. “I think it’s cool. It’s nice to have a signature for the circuit. That’s going to be Nashville’s signature, is that bridge.”

With that being said, there’s also been concerns from some fans of cars going into the water. The movie Driven had a scene of an INDYCAR going out of the park and into a body of water.

The drivers though, well they aren’t thinking about that possibility this weekend. They feel as safe over the bridge than any other part of any other track that they race on.

“As a driver you don’t even think about it,” Franchitti continued. “You build a track downtown, you want to use this road, there’s a bridge there. Whatever. They did it in the Singapore race in F1 forever.”

Current points leader Alex Palou agreed.

“At the end of the day it’s the same,” said the second year driver. “We didn’t go to St. Petersburg or to Detroit thinking we’re going to jump so high or so bad. I mean, can happen. I guess so, right? I don’t know. If that happens I’m sure it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be a good show.

“No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The tracks nowadays, they are super safe. In the past we saw some bigger crash, some cars going over the fence. Nowadays you look at the crash from Felix (Rosenqvist) at Detroit. That was one of the biggest crash we saw lately. He was okay. The fence was okay, as well.

“I think they are really safe nowadays. They think about everything. It will be fine. I think it’s going to be cool. At the end of the day it’s just a straight over the water. It’s going to be a bit bumpy just because of those connections.

“But, yeah, it’s going to be fun. It’s a long straight for what I saw. It’s going to be challenging to get to the corner and be brave enough to brake super late and try to overtake some cars. I think it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be a nice, nice track.”

This bridge is something even I am excited to see the cars going over. I think it’s the signature of this event right now.

Romain Grosjean on the streets of St. Pete – INDYCAR Media Site Photo Credit

Can This Race Work Past The 1st Contract?

The race weekend is finally here. It’s safe to say, outside of the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix was the next biggest highly anticipated event on the 2021 schedule.

Nashville seems to be doing everything right. The promotions are good. They have a good spot, a good sponsor and a great team of investors to support it. The car count here is higher than anywhere else outside of the Indy 500 since 2013.

This is also a multi-year event. But, the main question is, can Nashville work past this initial contract? Can they stick out from a field of other past failed endeavors on street courses and become along the lines of Long Beach and St. Pete instead?

See, putting on street course racing is hard. You do get a lot of support but also get a lot of people not in favor of the road closures in such a highly congested areas. I mean, street course racing is done in big metropolitan areas in order to gain the most exposure. These races are like downtown carnivals in a sense as the series hopes to gain attention for ticket sales of people that normally wouldn’t come to an INDYCAR race but chose to do so because it’s a main attraction in a downtown area.

On the flip side, it costs a lot of money to make these races survive too. Between sanctioning agreements, permits, setup, etc, you better have a lot of backing to pull it off.

You can have droves of fans coming in, but can the revenue outweigh the expenses? Street course racing has a lot of expenses. You have to have everything aligned perfectly to make it stick.

Baltimore showed up in 2011 but was gone after 2013. Houston came in 2013 but was gone after 2014. Boston was going to have a race but it never got off the ground. Same for China. Brazil once had a race but they’ve not been able to make it work to come back. Toronto is now in peril after not being on the schedule for two years.

What all of this means?

It’s extremely hard to make it work for a second contract. The first year is always met with excitement and anticipation. The fight is keeping the levels of these two from dipping year over year. It’s like trying to save your tires over a long green flag run at Darlington. There’s going to be a drop off, it’s natural, but can you minimize the drop off and sustain and good atmosphere?

Most street course races can’t. The attention dies down over the years and the obstacles grow too hard to keep the race around longer than a couple of years.

Will Nashville be any different and follow the steps of Long Beach and St. Pete or will this fall off like Baltimore and Houston?

“When I first came to the series a long time ago there was Surfers Paradise, Long Beach, Toronto, Vancouver. They were big events,” Dario Franchitti said. “For us they were obviously very serious, but for fans they were three-day parties. There was always something going on on and off the track.

