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Nashville Notebook: A TV Ratings Bonanza

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 11 2021

Race-winner Marcus Ericsson is flanked by James Hinchcliffe and Scott Dixon on the Nashville podium. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

NASHVILLE –According to veteran observers, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix was not much of a show due to 33 of the 80 laps being run under yellow and two red flag stoppages that pushed the race close to three hours of duration.

But according to TV ratings, the new street race was a major score with a viewing audience of 1.212 million, the largest viewership to ever watch NBC Sports coverage of IndyCar on cable. That surpassed the previous high of 934,000 viewers at Mid-Ohio in 2016. Going back to the days of ESPN coverage, the Nashville race brought in the most cable watchers since a race in 1998 –when there were 2.218 million viewers.

It’s likely two major influences were at work. The immediate lead-in from NBC Sports’ coverage of the NASCAR race at Watkins Glen brought a lot of eyeballs and the launch of eventual winner Marcus Ericsson’s car in the opening laps likely helped sustain the interest. The visuals of the two straights across the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge were highly compelling for any race. And finally, the ratings in Nashville alone were 5.6 – compared to a 2.6 in Indianapolis. Evidently, Nashville residents were as enthusiastic about the race as those who watched on the circuit adjacent to the Tennessee Titans’ stadium.

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THE ATTENDEES at the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix were everything a promoter might want – enthusiastic, patient with a plethora of yellows and likely consumers of a lot of beer during a race extended by two red flags on a hot day, in addition to consuming juice pouches spiked with vodka sold by the race’s title sponsor.

How big was the crowd? According to unofficial estimates, the combination of sold-out grandstands and sold-out hospitality suites hosted 50,000. That’s consistent with other major street races, where crowds are highly visible but rarely huge due to limitations on seating.

Fans in Nashville watched Sunday’s IndyCar Series race from the ramps at Titan Stadium.

As with any street race, there’s a large upfront investment and one suspects a multi-year contract is in place to host the NTT IndyCar Series. Who are the promoters? It’s a privately held conglomerate of investors where Matt Crews is the CEO. Participants include Justin Timberlake, who previously sponsored IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, NASCAR team owner Justin Marks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Tennessee Titans, who call home the publicly owned Nissan Stadium integral to the circuit.

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RACE WINNER Marcus Ericsson was the fastest driver in the field at the finish and a deserving winner. Despite the fact his launch over the rear wheels of Sebastien Bourdais sent him to the rear of the field for the restart on lap 9 for entering a closed pit, followed by a stop-and-go penalty, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was already running 12th when the red flag flew on lap 20.

“IndyCar, anything can happen,” said Ericsson of his second IndyCar victory. “It’s been like that over the years. Once again it shows that you can never give up, you have to keep pushing all the time, keep believing. If you have a strong team like I have, anything’s possible.”

Marcus Ericsson crashed and then won.

After watching Ericsson advance through the field with a low downforce set-up, other teams will likely be re-thinking their set-ups to take better advantage of the two high-speed segments over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge. They are both relatively long straights. The return to the east side of the Cumberland River continues to the braking zone for Turn 9 and measures 2,500 feet, about the same distance as the front straight on the street course in St. Petersburg.

“I think the bottom line was that we were really fast,” said Ericsson. “We were fast. When we got some free air, we were fast. We were fast getting by people, doing the fuel numbers needed. Got the tires to stay underneath us.”

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HONDA OR CHEVY? The 2.2-liter twin turbo V-6 engines of Honda and Chevy are not entirely equal. The Hondas are better on the low end and the Chevy engines get the nod for top speed.

On a street course, that probably explains why the top seven finishers were Honda drivers. Felix Rosenquist of Arrow McLaren SP was the top finisher among those powered by Chevy. Before the race, he said some testing led to improvements in the responsiveness of the team’s Chevy power plant.

“It’s hard to explain everything,” he said. “I think just drivability has been a little bit of an issue all season. I think we really made a good step. Yeah, from the moment we tried it in (testing), going here, it’s just been better. I think everyone’s been happy with it. I think it shows as well, at least from my side, that’s been one of my biggest struggles, just drivability, being consistent in general. And that’s been way different car for me this weekend. So, yeah, really happy with our progress.”

What about the impressive performances of Rosenquist’s teammate Pato O’Ward? “He’s definitely capable of dealing with more sketchiness when it comes to the car.”

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JAMES HINCHCLIFFE, who scored his first podium of the season, had a suggestion to cut down on yellow flags on the restarts. Unlike the race start, which takes place at Turn 9, the restarts began on the front straight of the 11-turn course. That’s where hospitality suites line both sides of the track – and where fans watch from up above on the Nissan Stadium ramps while enjoying hospitality suites on the concourses. 

“In Long Beach we’ve had this problem, too, right?” said Hinchcliffe. “In IndyCar, on the restarts, when the green flag flies, you can pass. Nine times out of 10, that’s not a problem.

“What we were seeing in Long Beach, as the leader comes out of the hairpin, the green flag flies, the guy in 10th dive bombs the guy in ninth. We end up with a completely clogged racetrack. We came up with a gentlemen’s agreement to not pass under the hairpin, wait till the start/finish.

“I think if we did that in Turn 11, said you can’t pass until the start/finish line, you would have eliminated at least one of the reds and another yellow from guys just trying to get cute going into the last corner there.”

(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.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 11 2021
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