Monday, August 2, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Back to the Streets

August is here. The Olympics continue for another week. Esteban Ocon enters Formula One's summer break as a first-time grand prix winner. Lewis Hamilton went from the back to the front. Max Verstappen was hit in the back and lost the championship lead. There was an endurance race at Spa-Francorchamps and it rained. Josef Newgarden plans on playing ping pong. Jimmie Johnson had an off in Portland. Romain Grosjean tested an oval. Nico Hülkenberg might be interested in testing an IndyCar. Supercars continues to tweak its schedule and Bathurst will move to November. The Norisring will host the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season finale in October. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking. 

Back to the Streets
This upcoming IndyCar race is one of the most anticipated weekends of the season. The inaugural Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville is viewed as a destination event for IndyCar in 2021, a season occurring during a pandemic while IndyCar's stability has been tested and a few events have suffered. 

Street courses are familiar to IndyCar, but it has been a while since IndyCar has visited a new city. This is the first new street course since Baltimore debuted nearly 11 years ago. IndyCar returned to Houston in 2013, but the NRG Park complex hosted Champ Car in 2006 and 2007 and promoter Mike Lanigan remained in charge on both occasions. In the last decade, IndyCar has had a few failed events, from the lead balloons that were Providence and Fort Lauderdale, to the complete track wreck that was Boston. This was once a series that looked to heavily lean on street circuits and has since found a balance. 

There is a limitation to street races and history suggests they are not a good long-term solution. Many only get three or five good years before it starts to fall apart. While street races are seen as a tourism attraction, too many times do they fail to bring the promised economic bump or locals reject the event. 

Unlike many street courses that preceded it, Music City Grand Prix does have a comprehensive ownership group full of people familiar with Nashville and motorsports. President Chris Parker worked for the Nashville Predators for six years. CEO Matt Crews worked for the former Nashville-based NASCAR team Brewco/Baker Curb Racing and has spent the last ten years as president of the Nashville-based FullCircle Ventures. COO Josh Rittenberry was vice president at Memphis Motorsports Park for almost nine years and he spent a year as chief strategy officer for Circuit of the Americas. 

Also a part of the ownership group are Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Justin Marks, Big Machine Label Group president & CEO Scott Borchetta and Justin Timberlake. This is not some random group hoping an IndyCar street race will be a get-rich-quick scheme. There are too many established and knowledgable individuals involved for this to be a disaster. None of these gentlemen would do this if it had a high chance of ending up being a blemish on their reputations. 

However, men with the best intentions and a fleshed out idea can still fail. History is not on Nashville's side no matter how encouraged we are. The other current IndyCar street races are all exceptions to the rule. While Long Beach, Belle Isle, Toronto and St. Petersburg all have lasted more than a decade, it does not mean Nashville has a long future ahead of it. We hope that is the case but we saw Baltimore attract stellar crowds, lose money and never win over the city. That lasted three years. The most recent trip to Houston was IndyCar's third attempt for an event in the fourth-most populous city in the United States. Those events last four years, two years and two years. There have been multiple attempts in Las Vegas and Denver. IndyCar's trip to São Paulo only lasted four years and, though not a street course, the Edmonton airport circuit only made it eight years, which is actually pretty good, but not sustainable.

Everyone is excited for Nashville because IndyCar gets to say it raced around the streets of Nashville, a burgeoning city at the start of the 2020s, but the expectations have been set incredibly high. 

It is a fascinating circuit, looping around the roads outside Nissan Stadium before crossing a bridge, looping around some streets on the edge of the downtown area and then heading back across the aforementioned bridge. It is an unprecedented course, one that might be a common fantasy circuit in a video game but has never been created in an actual competition. 

It looks good, but the real concerns cannot be seen with the naked eye. We are talking about bumps and transitions. Baltimore and the Champ Car race in San Jose had train tracks cut through the circuit and required maintenance after the cars were getting airborne, which upended the race weekends. Houston had significant bumps when IndyCar returned in 2013 and the event was a mess on Friday. A temporary chicane was setup for practice before the parking was ground down for more suitable racing conditions.

The bridge has raised a lot of questions for Nashville, but safety and potential water hazard aside, the bumps could be an issue and the transition on the bridge could be abrupt enough that it could be an issue. We will not know until practice on Friday afternoon. We know races that have seen significant delays due to track alterations and repairs typically do not win over the fans. People pay to see race cars. If there are millers on track instead, people will feel robbed and the honeymoon will end immediately. 

Nashville is already being chalked up as a winner and the weekend hasn't even started. What if it fails? Where does IndyCar go from here? It will likely become just another street course that is a footnote in the history book, but it would smart a little after all the pizzazz in the long-awaited build up. It is an ambitious course with an ambitious start time of 5:30 p.m. ET, an evening street course in the heart of the summer. It is going to be hot, and probably a little uncomfortable. You can have an event on a hot day and attract a crowd, but it must be worth it. People might show up year one but afterward admit the experience was not worth the day in the sun. This event sounds great on paper, but the conditions might derail it from success. You can always change the date but a new date will not necessarily change opinions set after a poor first experience. 

IndyCar does not get many headline events. It gets the Indianapolis 500 each year, and Long Beach has its history, but any other event is set for the diehards. Nashville is built up to be significant for IndyCar. It will get a good crowd year one, and probably year two, but a few hiccups could shake this race out of favor quickly. People could see it once and determine that is enough. It would leave IndyCar searching again. Such an enthusiastic embrace is not easy to come by. 

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Esteban Ocon, but did you know...

The #51 Iron Lynx Ferrari of Alessandro Pier Guidi, Côme Ledogar and Nicklas Nielsen won the 24 Hours of Spa. It was the first time a non-German manufacture won the race since Corvette in 2009 and it was Ferrari's first 24 Hours of Spa victory since 1953.

Ayumu Iwasa, Matteo Nannini and Dennis Hauger split the Formula Three races from the Hungaroring. 

Coming Up This Weekend
IndyCar's inaugural Music City Grand Prix.
MotoGP ends its summer break and will run the Styrian Grand Prix from the Red Bull Ring. 
Road America has another major event. This time it is IMSA. 
NASCAR is back at Watkins Glen.
World Superbike looks to make the most of a weekend at Most. 
Zolder hosts the third round of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters season.