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.”

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).