“I really think that’s something that Nashville will bring. You’ve got to have that. It’s going to be right close to downtown, as well. Again, I think it’s a great addition to the calendar, to INDYCAR. It’s a win-win.”

The path is there for this event to succeed. I mean, look at Gateway as a prime example. They came back in 2017 and had great people in place running the show and have been one of the biggest crowds and supporters of the series each year. They found an entitlement sponsor for the race and a corporate sponsor for the track. It’s worked. They do things right.

Nashville is following that path. They have corporate support for race sponsorship and tons of big named people like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Justin Timberlake, Justin Marks and others are support for the race itself. The key is, and I keep coming back to it, can they stay past the first contract? Can INDYCAR and Nashville make this work for a second deal to keep this race for the future?

“I think we bring an amazing product, then where the track is located, how we’re crossing on the bridge and the excitement that’s going to bring, the ownership group that’s involved, the entertainment that’s going to be involved and really making a festival out of this is going to be really special, and I have to agree, too, I’ve heard a lot more people and a lot more excitement about the INDYCAR event than really anything else that’s gone on over there,” said Jimmie Johnson.

This weekend has seen some higher than normal ticket prices compared to most other races. That’s been brought up. So has the fact that the temperatures are going to soar well into the 90’s on a track that doesn’t have a lot of shaded areas. How much does this play into Year 2?

Remember, street races are filled with most fans not caring much about the racing product itself. They’re there for the party. Does the party become too pricey with high heat sticking around? You’d hope that’s not the case but it’s a factor worth mentioning.

Another big play is date equity too. You don’t want to bounce this race around each season. It needs to stay in August now but will conditions become better?

You also need favorable start time past this year as this one was a big of an anomaly in being an Olympic year.

You need an August date with better ambient conditions with an early afternoon start time.

All these are factors for future races. You just hope Year 1 doesn’t scare away fans from Year 2.

They’re currently doing and saying all the right things. The only other part is do fans continue to come? INDYCAR used to come to Nashville but on the oval on the east side of the city from 2001 through 2008. They stopped coming. This is the first time in 13 years that they’ve come back but now it’s downtown in a traditional country music NASCAR type of town.

It’s a risk, but I think this could work longterm.

“I think Nashville’s changed a lot since I lived there,” Franchitti, a former resident of the city, said. “It’s grown incredibly. When I was there earlier this year, I was shocked. From the moment you get to the airport, just the suburbs going out has become a much bigger city. It’s got a big passion for cars.

“I think you tie those two together, it’s become a destination as well. All kinds of weekend things. From all over the world, Hey, we’re going to go to Nashville for a week, for our bachelor party, all that sort of stuff. It’s become that destination as well.

“When you tie in the music side of things, which I think Scott Borchetta is able to do better than anybody because he’s a racing nut, obviously he’s got massive horsepower in the music business, when you tie those things together, it’s just a win-win. I think it’s going to be a tremendous event.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay notes that the racing has to be a good product too. He says that this track has all the ingredients to make that happen.

“Really it comes down to passing opportunities,” he said. “That’s what everybody wants. You want a good race. If a car is coming up on another car that has tire degradation, so there’s your tire degradation, you want the faster car to be able to have a shot at getting by.

“You obviously want to avoid the processional deal where qualifying is everything and you run around in formation from there.

“Yeah, the passing zones are key, and with long straights, like I said, usually that leads to more passing, so hopefully we have that with Nashville.

“It does have the feel to me like it has the chance to succeed long-term. The organizers have done a great job, the promoters, and just how they’ve gone about it from day one seems to be collectively more organized, more thorough, things like that.

“But it comes down to some weird stuff sometimes, like you mentioned. Baltimore was a great track, and I guess it came down to all the union stuff there and the permitting had to be in place to move this piece of curbing. Took six, seven months to get approval and things like that.

“I’m not sure on that side of it, but I can tell you on the promotional organization side that they’ve got their stuff together. Like I said, hopefully it’s one that’s a part of the INDYCAR series schedule for a long time to come.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s