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

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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.