IndyCar drivers expecting smoother Nashville race with new restart zone, track changes

IndyCar Nashville drivers
George Walker IV/Tennessean/USA TODAY Sports Images

NASHVILLE, Tennessee – Though he understands why the Music City Grand Prix’s problematic restart zone will be altered in its second year, it’s understandable why Marcus Ericsson would want the layout to remain the same for IndyCar drivers.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was caught in one of the numerous pileups in the inaugural event through the streets of downtown Nashville, but the Lap 5 shunt that sent his No. 8 Dallara-Honda skyward also helped Ericsson win the race.

After serving a stop and go penalty, Ericsson switched into a sublime fuel conversation strategy that got him ahead of pole-sitter Colton Herta and into the lead for the final 25 laps.

INDYCAR AT NASHVILLESchedules, details for watching this weekend on NBC

NEW FOR NASHVILLE YEAR 2: Detailing the course changes and the reasons for them

“Personally I kind of like the way it was last year, just because how it ended,” Ericsson said. “But it makes the racing a little bit better. More flow-y. That could be good because there were a couple of places on track it gets quite tight and a bit too twisty maybe.

“I thought the challenge that the track presented last year was really cool. When we spoke to drivers, everyone was enjoying the track last year, it’s just for some reasons, there was a lot of accidents happening. The restart zone was one of the issues.”

Ericsson ran into Sebastien Bourdais, who had braked coming to the green on the first restart because of a mostly blind final corner after a short straightaway on the 11-turn course.

IndyCar has addressed the spate of accidents by moving the restart zone from the start-finish line to the long straightaway  Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge entering Turn 9 (where the race started last year. The apex of Turn 11 has been widened by 4 feet to provide more visibility in the 2.1-mile track’s tightest corner (which is located in front of the Titans’ Nissan Stadium).

IndyCar also has narrowed Turn 9 by 25 feet (from an 85- to 60-foot width), which should provided a larger braking zone in the slower corner, and smoothed out transitions on and off the bridge, as well as a major bump in Turn 5.

The changes have decreased the length of the street course by 0.07 miles (and shortened the 80-lap race by 5.6 miles) and hopefully also will reduced the number of accidents and lengthy delays and stoppages. Last year’s race was marred by two red flags and 33 laps run under yellow in a season-high nine caution flags — five more than any other road or street course in 2021.

“I think the restart zone was the big one that needed to change, so that’s a great easy change,” said Arrow McLaren SP driver Felix Rosenqvist, who finished eighth as one of only 12 of 27 drivers who avoided being involved in any yellows in Nashville’s debut. “I drove that track on a simulator with other changes, and honestly it’s nothing really major. I thought Turn 9 just seems a bit tighter.

Scott McLaughlin’s No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet was one of three cars involved in multiple caution flags at last year’s inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville (Josie Norris / Today Sports Images).

“It doesn’t really change much. It’s just a slower corner maybe that will promote more overtaking because it was kind of quick last year, so you needed a lot of confidence to send it in there to pass someone. So potentially better racing, and yeah, hopefully avoiding the red flag deal this year.”

Herta, who 39 of 80 laps last year with a dominant No. 26 Dallara-Honda before crashing in Turn 9 with five laps remaining while chasing Ericsson, said being at the front could be a bigger disadvantage with the new restart zone.

“It’s going to be tough if you’re the leader to get a good jump,” Herta said. “It’s a really long straight coming out of a really slow corner. I think it’s better, yeah, because we don’t want super long safety cars and just the mess of what Turn 11 was last year on the restarts.

“I think it is a good decision. It’s going to be tough as the leader, but it is a really long straight (and) now with the tighter Turn 9, probably a pretty good braking zone. It’ll be interesting, though. It’ll for sure promote some passing, and maybe guys will check it up the inside of Turn 8 before the restart and whatnot. It’ll for sure be interesting.”

On starts and restarts, the NTT IndyCar Series tries to give the benefit of leading the field to the green flag. On the initial start, the pole-sitter is in radio communication with race director Kyle Novak about the exact point of acceleration, and on restarts, the leader is given discretion on where to hit the throttle during a specified zone.

At Nashville, it’s expected the leader will go full speed near the apex of the 1,650-foot long bridge (which is suspended 80 feet above the Cumberland River) – after the majority of the 26-car field as exited the preceding Turn 8.

Ericsson believes the long straightaway also will provide an edge to trailing cars

“I definitely think so because it’s such a long straight as well,” he said. “When you do that restart, there’s going to be a lot of drafting and slipstream going on, and Turn 9 is quite an open entry. So it’s a good spot to overtake. For the leader, it’s not ideal. The other spot was easier to get a jump and get going and defend position.

“It was actually quite easy last year when you were leading because you couldn’t really get attacked where the restart zone is. Whereas now, it’s definitely going to be hard for the leader to defend. You need to really hit that restart well if you’re going to defend your lead into Turn 9 on a restart.”

Even if the race goes more smoothly in its second year, there still could be more track changes ahead depending on the further development of Nashville’s incessantly exploding skyline that is full of high-rise cranes.

“I think there’s other changes we can make to the course in the future once some developments happen downtown,” Nashville native Josef Newgarden said. “I know the promoters are really keyed in on that: How can we continue to evolve this track?

“But I think we’ll have a much better surface this year. It’s always hard. You come into a track the first time, you’re really not going to get a good test run until you run the race weekend. You leave the race weekend, you go, ‘OK, now we know how to do that better?’ I think they’re ready for this year. (The restart zone will be) much better.”