NASHVILLE – The most important and highly scrutinized lap of the IndyCar Music City Grand Prix race weekend also might be the slowest.
Fastidiously pushing a two-wheeled contraption designed to scan the pavement for surface friction and grip levels, Firestone Racing engineers spent about an hour Thursday night taking measurements around the 11-turn, 2.17-mile layout through the streets of downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
After another few hours of processing, all of the NTT IndyCar teams were shipped the reams of data late Thursday.
It’s a process that occurs before every IndyCar race, but it never will be more important this season than Nashville, where there has been no real-world testing prior to today’s first practice session.
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“One of our engineers typically goes without sleep to get the data out to teams,” Cara Adams, Bridgestone’s director of race tire engineering and manufacturing, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “There’s a lot of engineering time spent behind the scenes to characterize all that down to here’s what the surface looks like, here is the macro and micro roughness of the surface, which helps the teams set up their cars’ setup, and then here’s the grip of the track.
“Some teams use it more heavily than other teams, and some teams just look at it and understand what areas of the track they should be careful.”
All IndyCar teams figure to be paying close attention this weekend, though.
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Preparatory laps for Nashville before Friday exclusively were turned in driver simulators that lack the ability to perfectly mimic the course’s bumps (many of which have been altered and graded in work being done all the way through this week).
During the opening practice, drivers said the surface was more welcoming than expected to their low-slung and aerodynamically sleek cars (which tend to be hypersensitive when anything upsets their momentum and critical downforce). Despite several incidents in practice and qualifying Saturday (including for Jimmie Johnson and Josef Newgarden), drivers led by pole-sitter Colton Herta still were praising the new layout.
“It’s just brutal,” Herta said. “Very physical and tough. If the track wasn’t physical enough, the heat and humidity will get us Sunday. It’s so much fun to drive. The track doesn’t look right on paper with all the 90-degree corners, but how the bumps are and the 90-degree corners are super different. Everyone building the track has done a great job, and it’s definitely a challenge for us.”
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Said Scott Dixon, who qualified second: “There are so many unknowns going into this race, which is fun. It’s going to create a very good race.”
But as teams feel out the course and learn about low-grip sections, the information gleaned from the Firestone track scan could have a dramatic impact on setup adjustments.
“It’s very important,” Arrow McLaren SP president Taylor Kiel said. “Any information we can get coming to a new circuit is helpful, and Firestone does a good job of being able to give us some pre-event information. It’s up to us what we do with it. It’s certainly a big challenge for our engineers and our drivers and our whole team coming to a new event not really knowing where to go when you walk in the front gate.
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“Understanding the surface of the track and those types of things will be big keys to the weekend, and whoever can figure that out first is going to be successful.”
Said Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe: “Any time you go to a new track, you and team have this belief you’ll figure it out before everyone else. It’s a huge challenge for engineers without the data. The feedback is extra important, the preparation is extra important, but we all love challenges, especially a street circuit where margin for error is zero.”
Kiel said any major adjustments for McLaren drivers Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist would happen overnight after Friday’s first practice to “maximize the car for Saturday” when qualifying will occur.
“Once you’re in the throes of Saturday, it’s kind of survival mode,” Kiel said. “You really need to hit those changes overnight.”
The Music City GP also could be tricky because it features two long straightaways per lap (twice over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge) that roughly will be the length of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway frontstretch (more than 3,500 feet).
That will generate cause top speeds of nearly 200 mph entering Turn 9, which has raised concerns about brake heat because of the massive deceleration. With a total elevation change of 50 feet (unusually steep for a street course) and a pit exit with a blend area just off the racing line, Ryan Hunter-Reay said teams will need to be very “adaptive” and nimble with making changes.
“We don’t know what the resurfacing will do — is traction going to be the key issue, trying to put down the power coming off these corners, or do we need to shift our focus to reducing understeer with the asphalt resurfacing sections where we will need a bit more mechanical front grip to get the car to turn, compromising that traction window that we’re looking for,” Hunter-Reay said.
“It’s definitely a bit of a head-scratcher in some areas because you’ve got these long straights, you’ve got to put the power down, but there are some kind of flowing sections that we need a good balance in the race car. At the moment, it’s anybody’s guess. We’re kind of going with our typical bumpy street circuit setup and then we’re going to have to adapt from there.”
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon said Chip Ganassi Racing will be relying on basic setups from the St. Petersburg and Detroit street courses as a baseline.
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“It’s very easy to get thrown down a road of trying to get too complicated, which normally hurts you more,” Dixon said. “Some teams will hit it a little better throughout the course of the weekend. I feel pretty confident our street course setups are typically pretty good. I don’t think being a veteran helps you in any way. It’s a new course for everyone. It’s just how quickly you feel comfortable.”
One driver expected to feel comfortable is Will Power, who won the past two inaugural races on street circuits in Baltimore (2011) and Sao Paulo, Brazil (’10).
