How Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) will look

NASHVILLE, Tenn — The NTT IndyCar Series and the city of Nashville were setup on a blind date. Both were established and very successful on their own but were setup for a first meeting in person together this weekend. Friday was in fact the first time the two sides had ever gotten together. See, it was slated to be a perfect arrangement that was supposed to lead to a long successful marriage to one another.

Two sets of friends were setup earlier this summer and both were a hit. The NASCAR Cup Series visited the Nashville Superspeedway for the first time ever back in June and it sold out. The SRX Series visited the Nashville Fairgrounds not long after and that event too sold out too.

Well, this one had all the potential to be a successful one, like the ones that their friends shared separately. The thing is, the two sides are quickly finding out in order to make this work, they’ll have to adapt and adjust. It’s more about what can happen in the future than the present but in order to make it a happy fairy tale future, you have to pass the audition and so far, results have been mixed.

Still, all great relationships are about give and take and adapting/adjusting to one another.

No one expected a debut to be perfect and this one has been far from it, but in order to get fans to want to come back to watch your second date next year, the first date needs to improve. Forget what’s occurred outside the fences, that’s a story for another day, but what’s going on inside the track is showing that this race could very well end up looking like a superspeedway like some predicted.

We saw several incidents in practice this weekend. Saturday alone saw 8 of the 27 cars involved in incidents and that session was only 45 minutes in length. It looked more like a Daytona or Talladega NASCAR race than an INDYCAR practice.

9 drivers have found the wall this weekend including some of the best the series has to offer.

Plus, Nashville is 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. 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.” Photo: INDYCAR Media

The track is also very bumpy. What’s concerning is that this is the first visit and it’s as bumpy now as Belle Isle is.

“Man, it’s violent,” said Pato O’Ward, after finding the wall early on in the first session on Friday. “Going into Turn 4, the bumps are very violent. I mean, you’re going through there and the wheel is like getting knocked out of your hands. It’s very unique. It’s unlike any other place we go to, for sure.”

Colton Herta agreed. He said the wheel was being knocked out of his hands too.

“I thought the bridge was going to be bumpy, but I didn’t expect coming off the bridge to be quite that bumpy,” Herta said. “It could make it a little tricky if you’re braking for nine. Especially four it makes it tricky. I didn’t expect it to be quite like that.

“I’d say it’s even bumpier than Detroit, which we always say is the most difficult street course that we go to.

“There’s tricky spots every corner. It is pretty difficult to kind of nail a lap and put everything together with where the bumps are and some of the corners.

“I think you have like one and two, you could go fast through there, give up time into the entry of three and getting onto the straight. The whole back section of the course is all switchback and give and get. So it is a lot of technical corners. Even though it looks like a whole bunch of 90-degree corners on paper, it is a lot more difficult than that.”

Will Power agreed with both.

“Yeah, I think transition off the bridge is the toughest part,” said the Team Penske driver. “Going into four is really hard because it’s actually more of a curve in the track than it is going into nine.

“Yeah, couple of big bumps. Worst one is probably going into turn four.”

INDYCAR and track officials grinded down some of those areas but there’s not a ton you can do to improve the surface. After all, these are city streets and these streets aren’t used to having cars travel well in excess of 100 mph over the typical speed limits with these cars sitting so low to the ground.

That’s the balance here this weekend. How low can you get your car to where you can comfortably handle it. The faster cars were the ones who looked the most out of control. That’s likely due to the ride heights. The quick cars were low to the ground which caused them to bounce around the track a lot more than others.

The ones that seemed more stable were found slower on the speed charts which isn’t a coincidence either. The thing is, the track is so narrow, track position is going to be key because there’s not much room to pass here.

“It’s tough here because you have to apex all the walls,” said Power of the narrowness to the track. “I touched my floor a couple times on apex in the tight sections, damaged it. Every time I went to the apex, Can’t get too greedy. You can get caught out.

“I actually like the corner. It’s a nice corner. You have to be careful because it’s not a curb you’re hitting, it’s an inside wall. As soon as you do that, it just throws you straight through.”

So, do you risk hitting a bump wrong and crashing but also having good track position or go more conservative knowing that if people take themselves out, you’re going to be there in the end?

“I feel like when you go to these street circuits that are bumpy and technical like this one is, it’s about having the least worst car,” Herta said. “It’s never going to handle nice, so you just kind of try to get it into an operating window where it’s better than everybody else’s.” Colton Herta on the streets of Nashville – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media

Scott Dixon says the track in one of the toughest he’s been on.

“It’s going to be a track that’s pretty easy to make mistakes if you kind of lose concentration for a little bit. Where the grip is, how close you have to get to the walls to get that grip is definitely going to be tough.”

Then you factor in the heat for Sunday’s race.

