INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Can Penske Get Redemption?

Team Penske has certainly upped their game on street course events this season. A year after being winless in 5 starts on them, they’ve since gone 3-for-4 with victories at St. Pete (Scott McLaughlin), Long Beach (Josef Newgarden) and Belle Isle (Will Power). Now, can they end the year 4-for-5?

They were off their game in Nashville last season finishing 10th (Newgarden), 14th (Will Power), 21st (Simon Pagenaud) and 22nd (Scott McLaughlin).

They had 3 of the 4 cars in the 2nd round of qualifying but none made it to the Fast 6. Newgarden was going to but he crashed on his final lap of qualifying in the second round which cost him his fastest laps and results in a 12th place starting position for Sunday’s race.

Power was eighth in the first practice while McLaughlin, Pagenaud and Newgarden were ninth, 10th and 12th respectively. On Saturday, they went 10th (McLaughlin), 11th (Pagenaud), 14th (Power) and 18th (Newgarden) respectively.

Qualifying and the race were the same. Now though, they seem vastly improved. Can they continue that on?

Is This Final Stretch Everything That’s Good About INDYCAR?

In NASCAR, you get 30 ovals and 6 road courses. The road courses are all on natural tracks and no streets until next year. The ovals are a variety of disciplines but they’re still all ovals. F1 has a calendar full of road/street courses only. The NTT INDYCAR Series?

Well this next stretch is what makes this series stand out above the rest. There’s 4 races left in the season starting with Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Among those 4 are a street course, a short oval and a pair of natural road courses to close out the year.

Yes, 3 straight races on different types of circuits to set the title.

That’s what makes winning a championship so difficult in this series. The competition is already so tight but with limited testing and multiple disciplines of tracks to race on, it’s hard to get it right on every type of circuit. If you’re good in one area, maybe you focus in your deficit to pick up there. However, in doing so, you typically lose your advantage in the other area because teams are trying to gain in that area where you’re not focusing on.

It ebbs and flows. Whomever can get the right balance is the ones who are left celebrating in the end.

Take this example, Team Penske was 0-for-5 on street circuits last season and now 3-for-4 this. They lost the title a year ago to Chip Ganassi Racing who was 2-for-5. In 2019, Penske won 3 of the 5 street course races and won the title as a result.

You can tell the area they improved in and where Ganassi lost.

That’s why it’s important to get each discipline right because you have 5 street course races (St. Pete, Long Beach, Belle Isle, Toronto, Nashville), 5 ovals (Texas, Indianapolis, Iowa doubleheader, World Wide Technology Raceway) and 7 natural road course events (Barber, Indy Road Course x2, Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca). It’s where you focus your time to be great and where you can give up to what stands out above the rest. But how do you do that in an era where the car has been the same since 2012, the crew members have all worked for almost all the teams and the Aeroscreen is the same for everyone? How do you find advantages and how do you pick what areas to focus on each season/offseason?

A large crowd watched last year’s inaugural Music City Grand Prix at Nashville. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can This Race Work Past The 1st Contract?

Nashville is back for the second edition. Last year’s race was met with high anticipation and delivered a big TV rating and huge crowd in attendance. The question now is, how do you keep this race as popular each year? Did last year’s higher priced tickets, some logistical nightmares, a lot of crashes and high ambient temperatures scare some folks away from this year?

Last year was massive due to it being the 1st time on the Nashville streets. It was also the 1st big year of Nashville being a racing city with the Cup Series coming to the Nashville Superspeedway in June. Now that the NASCAR weekend came and went for a 2nd time and INDYCAR here for their 2nd time downtown, how do you avoid that dreaded oversaturation and loss of interest?

Was last year enough to bring fans back a 2nd time? That’s the key. Did those that came last year get enough to come back and did those who didn’t come see enough to say “I can’t miss that next year?”

Nashville seems to be doing everything right so far. 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 last year was 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 a line line from other past failed endeavors on street courses and become along the likes 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 area. 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. I mean the Miami event for F1 back in May lost money and we saw how big that was. If you lose money year after year, street course races end up dying 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 and coming back this past July.

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 more 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 last year. “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.

Iowa followed suit this past year with Hy-Vee helping knock July’s doubleheader weekend out of the park.

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.

Remember, street races are filled with most fans not caring much about the racing product itself. They’re around 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 than they were last year?

