Asked about the risk of IndyCar racing nearly 200 mph for 1,650 feet across a bridge suspended 80 feet above the Cumberland River in Nashville, Josef Newgarden pokes fun.
“I told people we have divers in the water,” the Team Penske star said with a laugh. “I’ve said that and then just don’t say anything else, and people don’t know if you’re serious or not.”
The two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion is absolutely serious (as with any IndyCar race adjacent to a body of water, an aquatic rescue team will be on standby during the Music City Grand Prix) – just as he is absolutely sure the stakes are worth the spectacle.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge will be the indelible image as IndyCar races through Newgarden’s hometown for the first time Sunday in one of the most highly anticipated inaugural events in recent IndyCar history.
And just like the Queen Mary anchoring Shoreline Drive in Long Beach, or The Dali Museum glistening above the Yacht Basin in St. Petersburg, Nashville’s bridge could become IndyCar’s latest iconic landmark with a perfectly framed and picturesque backdrop.
“It’s probably going to be the coolest shot of the year when you look at the cars going over the bridge with Nashville in the background,” said Newgarden, a 30-year-old raised in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville who lives 10 minutes from the downtown track. “We have one of the prettiest skylines out there. I’ve seen it many times growing up. You’re going to be able to see that just perfectly with the cars ripping over the bridge.”
Music City GP CEO Matt Crews, who has been involved in multiple iterations of trying to bring a race to downtown Nashville over the years, said securing use of the bridge “turned this from a racetrack into more of an epic event.
“The ability to race over water is something the best we can determine has never been done to this scale and degree,” Crews said last year at a news conference announcing IndyCar’s newest street race.
MUSIC CITY GRAND PRIX: Schedules and info for watching IndyCar’s Nashville debut
“Again, as much of anything, to show off our city. We said from Day One, if this is going to be the first glimpse of somebody to see Nashville, we want to show them our best side. To race over the Korean Veterans Bridge is really special.”
Said three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, the Music City GP grand marshal and a four-time street course winner in IndyCar: “I think it’s cool. It’s nice to have a signature for the circuit. That’s going to be Nashville’s signature, is that bridge.”
Though showcasing the Music City was the aesthetic goal of having the bridge as a centerpiece of the 11-turn, 2.17-mile circuit, there was a practical reason, too.
As part of a 3,578-foot straightaway that offers 40-foot width in either direction, the bridge will provide two decent opportunities per lap for passing zones by building speed over a distance that is roughly the length of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway frontstretch.
Tony Cotman, principal of the NZR Consulting firm that has overseen the design and construction of the track, told NBC Sports that the primary objective was “trying to lay out an IndyCar track where you can at least stretch your legs a little bit … because the No. 1 thing needs to be the show.”
TRACK MAP: Click here for the 11-turn, 2.17-mile layout
For major entertainment, much of the hope lies in Turn 9, which is the first corner after exiting the bridge into a stretch that circles the paddock and pit lane in front of Nissan Stadium (home of the Tennessee Titans).
Cara Adams, Firestone’s director of race tire engineering and manufacturing, told NBC Sports that simulations have produced trap speeds of 197 mph entering the wide Turn 9 (about 12 mph higher than the fastest corner entry speed at the Long Beach Grand Prix).
As drivers slam on the brakes to hang a left around the Exxon station at the corner of Shelby Avenue and Interstate Drive, a large and inviting runoff area should entice those trying to gain positions. Cotman compared the corner with the now-defunct Grand Prix of Cleveland, which was held on an airport circuit heralded for its ample and myriad passing zones.
Because the Nashville race will start and end in different locations (similar to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course), Turn 9 also will be the first corner after the green flag waves for Lap 1 as cars leave the bridge.
Great to see our debris fences are already up across the 506m Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge which will provide a unique spectacle as the cars race over the Cumberland River. #circuit #safety pic.twitter.com/r1RY37hBaw
— Geobrugg Motorsport (@GeobruggM) July 23, 2021
“At the start of the race, they’ll know they have the room to go three and four wide,” Cotman said. “It’s not as sharp as Cleveland, but it’s wide open like Cleveland into the first corner, and a decent width where the race will start. We don’t have the opportunity to have streets so wide that often.”
