The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville this weekend marks the first new street circuit on the NTT INDYCAR Series Schedule since 2011 (Baltimore) and the excitement has been building since last year’s announcement of the race. Intrigued with the challenges posed by a brand new circuit where testing is not possible, we asked Sebastien Bourdais and Dalton Kellett, as well as our technical director Mike Colliver, to provide some insight on how a team goes about setting up for a course they’ve only seen on paper.
SÉBASTIEN BOURDAIS, driver of the No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet, returned from several weeks in France visiting with family and friends over the Olympics break in the schedule. After testing at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis July 27th, we asked him a few questions about the upcoming inaugural event in Nashville.
Big Machine Music City Grand Prix: “Looking forward to this new event. Our street course pace has been pretty good and I love these challenging tracks. The excitement and anticipation around the event is as high as I have ever seen which is always super motivating.”
How do you prepare for a track you’ve only seen on paper? “Had a very brief look at the track in the simulator, but really not much you can do until you get in the car for the driver.”
On paper does it resemble any other track you’ve raced on? “Every street course is unique. Roughness, layout… and this one fits the description.”
How long does it take for you to get comfortable with the layout (in laps or time)? “Very much depends on how the car behaves. If you’re feeling comfortable and can attack, 10 laps or two runs usually does it. But you may never get there if you can’t get the balance you need.”
Which parts of the track do you think will be the most challenging to get right? “T9 seems to be the most challenging. Very quick approach and decently quick mid corner speed.”
Have you ever raced over water (or on a bridge) before in your career? If so, where and when? “Valencia F1 street course in 2008.” Note: The F1 course existed for five races (2008-2012) and the swing bridge section was 450’ long.
Have you ever been to Nashville before – either for work or pleasure? “Never been.”
What are you most looking forward to doing in the city when you’re not on the track? “Always tough to do tourist things during race weekends.”
Bourdais Fast Facts: Age 42…Born in LeMans, France…lives in St. Petersburg, Fla…Married to Claire, has two children, Emma and Alex…Ranks sixth on INDYCAR’s All-time Wins list with 37 victories and ranks seventh in career poles with 34…Ex-Formula One driver (2008-09)…Won 12 Hours of Sebring this year; has won Rolex 24 at Daytona overall (2014) and Petit LeMans…Finished second overall in 24 Hours of LeMans and won in the GTE class with Ford in 2016.
DALTON KELLETT, driver of the No. 4 K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet, returned from vacationing with family in Florida during the Olympics break in the schedule. After testing at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis on July 27th, we asked him a few questions about the upcoming inaugural event in Nashville.
Big Machine Music City Grand Prix: “I’ve been looking forward to this event since the announcement. Street circuits are some of my favourite races. They are a great way to grow the sport, because we are bringing the show to the fans. Nashville is an event city, they know how to host a party and have a good time. I’m confident the city will embrace the excitement of the weekend. It’s also a great opportunity to showcase IndyCar to a new group of fans. It will be impossible to ignore the sounds of us racing across the Cumberland!”
How do you prepare for a track you’ve only seen on paper? “Preparing for this track, that will be new to everyone, really comes down to virtual means. We spent a couple days in the Chevy Simulator in Charlotte and the engineers have been using lap-sim software to model the track. Both of these combined give us a good starting point for the first session. Beyond that, we have to be ready to adjust to whatever the track throws our way and the inevitable differences from simulation to real-life.”
On paper does it resemble any other track you’ve raced on? “The Nashville track is looking to be very unique. Few street courses (in North America) have any elevation change. Nashville has the sections going up and down the ramps on the bridge and tight section going up Second Street is uphill. So that will be a unique challenge. Street circuits tend to be bumpy, so it is looking to be similar to others in that regard.”
How long does it take for you to get comfortable with the layout (in laps or time)? “With the familiarization from the sim, I would expect to be comfortable with the layout and flow by the first couple runs, in the first session. Judging from my experience at Detroit, another first for me this year, you only get more comfortable with the circuit as the weekend goes on and the track grips up.”
What parts of the track do you think will be the most challenging to get right? “I think the section coming off the bridge, into the left onto Second Street and the following tight section will be the most challenging. The high-speed braking off the bridge could be bumpy (it was in the sim) and the tight section will be very intense and nearly as tight as the hairpin complex at Long Beach.”
Have you ever raced over water (or on a bridge) before in your career? “I have not raced over a bridge before, so that will be a new one! I have driven plenty of ski-doos on frozen lakes back home, that’s the closest that I can think of but not sure it counts for much. I don’t think it’s cause for much additional concern. The team who designed the circuit are experienced and are more than capable of putting together a safe venue.”
Have you ever been to Nashville before – either for work or pleasure? “I have been once, a few years ago my girlfriend Nicole and I spent the weekend there. It was lots of fun. Even though I am not much of a country music fan, I really enjoyed seeing the live acts play. Every venue had such skilled musicians!”
