When we moved to Nashville, we were excited about the city’s entertainment opportunities; but I didn’t realize there were plans to host an annual IndyCar race in the streets of my new home. When it was announced, I was super excited because I knew we would be renting an apartment downtown which meant we might even have a view of the race.
While our apartment has a fantastic view of the Korean Veterans Memorial bridge, we can’t see the cars when they are racing. Not that it matters because even with road closures demanded by the street circuit, it’s only a 30-minute walk from my apartment to the paddock.
Friday was a great day to get reacquainted with the track layout and attempt to find a few good places for fan photography. Street circuits mean massive concrete barriers and double-layer walls of fencing, which make for a safer environment for spectators, but a crappy one for non-credentialed photographers. Most corners on the track proved to be inaccessible for me, and when I returned to the corner I had the best results with last year, turn 9, I found my access blocked by the new Turn 9 Suites. All was not lost, though, because my seats in Grand Stand 4 provided good views of the cars crossing the bridge and slowing to negotiate turn 9, something some racers did better than others. Even though I only had a small gap in the fencing to capture a clean image.
As much as I like and respect IndyCars, I love sports car racing, so the SRO GT America cars were at the top of my priority list. I walked the paddock to catch crew members working on the vehicles, drivers briefing with crew chiefs, and get shots of the cars before they hit the streets.
One of the aspects I love the most about Indy and sports car racing is fan access. I’ve been to a dozen NASCAR races and could only access the paddock and garages once because of a friendship with someone associated with a team. That couldn’t be further from the case with IMSA and IndyCar. For IMSA races, your ticket to the race is also your ticket into the paddock, the garages may require some extra credentials, but there is always a fan walk of the pit lane just before the race begins for fans to get up close and personal with the cars and drivers.
IndyCar requires a paddock pass, but it is not expensive and is worth the extra money. Access to the paddock brings so much more to the race weekend experience. You watch the teams work on cars, make adjustments, fix anything that breaks, and sweat it out as the car goes through technical inspection. If you’re lucky or have good timing, you will also see the drivers walking around, or more likely on a scooter or pit bike. Even in a hurry, I always see them smile and acknowledge fans as they pass by.
Rain and thunderstorms in Nashville in August are inevitable, and while last year’s race remained untouched by them (only the concerts got wet) this year, we were not so lucky. Watching practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday was fun, even though the weather didn’t play nicely on Saturday. The rain roared through, delayed Indy qualifying, canceled the Indy Lites qualifying, and threatened to shorten the evening races further when SRO GT America and the Stadium Super Trucks were due on track.
Thankfully, the SRO GT series ran the planned race Saturday evening, and the beloved SPEED Energy Stadium Super Truck series also did their thing: to be awesome. The GT America race began a little after 6 pm, which meant great lighting and glowing brakes! It is the perfect time for them to be on track; the headlights and brake lights make everything more dramatic, and nothing beats glowing brake rotors as they haul the cars down from top speed coming over the bridge.
If you have not had the chance to experience Stadium Super Trucks, you need to as soon as possible. This racing series is the brainchild of racing savant Robby Gordon and features the most ridiculous and awesome race trucks you’ve ever seen. The trucks fly through the air; several ramps are placed on the track, with massive suspension travel, but also weave through corners like a sports car, just on three wheels. The soundtrack of their heavily modified Chevrolet LS engines is pure American glory, and the moves made by the drivers defy the laws of physics and rationality. In short, if you have any petrol in your veins, you cannot resist the lure of this racing series. It makes no sense, is total excess, and is shockingly compelling entertainment.
Mother nature played a much more significant role on Sunday when a severe line of thunderstorms blew through just before the pre-race ceremonies began for the main event. You could see the wall of dark clouds moving in from the West, and in what seemed like a few minutes, they had descended on the downtown area in a fury of gusty winds and raindrops the size of a quarter. The thunder and lightning guaranteed everyone had to take shelter as rain pounded the circuit. Thankfully the system passed through without causing significant damage, but the two-plus hour delay meant the green flag flew just a few minutes before the original scheduled checkered flag.
Cautions breed Cautions
As for Sunday’s main event, it was equally exciting and frustrating as the tight street circuit in Nashville has a way of forcing good drivers to make bad decisions. The problem with any street course is space; there are no runoff areas and no safe spaces to maneuver if you run out of racing room or luck on track. On a street course, if you make a bad decision, or more likely if you are next to a car that makes a bad decision, your only option is to hit a concrete wall. The circuit layout in Nashville has three or four tight, 90-degree corners where if a car happens to test its crash structure against the barrier, more cars are likely to follow. Half the scheduled race laps were run under the caution flag in this year’s race.
The inaugural event was worse with fewer caution laps but more red flags and time spent with no cars running on the track. Immediately after last year’s race, the organizers gathered input from drivers and race teams on what they could do to avoid the carnage and make for better racing. A few changes were implemented to reduce caution flags, but I don’t think they were impactful enough to foster a different race.
The end of the race was quite frustrating as one late caution led to a string of cautions and eventually a red flag to stop the race while they cleaned up the track. There is an old cliche in racing that says cautions breed cautions, and Nashville makes that statement true more than any track I’ve been to or watched on tv. Accidents are bound to happen when a corner has no room for error and drivers fight for position. It is something the race organizers need to get a handle on for next year, or I fear this event will be short-lived.
It is a shame the on-track racing hasn’t been as good as it could be in either of the first two events because everything about this race weekend is a real treat for the fans. The level of entertainment-per-dollar is the highest of any race weekend I’ve attended, except maybe the 12 Hours of Sebring, but the entertainment there isn’t put on by the race organizers. All fans with a ticket have access to first-rate concerts during the day and each night. The fireworks show on Saturday night is spectacular and accessible for all. Even with a track layout that spans the river into downtown Nashville, the accessibility and ease of movement through the stadium section of the track is fantastic. All the ingredients for a legendary race event are here; they need to work on making a few corners more negotiable for side-by-side racing.
Building a street circuit that is good for fans and racers is a daunting task, and many cities have failed to produce an event worthy of a long-term engagement (I’m looking at you, Baltimore); hopefully, Nashville doesn’t add itself to that list. Some corners have physical boundaries that can’t be easily changed (apartment buildings, power lines, street lights), but others have room for improvement. While many incidents occurred at Turn 9, there are some infrastructure elements on the inside of that turn that aren’t going to allow it to be made much wider. Still, the organizers may be able to change the way cars are funneled down the straight to allow for earlier commitments in the turn and possibly fewer mid-turn pass attempts and subsequent crashes. Turns 10 and 11 are also hot spots, but the apex of each are curb boundaries of the football stadium parking area and have the potential for changes that may make them wider and, therefore, less accident prone.
I’m certainly no expert in track design or city planning, but I think there are reasonable steps that can be taken to make for a better race for everyone. The ability to get clean, hard racing with consistent green flag laps is in the hands of the race organizers, the city of Nashville, and the drivers of IndyCar. If at least two of the three dedicate themselves to making progress, we can see a smoother, more entertaining on-track display next year.