A straightaway after Turn 9 will lead into another lefthander at Turn 10 that should engender passing. On the other end of the bridge, a Turn 4 lefthander also should aid passing as drivers hit maximum deceleration heading into downtown and past the Riverfront Park Amphitheater. (Turn 4 also leads into the highest point on a track with a total elevation change of nearly 50 feet, “which is quite a lot for a street circuit,” Cotman said.)
It will lead into a right-hand kink at Turn 5 that Cotman cheekily refers to as “our Baku,” referring to the Formula One street circuit in Azerbaijan that is jammed with tight corners.
Cotman said the transitions from concrete to asphalt – a 2-inch difference in some spots — were the trickiest part of making the bridge raceable. Race organizers, who were responsible for funding all the street upgrades, replaced some of the expansion joints while cleaning out dirt and debris from those that were kept.
“You notice when you go over them by all means, but they were so rough before,” Cotman said.
With work continuing on the connectors and transitions through this week, the Honda and Chevrolet simulators being used by drivers won’t capture exactly how the bridge will feel for the first practice laps Friday. “That’s when everyone will experience it the first time,” Adams said. “We can do a lot with the speeds, but until we know the exact surfaces, we can’t simulate what we don’t know. It’ll be new and be a challenge for everyone.”
The @MusicCityGP circuit is taking shape with most of the barriers and debris fences in place ready for the race next weekend.
We have provided exactly 2,150 concrete barriers and debris fences, much of the production was done onsite with installation taking place last week. pic.twitter.com/aKsN7ekT75
— Geobrugg Motorsport (@GeobruggM) July 29, 2021
Drivers seem undeterred by the unknowns of a potentially bone-rattling ride over the water.
“It’s going to be cool,” IndyCar points leader Alex Palou said. “At the end of the day it’s just a straight over the water. It’s going to be a bit bumpy, but it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be challenging to get to the corner and be brave enough to brake super late and try to overtake some cars.”
Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmie Johnson said “there’s a lot of excitement in the IndyCar paddock about this course. I think the bridge is going to be quite exciting. It should be a really rough and bouncy ride because it’s tough to build a smooth bridge, and the speeds we’ll be going on the bridge, it’s going to be exciting.”
Hopefully not too exciting – though all of the prescribed safety measures have been taken to avert an airborne disaster. Geobrugg, a Swiss company that has provided mobile debris barriers for several high-profile tracks around the world (including Spa, the Red Bull Ring, Mugello, Estoril and Imola), has supplied 2,150 barriers and debris fence panels for the Nashville temporary circuit, including 650 earmarked for the bridge.
According to Jochen Braunwarth, Geobrugg’s director of motorsport solutions, the barriers will be up to the most modern FIA safety standards. Cotman said the bridge fencing will be about 12 feet high.
“This is the newest, latest, modular system,” Cotman said. “It’s not just a hack of concrete. There’s so much that goes into a barrier, you’d be shocked with the components inside, and how they all connect together now is very, very precise. The panels go on top and bolt to the barriers, and all the poles bolt to each other. So it’s a very, very structured system. All the fences are connected as one when you complete it.
“The downside is it’s extremely time-consuming to put together. We’re running a big crew to do it. The upside is we know we have the best system on the market, and over the bridge, we have the benefit of the fence being even a little bit taller because we’ll put the barriers up on the sidewalk. We primarily did that to maintain as much width as we could, and as a byproduct, you’re getting a slightly taller fence.”
CONSTRUCTION UPDATE 🚧
Putting up walls on the KVB Bridge! We are getting closer and closer to race weekend! 🏎🏁
— Music City Grand Prix (@MusicCityGP) July 23, 2021
As with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, the Nashville precautions also will include (as Newgarden referenced) water rescue teams on hand.
But Palou said drivers mainly will be thinking about racing on just another track with walls on either side (rather than worrying about the vast expanse beyond those walls on the bridge).
“Man, at the end of the day it’s the same,” Palou said. “We didn’t go to St. Petersburg or Detroit thinking we’re going to jump so high. I mean, it can happen, I guess. If that happens I’m sure it’s going to be fine.
“But no, I don’t think that’s going to happen. The tracks nowadays are super safe. In the past we saw some bigger crashes, and some cars going over the fence. But nowadays you look at the crash from Felix (Rosenqvist) at Detroit. That was one of the biggest crashes we saw lately. He was OK, and the fence was OK as well. I think they are really safe nowadays. They think about everything. It will be fine.”
“I feel very comfortable,” Newgarden said. “If you go overboard, someone’s going to be down there to come get me.”