Rarely have we left a race outside of the Indianapolis 500 that produced so many talking points. Buckle in for a mix of serious and silly from IndyCar’s return to Tennessee.
The good? Every NTT IndyCar Series team and driver want the Music City Grand Prix to be a total success. The bad? A lot of work will be required to make the second running of the Nashville street race a home run from start to finish.
Thankfully, it’s not the first time a new event fell short in a few key areas, and in most instances, fixes can be applied. A number of vendors commented on the high prices they were charged to park in an area with limited foot traffic and sell their food, swag, or beverages. As expected, those costs were passed down to the fans, many of whom left the weekend with severe sticker shock. On that subject, offering paddock access for $1500 per person was an all-time low. And yes, that’s not a typo: $1500 for a paddock pass. Not pit lane, but the paddock.
If the series and promoter didn’t notice, the takeaway from many of its most ardent fans was how greed, rather than the usual access they receive at the majority of the races, was felt throughout the event.
On the flipside, plenty of fans reported back with significant positives, with the party atmosphere and spectacle of a new downtown motor race outweighing some of the aforementioned drawbacks. Many hardcore IndyCar fans who regularly attend the Mid-Ohios, Road Americas, and Gateways had harsh things to say about Nashville. Some of the newer fans, who lack the context of what it costs to attend other IndyCar events and don’t know what kind of access they’d receive, said they’ll be returning, but hope the race is more green than yellow or red a year from now.
There’s something brewing here that could be big for the city and IndyCar. The question that can’t be answered until the second Nashville event is, how many fans will indeed return, and how many are one-and-done? It might be worth extending an olive branch to the inaugural ticket buyers and finding a few ways to sweeten the deal for 2022 if the promoters want to make good on the aspects that fell short in their first try.
He deserves a third
Olympic high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shared gold medals last week at the Tokyo Olympics for scaling a pole set at 7.8 feet, but after Marcus Ericsson’s performance on Sunday, I’m wholly unimpressed by the Qatari and Italian athletes.
Ericsson definitely deserves a gold medal of his own for reaching a height they were unable to achieve — estimated to be 10-plus feet by his Chip Ganassi Racing team — which should be recognized somehow by the IOC.
Kidding aside, Ericsson’s race engineer Brad Goldberg said the No. 8 Honda was completely airborne for 10 feet after riding over Sebastien Bourdais’ car. From the start of the crash, the front of Ericsson’s hot rod — including the distance it was 100 percent off the ground, and then when the rear tires touched down and the fronts continued to pop a wheelie — was sky-bound for 33 feet!
Narrow track, or drivers gone wild?
Following nine caution periods and two red flags, the top item of postmortem interest is whether the track layout was to blame for the demolition derby, or if 27 men behaving badly was the root cause of the disjointed race.
I have to learn towards the data here, and it points to temptation as the leading cause of the problems, not the track as a narrow monster that loves eating cars. The classic street course crash scenario of going from fast wide-open spaces to a narrow, slow, and sharp turns is where most of the incidents took place.
Just like Long Beach with Turns 1, 8, and 11, and Detroit with Turn 3, and Toronto with Turns 3 and 8, Nashville baited the hook and lured the field to try the “You should know better!” divebombs at Turn 4, Turn 9, and Turn 11, although the latter doesn’t change widths — drivers just got up a good head of steam and prayed their passes would work.
The first contact-related caution was for Ericsson missing the slowdown entering Turn 11 and stoving into Bourdais. Driver error. The second caution was for Scott McLaughlin being tagged by Ed Jones entering the wide-to-narrow-please-don’t-divebomb-me Turn 4 coming off the bridge. Driver error. The next caution/red flag was the Team Penske fratricide caused by Will Power clashing with Simon Pagenaud at Turn 11. Was Power to blame? Remove that passing attempt by Power, and we don’t have a red flag and 11 cars sitting stranded on the course. Driver error.
The next caution was for Rinus VeeKay’s solo crash in Turn 1. Driver error. Next, it was the continuation of Power’s Greatest Nashville Hits tour in Turn 9 — a classic wide-to-narrow temptation maneuver — on teammate McLaughlin that also claimed Dalton Kellett. Driver error. Returning to Turn 4, up next on the caution count was Pato O’Ward, who nailed Alexander Rossi. Driver error. Cody Ware brought out the penultimate caution with a harmless spin at Turn 3. Driver error. And the saddest caution of the day closed the event as rocket man Colton Herta had a modified version of Ayrton Senna at Monaco in 1988 by losing focus and smashing the Turn 9 wall on his own while trying to take first place from Ericsson. Driver error.
To the surprise of nobody, it was the places where the Nashville track is plenty wide, fast, and enticing that narrow on entry to heavy braking zones where drivers caused 50-percent of the contact-based cautions. Just like Long Beach, Detroit, and Toronto.
The problem on Sunday wasn’t the circuit design. It was human nature, and the downside of temptation on a type of racetrack where passing is never easy and often carries some degree of risk.
Unless there’s a call to abandon the wide-to-narrow fast-to-slow braking corners on street courses from California to Tennessee, all I can do is quote Juan Pablo Montoya and say: “It is what it is.”
How bumpy is the Nashville circuit in its current configuration? According to one data expert in the paddock, cars were airborne 15 times per lap with anywhere from one to four wheels off the ground. Also, combined, those four wheels were bouncing off the track for approximately one second per corner. Nashville, you so crazy.