Temps are going to be pushing the mid 90s with high humidity. It’s already a sauna inside of these cars, but factor in a street course without much room for airflow or shade, it’s going to add to the physicality in the nature of the beast.

“Yeah, it’s definitely going to make a difference in and out of the cockpit,” Herta said of the heat on Sunday. “Obviously we know how hot it gets now with the aeroscreen. So it will be physical.”

Both Herta and Alex Palou say that due to the hotter temps, it could actually make the race better in the sense you’re going to not only get a lot of tire falloff, but you’re creating multiple pit strategies in the process too.

“But as far as what it does for the race, I’m really not too sure yet. Honestly, I didn’t even get a good feel of what tire deg is going to be like because of how good the track evolution was. I took my tires out a stint and they were hanging in there. But heat will kind of amplify all those problems we have with tire temp,” Herta continued.

“That will probably be the biggest thing if we do struggle for tire deg, holding onto tires. That’s going to be one thing that the heat is not going to help.”

Palou agreed.

“I think inside the car, yeah, it’s going to be warmer, more tough,” he said. “But as we’ve been having this season, I don’t think is been super, super bad. It’s been challenging, but I think it’s a good challenge.

“Yeah, about tire deg, we don’t know. I think we kept all the same time even with really bad tires because the track was getting better and we got more confidence. Yeah, we’ll see how the tire deg is.

“I think we’re going to have a good race. I think the tire deg is going to be good enough so we have different strategies going on.”

In saying all of this, the race could be good in the sense that while the track is narrow, these bumps and this heat could create more passing than expected too.

“It’s actually pretty interesting to follow people through there and see if people are staying out wide or cutting in, trying to avoid the bumps, just finding different lines,” Herta continued.

Power said that you can also use the bumps as passing zones too but you’ve got to be careful in doing so.

“Like you’ll kind of lift over that bump. Yeah, it does upset the car,” he continued. “I almost lost it there following someone. But we came in, we raised the ride height, it got better for us.

“It’s a fast corner. You actually flow a lot of speed through that corner. Like you don’t brake as long and as hard as you would like if you wanted to pass someone. Yeah, I think it will be a passing zone, but it’s faster than typical street course corner.

“They could almost add a curve further out if they wanted to create a bit of a passing zone. Yeah, a fun corner right now.

“Yeah, it’s the biggest bump on the track. Everywhere else pretty good, pretty good. Everywhere else is fine.”

Herta agreed. He said that Turns 4 and 9 are really the only two spots to pass on at the moment.

“The passing for this race could be interesting,” he said. “Obviously turn nine and four are going to be the spots that you see passing. Pretty much it.

“Yeah, you could sneak up the inside of this track. Obviously guys are going to be braking to the right and unloaded. If you can brake straight and get to the inside, you can get a good pass down there.”

So, will Sunday’s race look like a complete shit show like Saturday’s practice was or was Saturday’s practice more of drivers trying to learn a new track that they’ve never been at prior to this weekend and searching for the limit that they’ve not yet found?

“You’re just pushing that little bit more, plus the difference of going to reds,” Dixon said. “Some of us didn’t get to do reds today because of red flags. Maybe it was part of that.

“It looked like a lot of people were actually hitting apex walls, as opposed to exits, which is definitely quite interesting in some spots I feel.

“But, no, the track is forever evolving. Some people maybe don’t have the best cars, so they’re having to push that little bit more to try to convert.

“For me, qualifying is definitely the most stressful part of the weekend. You can see that plays out especially when people start crashing and things like that.

“No, this track is busy, man. That’s the best description you can give it. There’s no rest part. Even the straights are bumpy. Getting into the braking zones after the straights are really difficult because the car is really loaded, change of direction, things like that. It’s a tough track.”

The start is going to be tricky too. 27 cars fighting for spots on a track that has very little room all bunched up.

“Yeah, I think this is going to be the craziest start of the year,” said pole sitter Colton Herta. “We’re going to be going quite quick from where the start zone is going into off-camber a second-gear corner. That’s like 60 miles an hour, 70 miles an hour. So definitely it’s going to be interesting.

“There’s not a whole bunch of ways to bail, turn into the corner. If guys are committing three-wide, it could get a little bit messy. You’re probably expecting to see something happen on the opening lap, in the opening corner.

“That’s going to open up strategy a lot. If any yellows do happen, it’s going to open up strategy. It’s going to create bigger stints because you’re going to be saving a lot more fuel. Have to wait and see.

“We’ll definitely be going through the photos of where the start/finish line is, where the punch-off cones are and stuff, where you can start going, pictures of what it’s like going into turn nine or one, depending on how you think of it.

“But, yeah, it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a crazy start for sure with how much the track opens up, it goes like five, four lanes, to like 10. It’s definitely going to be interesting. I could see it being like a Pocono start, then everybody has to brake and go down to second gear at the end of it.”

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