Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires takes a venture into the unknown this weekend as the series races on the streets of Nashville for the first time during the Music City Grand Prix.
Nashville is even more of a mystery for arguably the hottest driver in the series right now, Hunter McElrea of Andretti Autosport. Not only has he never raced at Nashville, he’s never visited the vibrant Tennessee city.
The Indy Lights Music City Grand Prix is set for 1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Aug. 7 (Live on Peacock, INDYCAR Live! and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
“I think it's going to be a really good challenge,” McElrea said. “The track looks very different relative to really any other track on the schedule. This track seems like a whole different ballgame.”
The 11-turn, 2.1-mile temporary street circuit is bumpy and unique. Each lap includes a crossing of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.
McElrea, 22, enters Nashville on the heels of two consecutive victories in July, on the natural road course at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and on a short oval at Iowa Speedway in Andretti Autosport’s No. 27 car. The hot streak has lifted him to second in the series standings, 77 points behind leader Linus Lundqvist.
This is McElrea’s first season in Indy Lights after finishing third last season in the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Leader Lundqvist is in his second season in Indy Lights, which is an advantage.
But this weekend, that edge is erased. Everyone is new to the daunting Nashville circuit.
“(Belle Isle) was a new track for me and all the other rookies in the field versus Sting Ray (Robb) and Linus and guys who are in their second or third year, whereas this is a track that no one has driven before,” McElrea said. “So, I think it really opens it wide open for everyone and it's going to reward the person who can adapt the best.”
Few drivers had to adapt more quickly to disappointment this season than McElrea. He crashed out of the lead after starting from the pole in the season-opening race in February in his Indy Lights debut.
McElrea admits it took awhile to recover and adapt from that disappointment.
“After I crashed at St. Pete I was pretty upset, obviously,” McElrea said. “And then I was trying to force it a bit much, and when you're driving trying to force a result, it usually doesn't end up that well. You kind of drive pushing and thinking because you feel like you have to win rather than just wanting to win. It's two different things.”
So, McElrea adapted a new mindset before his victory at Mid-Ohio. And the results – winning back-to-back poles and races at Mid-Ohio and Iowa -- speak for themselves.
“When I kind of put that to the side and went back to just trying to enjoy it and letting everything flow and just kind of naturally driving, things kind of came back and the results started to come,” McElrea said.
And McElrea is confident that this adaptation and continued work effort will pay off this weekend at Nashville.
“It’s going to be, for sure, a big learning curve but a big learning curve for everyone,” McElrea said. “I have a really good team around me, and I'm really confident and in what they're going to supply us and how we can work together with them and my teammates to hopefully get a head start over the rest of the field.”
McElrea thinks a championship isn’t out of the question despite Lundqvist’s big lead. The New Zealand-American also is keeping his eye on a future driving in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
“For me, it's been a dream come true,” McElrea said. “I finished second and third in both the Road to Indy championships before this. I won championships in my career before, but to win Indy Lights, the last championship in the junior categories on my journey to INDYCAR, would definitely be the cherry on top of my whole junior career.
“You know, it's everything I've worked for,” McElrea said. “To be here and to win that championship would just be everything. One-hundred percent pushing for that always, like everyone else is in the field, and to be in the position I'm in is still going to be a big push to claw back that deficit. But it's a good feeling to be up and second in the points in this really good second half of the year so far.”