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Flat Spot On – “Hello Walls” In Music City

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 9 2021

Marcus Ericsson hanging out on  a street corner in Nashville. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

NASHVILLE – The inaugural Big Machine Music City GP was over the top. 

In the opening laps, Marcus Ericsson catapulted over the rear wheels of Sebastien Bourdais. When it was over, Ericsson was on top of the world in Victory Lane. After five pit stops and a drive through penalty, he got there by leading the final 25 circuits on worn red tires while nursing his fuel mileage and by still managing to fly in terms of lap times.  

It was that kind of a first race on the streets of Nashville on a circuit that was fast, slow (due to cautions) and tricky. The fans who filled every grandstand seat and hospitality suite got a lot of speed and argy-bargy among drivers evidently pumped up by the big turnout and looking for the slightest daylight to advance their positions.

For the uninitiated, IndyCar must have looked kaleidoscopic—as in green, yellow, red and checkered. For those familiar with the unpredictability of NTT IndyCar Series races where pit strategy and tire choices can be decisive, it was nevertheless a race without a rhythm or pattern. Somewhere in the background, one could almost hear Willie Nelson crooning “Crazy.”  Or perhaps “Hello Walls.”  

Whether nine yellow flags and two reds was way over the top was not debatable and one would expect some changes to the track or restarting procedures in the future, possibly both. But despite an event that lasted almost three hours and finished at sunset, the grandstands were as full at the finish as the start.

Everything was on the up-and-up for Chip Ganassi Racing driver Ericsson despite the penalty for climbing over Bourdais, whose A.J. Foyt Enterprises entry was eliminated. But the Frenchman, who said he didn’t want to be “a douche” and call out Ericsson, was clearly peeved.

Marcus Ericsson survived an early-race wreck to win Sunday bizarre IndyCar Series race in Nashville.

Nobody suffered a bigger downer than Colton Herta, who led the most laps from the pole.

The class of the field, Herta found himself in sixth with 23 laps remaining due to his team’s pit stop decisions. He gained four positions in short order, including some daring passes entering the return trip on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge in Turn 8, before he eventually ran out of track in Turn 9, the track’s fastest corner on the opposite side of the bridge straight where speeds pushed 190 mph. Fittingly, perhaps, Herta’s meeting with a tire wall brought out the day’s second red flag.

So much for Andretti Autosport’s split strategy of leaving Herta in the lead while five challengers behind him pitted, a group led by Ericsson and including Herta’s teammate Alexander Rossi. But Rossi got bumped by Pato O’Ward and Herta got bumped by fate. Ericsson’s Firestone red tires seemed to like the cooler late afternoon temperatures and all the rubber at either end of the bridge that launched his low downforce set-up into a gap over Herta.

That forced Herta into two banzai moves at Turn 9. The first may have cost him some tire rubber. The second cost him the race. “I was pushing to get by him as quick as I could,” said Herta, who pushed the limits all weekend and set the race’s fastest lap. “I just overdid it.”

Formula 1 refugee Ericsson posted his second IndyCar victory despite having to trundle around an entire lap after the launch of his Dallara-Honda broke the nose, which put him briefly into the Turn 6 wall. Ironically, that cleared the broken wing from beneath his tires and enabled him to continue.

“I am still trying to figure out how I won the race after I was flying and seeing the sky,” said the Swede. “I thought my race was over.”

With the broken pattern of pit stops, the points race got tighter due to Ganassi’s Scott Dixon consistently running with the front runners before moving up to second at the finish, where he started, after the departure of Herta. Points leader Alex Palou got caught out by a decision to pit early and did not emerge from the pack until the closing stages, finishing seventh.  He retained a 42-point lead over teammate Dixon and a 48-point lead over O’Ward, who finished 13th after being assessed two penalties, one for contact with Rossi. 

The ownership group of the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix, which includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. as well as corporate clients like the Tennessee Titans, whose stadium and parking lot are integral to the track, are likely to be trying to figure out how to give their fans a better look at the speed and daring that the IndyCars and their drivers can offer. The ownership at INDYCAR, meanwhile, are likely to be eyeballing TV ratings when it comes to making changes next year.

“It was a crazy race,” said Dixon, who pointed out that fans at the track remained enthusiastic until the finish. “Maybe driver penalties need to be kicked up a bit. I think there were some regulars making mistakes and hitting people. Maybe that needs to be looked at. All the penalties need to be stronger when you cause accidents like that.” 

James Hinchcliffe, who helped the Andretti entries salvage something by advancing to third at the finish with pit strategy despite being among those stuck behind a blocked Turn 11 incident that brought out the first red flag. That one resulted from Penske Racing’s Will Power putting teammate Simon Pagenaud in a precarious position and ultimately into the tire wall prior to a restart. That followed by 15 laps the incident where Ericsson inadvertently launched his car prior to a restart approaching Turn 11.

Like Dixon, Hinchcliffe pointed out that the fans at the track seemed to have a good time. “How many people stuck around till 8:00 to see the end?” said Hinchcliffe, who has been a stranger to the podium recently. “It wasn’t just like some guy that heard some noise and walked in. These were race fans. There was a ton of merch, a lot of people that knew what they were talking about, knew the drivers. It wasn’t just we got dumb lucky putting ourselves in a highly populous city. There’s an appetite for racing here.”

Many of those watching NBC Sports coverage had a different – and dimmer—view that was often expressed in social media. As noted previously, the organizers won the three-day weekend party that started on Friday. Along with IndyCar and the drivers, perhaps they can win next year’s race as well.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse.”  Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)

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Results Sunday of the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix NTT INDYCAR SERIES event on the 2.1-mile Streets of Nashville, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (18) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 80, Running
2. (2) Scott Dixon, Honda, 80, Running
3. (10) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 80, Running
4. (14) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 80, Running
5. (13) Graham Rahal, Honda, 80, Running
6. (26) Ed Jones, Honda, 80, Running
7. (9) Alex Palou, Honda, 80, Running
8. (4) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 80, Running
9. (15) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 80, Running
10. (12) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 80, Running
11. (17) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 80, Running
12. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 80, Running
13. (8) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 80, Running
14. (11) Will Power, Chevrolet, 80, Running
15. (6) Jack Harvey, Honda, 80, Running
16. (5) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 80, Running
17. (3) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 80, Running
18. (21) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 80, Running
19. (1) Colton Herta, Honda, 74, Contact
20. (27) Cody Ware, Honda, 70, Handling
21. (7) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 68, Contact
22. (23) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 67, Running
23. (19) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 37, Contact
24. (22) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 24, Contact
25. (24) Takuma Sato, Honda, 19, Contact
26. (25) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 18, Contact
27. (16) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 5, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 72.607 mph
Time of Race: 2:18:49.8305
Margin of victory: 1.5596 mph
Cautions: 9 for 33 laps
Lead changes: 4 among 3 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Herta, Colton 1 – 32
Ericsson, Marcus 33 – 44
Herta, Colton 45 – 51
Grosjean, Romain 52 – 55
Ericsson, Marcus 56 – 80

NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings: Palou 410, Dixon 368, O’Ward 362, Newgarden 335, Ericsson 331, Rahal 286, Pagenaud 280, Herta 275, VeeKay 263, Sato 231.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 9 2021
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