Nashville observations: Music City Grand Prix remained chaotically on brand for IndyCar
NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Same song, different verse for the Music City Grand Prix and the NTT IndyCar Series?
Well, maybe on the track -- but the notes also weren’t exactly the same for the second trip to Nashvegas.
The bright lights and bachelorette parties of Broadway still welcomed IndyCar with open hearts and full Solo cups – but amid signs that the race lost some of its inaugural energy and sheen.
Though there was a massive new NetJets-branded Club RPM luxury suite in Turn 3 and sharp blue grandstands perched over the entrance to Turn 9, the weekend slate of nightly concerts was reduced.
It was difficult to discern the crowd size (and race organizers provided no figures but indicated attendance on par with the 110,000 estimated last year, including 60,000 on race day), but 90-minute lightning delays on Saturday and Sunday made the grounds seem sparser.
And though the grandstands filled in well and seemed packed when the race finally began after 4 p.m. CT, local ratings indicated a softening in interest from last year’s huge splash that dominated the market’s attention.
But when the green flag fell on IndyCar’s second race through downtown Nashville and past Nissan Stadium, there was no waning of action on the tight street course layout.
Despite layout alterations and restart tweaks that drivers had expected would make the race smoother, there still were eight caution flags, which marked only one fewer than last year and actually three extra laps run under yellow vs. 2021, and a red flag to ensure a finish under green.
Just like Marcus Ericsson’s win in a damaged car that required seven pit stops in 2021, Scott Dixon won this year after five stops and repairs for a No. 9 Dallara-Honda that suffered a bent left-rear suspension, a compromised underfloor and a heavily modified front wing.
All the chaos and crushed carbon fiber (toward the end of the race, an NBC Sports camera showed a tow truck carrying several discarded front wings) brought the usual hand-wringing from IndyCar purists concerned about the quality of racing.
More than 40 percent of IndyCar’s 160 laps in Nashville the past two years were run under caution, making the Music City Grand Prix an outlier even for street races (according to Indianapolis Star research).
But is the contact and destruction all negative when it produces memorable race winners, breathtaking restart charges (notably pole-sitter Scott McLaughlin) and the agitation and feuds that IndyCar often sorely lacks?
There’s an inversely proportional theory that often applies to motorsports: What’s bad for drivers and teams to endure can be compelling and entertaining for fans to watch.
A case can be made that’s true for the Music City Grand Prix.
Through only two editions, its reputation firmly has been established as among the most delightfully ramshackle and unpredictable on the IndyCar calendar.
Mirroring the sloppy and shambolic fun being had nightly on the famous strip of nearby honky-tonks, the Music City Grand Prix seems perfectly on brand for Nashville and its marriage with IndyCar.
As James Hinchcliffe famously said before the inaugural race, the city’s party scene was the right backdrop for hosting “the prom of IndyCar.”
Even the drivers don’t seem to mind having one annually wild race that produces questionable driving and a lack of any comfortable rhythm.
“It’s not terrible to have a crazy race every now and again,” said Colton Herta, who rebounded to finish fourth after falling a lap down with damage from a Lap 3 shunt. “And this might be IndyCar, some of the races are snoozers and some of them are really amazing, and some of them are amazing for this reason. Because there’s cars going off all the time, you never know who is going to win.”
Said third-place finisher Alex Palou: “I think Nashville is kind of like the Indy 500 where there are so many things happening, and you just need to survive and have a good car and a car in one piece at the end. I think it’s a bit unfair if I say that being on the podium because I’m super happy with the race. Obviously, there was a lot of cautions and the red flag, and it’s not ideal, but I don’t know from a fan standpoint.
“As long as they had fun watching it, it’s one of those things that I think the atmosphere here in Nashville and the race event itself, it’s amazing. So as long as the fans are happy, I think it’s good if we continue here.”
There clearly will be some competition elements addressed for the second consecutive year. Moving the restart zone from the traditional start-finish line to the exit of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge reduced the traffic jams and track blockages. But Herta said the zone would need to be changed because “the closing speeds were incredibly unsafe” for the rear of the field that had no line of sight on the leader’s pace over the bridge.
But it’s worth noting that the 2022 changes essentially produced the same outcome – underscoring that some degree of street course mayhem always remains in the hands of those gripping the steering wheel. And with Nashville wrapping up a critical championship stretch of five races over 22 days in the brutal heat of summer, it’s destined for some degree of calamity.
As McLaughlin noted, “it takes two to tango … it’s as much of a driving issue as it is a track issue. I don’t blame the track at all. I think the track is a great track. Yes, it’s tight. Yes, you’ve got to be assertive when you pass, but sometimes people just don’t give up, and that’s what happens. But I think the driving standards are great in the series. It’s just sometimes things happen. It’s racing. It’s good spectacle.
“Unfortunately, it’s probably one too many cautions that we have. I don’t know if you are going to fix that by lengthening or shortening (the track). I think all the changes they did this year were fantastic.”
Besides what more can be changed?
The bridge is the signature piece of the layout, and the turns on straightaway entry and exit are constructed in a way that demands technical precision.
“It’s fun to drive because it’s challenging,” Herta said. “It’s really challenging. It’s hard enough on a street course to have straight-line braking for a hairpin or a really still corner. When you are coming in at 180 (mph), and you have braking that’s turning away from the corner, like Turn 4 and Turn 9 are, it is really challenging because you unload that right front tire, so it’s really easy to lock and then go into the wall or go into the runoff.