What are you most looking forward to doing in the city when you’re not on the track? “I am really looking forward to seeing how the city embraces the event. Street circuits are always exciting because you bring the event to the crowd. Nashville knows how to have a good time, so I am really looking forward to experiencing the atmosphere at the track. If we have some downtime, maybe I’ll head over to Martin’s BBQ for some ribs.”
Kellett Fast Facts: Age 27…Born in Stouffville, Canada…lives in Indianapolis; bought his first house there in May…Graduated from Queens University with a degree in Engineering Physics…Brand spokesman for Ten80 Education’s National STEM League…Enjoys rock climbing, backcountry skiing, camping, playing guitar, cooking and golf.
MIKE COLLIVER, technical director of AJ Foyt Racing, provided his insights on the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.
What are the challenges of a brand new street circuit? “Gearing, ride-heights, springs, shocks, aero-configs, you name it! Fortunately, we have a really good group of young engineers who can do simulation work to help us determine baseline setups for the cars and help develop our test items and plans. We look at historical information from tracks and specific corners that we believe to be similar, then develop a plan to best attack the circuit. It’s actually a really neat exercise as it creates a new challenge – relative to trying to optimize a prior event’s car/setup/strategy. It’s slightly akin to an artist getting to start with a clean slate.”
Alex Diaz (left) works with race engineer Mike Pawlowski on Dalton Kellett’s car.
Does IndyCar provide basic info like ride heights, gear ratios or is that something you have to figure out in the first practice session? What else do you figure out in that session? “IndyCar doesn’t provide any particular track details. However, we do get information from PME (Chevy’s technical partner) regarding most of the track’s specifics (straightaway lengths, corner radius’, bump locations, etc.). We have done some driver simulation and that definitely helps with regard to starting gear ratios, ride heights, shock valvings, etc. A lot of work goes into pre-event preparation, but we will obviously also be in a position to react and refine those items during and after the first session – as will all teams.”
How do you come up with a baseline for a circuit you’ve never seen in person before? “Mainly through comparing similar circuits and doing sim work – as discussed in the first and second
questions. It has gotten a lot more scientific and sim-driven over the years. We, however, still do car build concepts based on historical circuits, experience, some gut-feel and then refine the details with simulation work.”
Looking at the track configuration for Nashville, what will be the most important sections of the track to maximize lap times? “Generally, the most important corners on any track are the ones that lead onto the longest straightaways. To steal a phrase from my very first Skip Barber Racing School class 30 years ago: ‘Exit speed is king.’ So getting to full power early and aggressively on corners three and eight will be the first priority. After that, it’s a handful of 90 degree left hand corners, so making sure the car turns well in those would be next, and as always, having a car that’s stable under heavy braking.”
Did you do any recon of the circuit in a street car? “One of our race engineers, Mike Pawlowski, went down and spent a few hours doing some recon for us. So, we do have some info on surface texture, road crown, bridge expansion joints, etc. Plus I think he took his wife and enjoyed the additional benefit of some good country music later that evening!”
Are there factors specific to the bridge that you have to take into consideration (i.e. cross winds, etc.)? Have you ever engineered (or driven) a race car that had to cross over water before? “I have not. I have engineered and driven at a few circuits that run parallel to and around water, but none going over a bridge of that size. We aren’t too concerned with the wind etc. as the cars are mainly going straight while crossing it. Probably the biggest feature of note regarding the bridge(s) are the up/down-hill nature of them and how that might affect the braking zones.”
STEVE WATTERSON, who served as the Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers) strength and conditioning coach for 32 years before retiring in 2018, will attend the race this weekend as a guest of the team. Working for the Houston Oilers in 1990, Watterson was central to A.J. Foyt’s recovery from his injuries sustained at Road America in September, 1990. Foyt went on to qualify second for the 1991 Indy 500 and Watterson made his first visit ever to the 500 that year. Since retiring from the NFL, Watterson is busy with motivational speaking engagements and special projects with the military focusing on fitness training.
Watterson works with A.J. Foyt in January, 1991 in the Houston Oilers training facility.
Fan Fest Participation: Sébastien Bourdais and the No. 14 ROKiT team will compete in a mini pit stop competition on Thursday pitted against Scott Dixon and the No. 9 PNC Chip Ganassi Racing team at 6:30 p.m. CT. Dalton Kellett will be signing autographs from 5:30 – 6pm before heading over to compete in Josef Newgarden’s Ping Pong tourney for charity which starts at 6:10pm that evening.
Last Race: In the Honda Indy Grand Prix at Mid-Ohio, Bourdais started 12th and finished 11th after getting a penalty for blocking and losing track position while trying to lap a slower car. Kellett started and finished 21st. He snaked his way through the first lap melee but did get hit from behind which damaged his underwing and affected the car’s handling, making it especially difficult when on the primary tires.
The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network Sunday afternoon starting at 5:30 pm ET. NBC’s streaming channel Peacock will stream the practices on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, plus qualifying which starts at 4:30 pm ET, as well as the Sunday warmup at 1pm ET.