A viewer’s guide to the Music City GP: Five things to watch on the streets of Nashville

IndyCar Nashville viewer's guide
Chris Owens/IndyCar

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.

MUSIC CITY GRAND PRIXSchedules and info for watching IndyCar’s Nashville debut

BRIDGE TO GREATNESSThe signature image of the Music City Grand Prix

“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.

SOLID REVIEWS: Drivers praise track after opening practice

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.”

STARTING LINEUP: The opening grid for the Music City Grand Prix

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.

“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.

The downtown Nashville headquarters of Bridgestone is adorned with the Music City Grand Prix logo this weekend (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

“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.

Josef Newgarden smiles beside his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet in the pit lane before practice for the Music City Grand Prix (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“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.”

An overview of the Music City Grand Prix layout, which includes the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

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.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

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Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”