“So there are a lot of challenging parts to this track that I do enjoy.”
Other takeaways from Year 2:
--During an interview at his charity ping pong event Thursday, Josef Newgarden hinted there could be changes to future changes to his hometown street course “once some developments happen downtown. I know the promoters are really keyed in on, ‘How can we continue to evolve this track?’ ”
After his win Sunday, Scott Dixon revealed some more about those proposed tweaks in the course’s downtown section (Turns 4 through 8). “Once that construction is done, they’re talking about even maybe we’ll go up another block and then take a left, which would be great for a passing zone as well,” Dixons said. “The adjustments that they did this year, especially the transitions on and off the bridge, were huge. It was much easier to get into turn four this year. I think you saw a lot of overtaking going into there.”
--Other future track changes could happen without any input from IndyCar or race organizers. A new $2.2 billion domed stadium has been proposed for the Titans as early as the 2026 season, and groundbreaking would begin as early as 2024 on the new site that would be on the parking lots between I-24 and Nissan Stadium (where the NFL team would continue playing in the interim). While the current course seems outside the footprint of the new stadium, construction surely could impact the race after next year (and potentially mean major changes if Nissan Stadium eventually disappears).
--Before the Sunday afternoon thunderstorm took scorching temperatures out of the equation, cool shirts and vests were the hot topic before Sunday’s race. Graham Rahal, who was prepared to wear a cool shirt in a race for the first time, said airflow is minimal in Nashville on the stadium side between Turns 9 and 3. “There’s no time to breathe,” Rahal said. “People don’t realize you feel like you’re suffocating because (the air) gets so stale. You’re breathing in super-hot air. You’re wiping your face, yet there’s sweat stinging your eyes, and you’re swallowing the sweat.”
Remarking on the heat after Saturday practice (“It’s horrible in the car. It’s unbearable. This is probably going to be the worst race. I cannot explain how horrendous it is inside of the car”), Pato O’Ward noted that Arrow McLaren SP didn’t have cooling systems available to its drivers – but not because of any perceived performance disadvantages (the shirts add weight to the car). “As a team we just haven’t looked into it,” O’Ward said. “We have sort of, but we don’t have them here. Maybe something to look into next year for sure. I didn’t think it was going to be this bad.”
--Though Dixon is on one of his vintage late-season championship surges (scoring 49 points than anyone in the past five races), it’s qualifying that will determine whether the six-time series champion can tie A.J. Foyt with a record seventh title. Dixon’s average start of 10.9 is his worst since 2005, and while he got away with failing to advance from the first round at Nashville (starting 14th and finishing first) and Indianapolis (starting 20th, finishing eighth), he almost certainly will need to make the second round and likely the Fast Six in Portland and Laguna Seca to have a realistic chance.
“If we have smooth weekends like Toronto, it bodes well,” said Dixon, who started second last month in his first street course win this season. “Indy road course was just a chain reaction of things that should never happen. And then here I think my first would have got us through Q1, and then (Romain Grosjean) was right in front of us, so that screwed my first lap, screwed my second lap. I had to abort that. Then I got backed into (Helio Castroneves). It was just the worst situation I could be in. We missed by 900ths, but honestly, it was like a half-assed lap. We didn’t get anything out of it.
“Those days are frustrating, and that’s why I was pissed off (after qualifying). Some of it is self-inflicted because we went off kind of off sequence with everybody else, and that’s what typically happens. If we get it right, I think the car is fast, and we can have great qualifying efforts. But as we know, it’s not easy these days. You make one little mistake, and you are going to be at the back like it happened.”
--If not for the slow pit stop under yellow on Lap 54 that dropped him to 15th, McLaughlin likely would have won the race from the pole. He made up eight spots in five laps after the restart and would have beat Dixon with one more lap, but the Team Penske driver refused to blame the crew on his No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet. “One of the most fun races of my career in one of the best race cars I’ve ever had,” he said. “My guys, I’m not shutting them down. They’ve been amazing all year, and this is our second hiccup. We lost a nut, and it is what it is. That’s our best guy, Matt Johnson. Yeah, we’re good.”
Between the fourth-closest street course finish (0.107 seconds) in IndyCar history and the eighth-closest in series history (0.0669 seconds behind Josef Newgarden at Texas), McLaughlin is less than two tenths of a second from two game-changing victories in the title race, never mind self-inflicted driver errors in crashes at Long Beach and the Indy 500.
“We’ve had pace this year, and that’s all I ever wanted,” said McLaughlin, who has five podiums after only one as a rookie in 2021. “Last year was tough. I’ve always said it. It’s tough mentally. To bounce back like we have this year, it’s a proud moment. I still fully believe I can win a championship. I feel like I’m going to three tracks I really enjoy, Gateway, Portland, Laguna.
“I’m proud of the advancements we’ve made as a team, and I can’t thank my team enough for having their backs with me as well throughout that period when it was tough.
--Though he seemed to be following the template set by Ericsson last year, Herta never felt as if a win was in the cards Sunday.
“Ericsson never won a lap down,” said Herta, who got back on the lead lap through taking a wavearound on Lap 22 of 80. “So that’s what the difference was. I didn’t think I was going to win when I was a lap down. i thought if we could get our lap back, hopefully this race is crazy, we could get a top 10, but I did not think that we could get all the way up there to fifth or even podium or a win, which it looked like it was possible if I nailed some of those restarts, but I just didn’t do it.”