Nashville track surface hailed by IndyCar drivers after first practice for Music City GP


NASHVILLE — Colton Herta paced a relatively smooth opening NTT IndyCar Series practice Friday for the inaugural Music City Grand Prix as the new track surface held up well under its first stress test.

Aside from crashes for Pato O’Ward and Conor Daly, there were no major incidents on the 11-turn, 2.17-mile course through the streets of downtown Nashville.

After several weeks of grading the rough and abrasive asphalt in some sections — particularly in the transitions to the 1,600-foot Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge — the pavement was hailed after the 75-minute session.

Though Herta said the Nashville course was bumpier than Detroit (typically viewed as the roughest surface in IndyCar), the Andretti Autosport felt “very comfortable” in his No. 88 Dallara-Honda at speed.

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PRACTICE SPEEDS: Click here for drivers’ best times during the first session

“I thought the bridge was going to be bumpy, but I didn’t expect coming off the bridge to be quite that bumpy,” said Herta, whose lap of 1 minute, 16.5875 seconds put him ahead of Scott Dixon (1:16.9653), Romain Grosjean (1:17.1305), Alexander Rossi (1:17.1742) and Marcus Ericsson (1:17.2168) as Hondas took the top six spots.

“It could make it a little tricky if you’re braking for (Turn 9, where the race will begin Sunday).

“But it’s not a negative thing. I think it adds character to the track. It’s actually pretty interesting to follow people through there and see if people are staying out wide or cutting in, trying to avoid the bumps, just finding different lines.”

Will Power, who has won the past two inaugural IndyCar street races (Sao Paulo in 2010 and Baltimore in ’11), lobbied for grinding down the entry to Turn 4, which is on the other end of the bridge that drivers cross twice during a lap.

But the Team Penske driver praised Nashville as fun to drive.

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“The track is cool, man,” said Power, who turned the eighth-fastest lap (1:17.2436) and was the second-quickest Chevrolet behind Felix Rosenqvist (1:17.2264). “I really enjoyed it. Really typical street course, bumps and cambers of the road you got to deal with.

“It was fun apart from coming off the bridge heading into the city. That’s a bit sketchy with that one big bump. The rest are pretty good.”

Said Rosenqvist, a veteran of international street circuits as a Formula E veteran: “I think my street course experience definitely helps with this course. It is a fun track and really tricky. The straight after the bridge, where you are bottoming out, is just nuts. I had a really big moment there at the end of the session.

“Apart from that, it is really smooth and straightforward. Those high-speed kinks really upset the car, but it is a fantastic track. It’s going to be a good challenge and take the best out of us. The best driver will win.”

The practice was cut short when Conor Daly slammed the tire barrier in Turn 9 with four minutes remaining in the session.

Pato O’Ward brought out the first red flag 22 minutes into the practice when he misjudged Turn 3, making contact with the inside that shot his No. 5 Dallara-Chevy into the outside wall. Though his car sustained heavy left-front damage, it hardly dampened the spirits of O’Ward.

“What a cool track,” he said. “It is very physical and unlike any other place we go to, specifically the braking zones. Our car felt fine until I made a mistake going into Turn 3. We didn’t get much running in today, but (Saturday) we will. We will be ready for qualifying, I’m not worried.”

There will be another practice today at 1 p.m. ET, followed by qualifying at 4:30 p.m. ET. Sunday’s race will be at 5:30 p.m. on NBCSN.

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Points leader Alex Palou turned the sixth-fastest lap in practice but will be hampered in the starting lineup by a six-position grid penalty for an unapproved engine change in a recent test at Portland International Raceway.

“We knew we had this penalty already since the season even started,” Palou said. “We got it on my second test with Chip Ganassi Racing. One of those rules that I think they will adopt and change in the future, I hope at least, because I don’t think it makes a lot of sense that you blow up an engine on winter testing and suddenly you are with a penalty in the season.

“It is what it is. Nothing we can do now. Nothing the team could have done before. We just have to recover those six places that we’re going to have.”

Click here for Friday practice speeds.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”