IndyCar makes Nashville track changes for Year 2 of the Music City Grand Prix


Though generally acknowledged as a smashing success, the debut of the NTT IndyCar Series on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, did hit a few snags last year.

A crowd of 60,000 and the most-viewed IndyCar race on cable in at least two decades turned up last year to witness the first serving of hot laps with the city known for its hot chicken — confirming Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles’ assertion that “clearly, Nashville is the hottest city in America for sports and for big events.”

But the inaugural event also had its share of first-year miscues involving crowd control and some malfunctioning facilities. Water leaking onto the track from a suite’s overflowing air conditioner actually might have caused one car to spin and led to a lengthy midrace delay for cleanup.

INDYCAR AT NASHVILLE: Schedules, details for watching this weekend on NBC

That was among the nine caution flags for 33 of 80 laps in a race that took nearly two and a half hours to complete.

There certainly were memorable moments — namely Marcus Ericsson winning after going airborne on Lap 5 (and then outrunning pole-sitter Colton Herta, who crashed  while chasing the lead with the dominant car) — but there also were enough traffic jams and track blockages to warrant some alterations.

NBC Sports recently interviewed Tony Cotman, who is the principal of the NZR Consulting firm that has overseen the design and construction of the Music City Grand Prix for the past two years.

As reviewed by Cotman, here are some of the significant tweaks that have been made for the second year on Nashville’s 11-turn, 2.1-mile course:

–The biggest change is the new restart zone, which now will be the long straightaway exiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge and into Turn 9. This was used for the start last year, but restarts were at the start-finish line.

The start and all restarts now will occur exiting the bridge into Turn 9, which IndyCar views as the best opportunity for passing.

The pole-sitter and leaders will have discretion on when they pick up the accelerator to lead the field to the green flag, which likely will happen around the apex of the bridge (IndyCar wants the majority of the 26-car field to be through Turn 8 when the green flies). Push to pass will become active three turns (or roughly half a lap) later when the field crosses the finish line.

Though it’s an IndyCar decision to relocate the restart zone, Cotman said it’s fully supported by Music City Grand Prix promoters who had lobbied to have the restart zone on the bridge last year because it’s in view of the majority of spectators watching from grandstands and suites.

“I think when you’re coming down off the bridge, not only is it quite the spectacle, but it’s the best corner for passing, realistically,” Cotman said.

The Turn 9 corner also has been narrowed from 85 to 60 feet with the construction of a new suite in front of the Exxon station on the drivers’ left entering the corner.

Being more toward 90 degrees instead of a sweeping corner, the new radius should be safer (with less chance of head-on collisions in a sideways spin) and slower, which could engender more passing through a bigger braking zone.

The new restart zone also should avoid the bottlenecks that erupted when the field was bunched entering and exiting Turn 11. Ericsson went airborne after colliding with Sebastien Bourdais because of the limited visibility.

“I just think that you just need a few corners to sort yourself out,” Cotman said. “We see it in any type of racing. The starts and restarts, everyone is trying to make some hay. And the (section) in front of the stadium (at the finish line) is narrow. Even though Turn 1 and 2 are quite wide for street circuit terms, they’re still narrow.

“When you’re getting multiple cars bottling up next to each other, someone just has to make a small mistake, lock up a brake, and you get what we had last year. I think there’ll be more nose to tail in front of the stadium. I’m not saying people won’t pass, because they’ll still dive in there, but I think it’ll be a little more sorted. It’s only a couple of more corners, but at least leading up to there, they’ll have a chance to have a go. And from a spectator standpoint, it’s better.”

–Turn 11, the final corner that comes out in front of Nissan Stadium, has been widened by 4 feet at the apex to provide a better slight line around the corner.

“That was quite a tight corner and someone could spin and not see it,” Cotman said. “If you spin, and the car is 16 feet long and the track is 30 feet wide, it doesn’t leave you a lot of room, especially parked in the middle.”

A Lap 31 shunt into a tire barrier by Rinus VeeKay resulted in this Turn 11 traffic jam during last year’s Music City Grand Prix in Nashville (George Walker IV/ TODAY Sports Images).

–About 100 feet of transitions on either side of the bridge have been repaved to provide a smoother ride. Cars probably won’t bottom out as much, particularly on the entry into the downtown section with Turn 4, but Cotman also noted it’s “a catch-22 because teams will keep lowering their cars as a result. You can make it as smooth as you want, and they’ll still find a bump, but this is definitely an improvement.”

–A major bump in Turn 5 has been reprofiled to ease the transition up the hill through the right-hander that leads into a turnaround.

–There are no significant changes to the pit lane, which can accommodate up to 28 cars with 40-foot stalls, but IndyCar has reduced the speed limit from 45 to 40 mph (about 3 seconds longer for the length of pit lane).

–Cotman said other track changes mostly will go unnoticed. Race control has been moved into the paddock from beneath the stadium, where radio reception was difficult last year. The Grand Prix also has added spectator gates and worked with staff to avoid some “first-year-teething problems” (e.g., spectator fences being breached; the leakage from suites onto the track).

“There were some silly things that happened to be tightened up,” Cotman said. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot better this year.”

Track workers mopped up water that leaked onto the course during last year’s Music City Grand Prix (George Walker IV/ TODAY Sports Images).

A new “high-end multilevel suite” called Club RPM also has been constructed in Turn 3.

The track has been built over the past three weeks by a Nashville area crew of 15 working Sunday through Thursday from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. (no work is done on Friday and Saturday because of downtown traffic).

The FIA-approved fencing system was built by a Swiss company called Geobrugg, which has has provided mobile debris barriers for many other high-profile tracks globally (Spa, Red Bull Ring, Mugello, Estoril, Imola among others). The Nashville system consists of 2,150 barriers and debris fence panels, including 650 custom made for the bridge and its single center line.

Nashville marked Geobrugg’s debut with a street course, and the company since was hired to help with the new F1 Miami Grand Prix in May.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”