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

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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/Tennessean.com/USA 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/Tennessean.com/USA 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.