Mark your calendars, because in just under three weeks, defending Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Helio Castroneves is back in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee.
It will be Castroneves’ first time back in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda fielded by Meyer Shank Racing since he earned his historic fourth Indianapolis 500 victory in thrilling fashion, holding off points leader Alex Palou in a stirring late-race duel.
Since then, Castroneves has competed in the six-race Camping World Superstar Racing Experience series on short tracks across the United States. He scored a best finish of third at Eldora Speedway.
Castroneves said he expects to be challenged when he returns to the cockpit of an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car Sunday, Aug. 8 (5:30 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN). First, he will have to recalibrate his brain from driving stock cars. Second, he said, is to focus on growing his bond and familiarizing himself with this race team. After all, they’ve only had one race together.
If he can do that, Castroneves expects he and the team can get back to their winning ways from May and fire on all cylinders heading into the final stretch of the season.
Nashville will be the second of six races for Castroneves with Meyer Shank Racing, as he is set to take on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Portland, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Long Beach to round out the season.
“For me, finally I’m back in an Indy car,” Castroneves said. “I’m excited. I need to be back on the wagon, as they say. I’m glad I’m doing SRX, because at least it’s keeping my mental focus in racing. However, it’s a different car. I don’t take that for granted. That’s what I got, and that’s what I got. We’ll prepare ourselves as best as possible for this race.”
Castroneves was recently in Nashville to promote the upcoming race, one of the only events in motorsports that crosses a major body of water as it races over the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge. In between stops at Vanderbilt University Medical Center to thank frontline workers, the County Music Hall of Fame and the Martha O’Bryan Center, the Brazilian made a stop to check out what will soon be a racetrack.
Where did he go? The bridge, of course.
Castroneves was surprised at the amount of elevation change on the bridge, which NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes will cross twice each lap. While street courses are typically rough and bumpy, rarely do they have much elevation change. Castroneves expects that to throw teams a curveball.
He also suspects pit lane will be a challenging place, too, as it consists of two different straightaways around the outside of Nissan Stadium. All told, Castroneves expects it to be one of the most unique racetracks on the series schedule.
“I definitely went to the bridge,” he said. “That’s probably going to be the iconic place of any street course race we’re ever going to have. It was really cool to see that. I did not expect it to have that high of elevation and low elevation. It’s very unique. There’s quite a bit of character to this place, and that’s what it’s all about. Street course races always have characteristic places, and Nashville has a bunch of it.”
Castroneves, 46, is no stranger to the city of Nashville. He competed at Nashville Superspeedway in the INDYCAR SERIES from 2002-08. He never won on the concrete oval, but it was a consistent track for him. He never finished outside the top 10, and he scored a best finish of third three times. He also won a pole in 2008 and led 54 laps that year.
But that 1.333-mile oval is vastly different than the 11-turn, 2.17-mile street course. Castroneves also noted how much the city has changed since he last visited the place known for its vibrant nightlife and music clubs.
“It’s been a decade since we’ve been back, and I can see how much it’s changed,” he said. “Downtown Nashville has changed so much. It looks amazing. It’s a big city. It’s unbelievable. I’m surprised, not shocked, just surprised how the community is behind the race and how downtown became so big.”
While the new race is exciting for fans, it’s challenging for drivers and teams as they have no background on this track and have no idea what to expect. In one way, every driver is on even playing field, but on the other hand veteran drivers with decades of racing experience like Castroneves could shine.
“I feel that at least, in terms of track, we’re all on the same ground,” he said. “I don’t know the limit of the car yet, but that’s why it’s important for us to be practicing before, which I will. But we are eliminating one obstacle, and when you eliminate those, you perform better.”