You also need favorable start time and now that the Olympics are over, we get one with the race being 2 hours earlier. 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 noted in 2021 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.”

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 again, 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 for the 2nd ystraight year. 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 third 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.

The track officials worked with INDYCAR for some key changes to the way this year’s race will run. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Will Changes To The Course Help?

A new restart zone is the highlight of several track modifications for the second annual Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee.

During last year’s inaugural NTT INDYCAR SERIES race in Nashville, the restarts occurred at the finish line in front of Nissan Stadium but this August will move to the long straightaway as the field exits the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge and toward Turn 9. It will be the same zone that was used for the start of each race last season and should provide cleaner restarts and more immediate passing opportunities.

“I think it’s going to be tough if you’re the leader to get a good jump,” said Herta. “It’s a really long straight coming out of a really slow corner. I think it’s better, yeah, because we don’t want super long safety cars and just the mess of what Turn 11 was last year on the restarts.

“I think it is a good decision. It’s going to be tough as the leader, I think, to get a good jump on the field, but it is a really long straight, but now with the tighter Turn 9, probably a pretty good braking zone. It’ll be interesting, though. It’ll for sure promote some passing, I believe, and yeah, maybe guys will check it up the inside of Turn 8 before the restart and whatnot. It’ll for sure be interesting.”

Other modifications or changes to the 2.17-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit include:

  • Turn 11 apex being opened approximately 6 feet to not only increase the track width but provide better vision for drivers.
  • Transition areas at both ends of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge being smoothed as much as possible to reduce the potential of the cars bottoming coming on and off the bridge.
  • Resurfacing at the Turn 5 apex to minimize the bump.
  • Track width into Turn 9 being reduced to 50 feet to accommodate additional suites in a primary viewing area.
  • Additional gates being added to maximize track crossings at several locations.

Will These changes help?

“Yes, I think the restart zone was the big one that needed to change, so that’s a great easy change,” Felix Rosenqvist said. “I drove that track on a simulator with other changes, and honestly it’s nothing really major. I thought Turn 9 just seems a bit tighter.

“I think the reason they did it was not because to change the racing or anything. It was probably because they needed to do it because there was like a building or something.

“But yeah, it’s very similar. It doesn’t really change much. It’s just a slower corner maybe that will promote more overtaking because it was kind of quick last year, so you needed a lot of confidence to send it in there to pass someone. So potentially better racing, and yeah, hopefully avoiding the red flag deal this year.”

Last year, the NTT IndyCar Series and the city of Nashville were both setup on a blind date. Each were established and very successful on their own but were setup for a first meeting in person together in Aug. 2021. The Friday practice 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 were also quickly finding out that 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 — hence the updates to the track.

No one expected a debut to be perfect and last year’s was far from it. However, 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, well it showed that if this race is going to be in the same realm as Monaco or Long Beach, well it has a long way to go to get there.

We saw several incidents last year. 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.

The race looked the same.

Nine cautions for 33 laps including us not getting a full green flag lap until Laps 9-10. The first hour of the race saw six green flag laps, four cautions and one red flag period. The race distance was 2-hours, 18-minutes and 49-seconds. By comparison, the Indy 500 is over 300 miles longer and lasted only 2-hours, 37-minutes and 19-seconds in 2021.

“Of course, the race was tricky. I don’t know what happened back in the pack. There was definitely a lot of cautions,” Scott Dixon said. “I felt like the front group was doing really well, taking care of each other, not making these dives that maybe created some of these issues early on.

“I think there were some regulars making mistakes and hitting people. Maybe that needs to be looked at. All the penalties need to be stronger when you cause accidents like that.

“There was just no flow to the race, right? It was like you had six races. So, yeah, I don’t know how it played or how it looked.

“I don’t know. It’s a tricky track. It’s really difficult. Especially on restarts with trying to get temperature in the tires, knowing that it was going to be somewhat hard to pass, there was a lot of people trying to make it happen on restarts. I totally get that.

“I don’t know. It’s a balance, right, that you got to try to work out. Maybe next year I think there may be some areas of track that can change a little bit that would create some passing zones, maybe make the racing a little bit better.

“You look at Herta, he made the passes happen. It can be done cleanly, like he did.”

James Hinchcliffe agreed.

“It was eventful,” he said. “We were at the back, front, kind of ran a little bit of everywhere today, in the middle. Like Scott said, we probably had a few too many yellows for what we would have wanted to put on a good show for everyone here.”

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