Anticipation for the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville becomes reality this weekend for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
The excitement comes in the form of a destination city acclaimed for its country music and hosting marquee sporting events like the NFL Draft and the NHL All-Star Game. It can be argued that INDYCAR has never had a weekend outside of Indianapolis with so much anticipation, with so much star power, with this type of intriguing circuit, in the heart of a sports hotbed.
Pop superstar Justin Timberlake is part of the group backing the event. So is Dale Earnhardt Jr., the NASCAR Hall of Famer, and Scott Borchetta, founder and CEO of Big Machine Label Group. The NFL’s Tennessee Titans are invested, too, offering the use of their home stadium and the property surrounding it for the core of the 11-turn, 2.17-mile temporary street.
The start of the race figures to be the most dramatic this side of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the money shot framed by the Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge with downtown Nashville as a backdrop. The drivers will twice cross the 2,500-foot bridge arcing over the Cumberland River, creating one of the most dynamic passages on the schedule. And when the cars maneuver through the corners on the west side of the bridge, their roar will reverberate through Broadway, where Nashville’s famous nightlife comes alive.
Cars hit the track Friday, with INDYCAR engines revving for the first practice at 5:10 p.m. ET (live on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service). The following are important things to know and watch for:
You will hear a lot about Nashville over the next three days, but it’s likely that Tony Cotman’s track design will be among the most discussed. The cars might spend a lot of time alongside the football stadium – where the paddock and pit road are -- but the scenic bridge over the Cumberland River will be front and center, as it should be.
It’s quite possible that never in the history of motorsports has more time been spent racing over water, with two crossings per lap. The bridge actually spans three times that, which means the drivers will experience frequent elevation changes like they’ve never experienced on a street circuit in Sunday’s 80-lap race (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
There are other features of the course that are unique to the series. For starters, this is one of only two non-oval tracks where the action travels in a counterclockwise direction (the other is WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where INDYCAR will race Sept. 19). As is the case at Laguna Seca, seven turns will be to the left and four to the right.
Unlike other street circuits, this one has very few places where the track surface is level. Cotman said even the flatter portions of the track are sweeping in nature -- think Lakeshore Drive in Long Beach, California -- and the bumps figure to be like those at Detroit’s Belle Isle circuit.
Like the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, this track will use different locations for the start and the finish to offer images of the cars crossing the bridge in rows of two.
Drivers Are Excited
The drivers have only experienced the circuit in simulators and unofficial track walks, but they like what they’ve seen.
“(It) looks like a super-challenging track, but also super exciting,” said Romain Grosjean, driver of the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. “It’s tight, it’s bumpy, but then you have a super flat-out section where you go over the bridge and then a very flowing section next to the stadium.
“It’s a very complicated layout, but once you get into the rhythm, I think it’s going to be an incredible event.”
Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan) said there are many reasons to like this circuit.
“I expect good racing,” he said. “The main reason for that is because the bridge is so long down and back, and there are some areas of the track that are very wide, as well.
“Other than the Indy 500, this is the race that everyone says they’re going to.”
Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) expects this to be the first of many races in his hometown.
“From a longevity standpoint, if the track is built correctly and if the event is run right, then the staying power of this street course event is really high,” he said. “It’s a great promoter group; it’s a great ownership group. Everyone’s really passionate, and a lot of the owners are very intimate with motorsports and understand the landscape.
“These aren’t just capital people that are there to try to make an investment and make a return. They actually live and breathe motorsports, and that all lends itself to (event) longevity.”
Newgarden isn’t the only former INDYCAR SERIES being showcased this weekend.
Dario Franchitti is the event’s grand marshal. Franchitti, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and four-time series champion, spent much of his legendary INDYCAR career living 30 miles south of downtown in Franklin, Tennessee.
Newgarden will have an excellent chance at celebrating with the locals in victory lane. He has the most career wins among active U.S.-born drivers – with 19 -- and he won the series’ most recent race, July 4 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. While some of his momentum possibly was lost to INDYCAR’s month-long break, he is squarely in title contention, 69 points out of the lead with six races to go.
“I think from a team morale standpoint, it never hurts to (win a race),” Newgarden said. “I think we all believed we were in the fight (for the championship) and we were going to stay in it, but to see (the win) and have it be actually tangible was really good for everybody.”
Rest of the Best
Of course, three other drivers occupy the positions in front of Newgarden in the standings, and now is a good time for a refresher.
Second-year driver Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) holds a 39-point over another relative newcomer, Pato O’Ward, who is in his second full season driving the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Both drivers have won the first two races of their INDYCAR careers this season, and they also are the only two series drivers with a pair of wins in 2021. Count them among the top contenders here, too.
Scott Dixon, who is bidding for a record-tying seventh series championship in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing, is 56 points out of the lead. While no one has raced before in downtown Nashville, Dixon has won races at two other tracks hosting events this month (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the oval at World Wide Technology Raceway).
Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet) has proven to be a quick learner at new temporary circuits, having won the first INDYCAR races in Sao Paulo and Baltimore. He figures to be desperate for a win as he doesn’t have one yet this season and is riding a streak of 14 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. Dixon, who won May 1 at Texas Motor Speedway, has already extended the record to 17 consecutive seasons. Power is No. 2 all time on that list.
There are 27 car-and-driver combinations entered, with Helio Castroneves (No. 06 Transcard Honda of Meyer Shank Racing), Santino Ferrucci (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan) and rookie Cody Ware (No. 52 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) again participating. This will be INDYCAR’s largest non-Indy field since the 2013 race at Long Beach.
Beyond the racing, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix has entertainment seemingly at every turn. Specifically, music.
Concerts on the main stage include Brooks & Dunn, Vince Neil, Jamey Johnson, Tyler Farr and Drew Green on Friday, Tim Dugger and Jon Pardi on Saturday (with fireworks) and The Oak Ridge Boys, Justin Moore, Riley Green, Danielle Bradbery and Callista Clark on Sunday.
Read more about the race-related fan activities taking place this week and weekend in the Music City.