“It’s my favorite thing when we go to a new track,” Power said. “You just turn up and have to be good. That is where I really feel I thrive. I love that sort of thing. Because I feel like the combination of myself and engineer, we seem to get on that sort of thing very quickly.”
Here are four other things to watch in IndyCar’s first inaugural street course race in a decade (5:30 p.m. ET Sunday, NBCSN):
Hometown hero: The face of the NTT IndyCar Series this weekend is Josef Newgarden, who grew up in nearby Hendrsonville and now lives in Green Hills about 10 minutes south of downtown Nashville.
The two-time series champion, who will enter Sunday’s race as the favorite, made light of the pressure when he joked during a kickoff news conference Thursday that “It’s going to be very embarrassing if I don’t win the race.” But he also concedes a victory Sunday would be special given how his community enthusiastically has embraced IndyCar’ arrival (particularly among those unfamiliar with auto racing).
“I think there’s obviously pressure that everyone wants me to succeed here and is expecting me to succeed here,” said Newgarden, whose Celebrity Ping-Pong Challenge event in Nashville raised $136,000 Thursday night. “So I think it would only be more special if I was able to win.
“On one hand, it gives me great support that everyone might not be as savvy with motorsports and not know that the likelihood of winning is lower in IndyCar because of the difficulty of it that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how good your team is.
“But that’s really the positive, too, is Nashville supports events because they want to support a hometown event. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be the Bowling Championship of the United States, and if it was coming to Nashville, people are ready to rage and support bowling. In the lead-up to this race, what has surprised me is people who typically don’t care about racing or pay attention have been so excited for this event. They’re interested to learn about not only the race but what IndyCar is.”
During a promotional tour Thursday, Newgarden said he and several other IndyCar drivers were stopped regularly by fans.
“That’s not always typical,” he said. “We go to some downtown areas, and it’s not that enthusiastic. So to see the interest level of people in downtown Nashville that probably aren’t racing fans means you’ve got something special going on. I’ve been surprised how much more I’ve been recognized.
“I used to not get stopped outside of a racetrack or race weekend. Now I see people in restaurants that will say hi or stop me. I’ve seen people wearing Team Penske shirts in a grocery store, and they’re like, ‘Hey, oh my gosh, I didn’t know you lived here.’ I am surprised the frequency that’s increased just living here the last couple of years of people taking notice.”
Strategy plays: While many would point to ample passing zones as critical to high-quality street racing, the Music City Grand Prix course designer believes a degree of difficulty also is important.
“It needs to be challenging from the perspective of engineering and to the drivers,” Tony Cotman told NBC Sports. “They have to make decisions based on do I run more or less downforce? Do I want to be really fast on the straightaways? Am I going to use my tires up too quick?
“What makes great street course racing is tire degradation, and I think you see that at a lot of places that IndyCar runs. I love seeing the two-stopper (strategy) vs. the three-stoppers. When you get some people that are looking at alternate strategies primarily based on tire life, that’s what makes racing really exciting. And I think the first year in particular, there might be a broad range of thoughts on how to attack. It’ll be interesting.”
With the high speeds and heavy braking, Adams said Firestone is projecting significant degradation with the primary and alternate tires (teams are required to run on both during the race) “that will add to some of the excitement of the race. It’s definitely possible, especially with the speeds, that we’ll see a three-stop race.”
Kiel said teams will have some latitude for cooling off the brakes to help manage wear, but it’s difficult to predict how tires will wear in the race.
“The tire deg is a bit of a question,” he said. “Brakes are going to be a question. There are a lot of high-energy braking zones. That’s something we’re looking at, the cooling, the brake cooling, all those types of things with a forecast in the high 80s/low 90s, it’s going to be a tough weekend for sure. There’s going to be a lot of decisions on the fly and trying to make the most out of the moment, but we’ve got the parts, pieces and people to tackle the challenge.”
A clean slate: Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has struggled as expected during his rookie season on IndyCar road and street courses, but Nashville could provide a decent shot at his first lead-lap finish of the season.
“I’m excited it’s kind of a clean sheet of paper for the entire paddock,” Johnson said. “I know I don’t have a lot of experience in these cars, but at least we’re going to a track where no one has experience. So I’m excited from that standpoint.”
Said Hunter-Reay: “With a brand new street circuit, it’s anybody’s game, it’s anybody’s guess, and it’s up for grabs. I think we could very well have a new first-time winner this season at Nashville.”
Full but uncertain field: With 27 cars on the entry list, the inaugural Music City Grand Prix will be the largest starting grid in IndyCar in eight years outside the Indy 500, and the growth is occurring at an opportune time for many drivers trying to nail down their plans for the 2022 season.
Race winners Marcus Ericsson, Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud have yet to confirm their rides for the 2022 season, and Romain Grosjean and Jack Harvey both have indicated they likely will be moving to new full-season teams next year.
One domino has fallen as Helio Castroneves, who will be on track with Meyer Shank Racing this weekend for the first time since he became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner two months ago. The popular Brazilian will return to full-time status for the first time in five years, driving the No. 06 Dallara-Honda.