NASHVILLE, Tenn (AP) — Look around Nashville and the city has the jubilant feel of a festival that unfolds when IndyCar takes over the city streets.
Yazoo beer flows, country music blares from barrooms and rooftops, and fans take their places for their heart-stirring views of Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and the fastest drivers in the sport hurtling through cramped corners — oh, and over one majestic bridge.
Yup, the bridge is what separates this Grand Prix from all other races in the series and the risk — as farfetched as it may be for an airborne car to scale the debris fence panels and splash into the Cumberland River — had IndyCar take enough precautions to keep danger at bay.
“I told people we have divers in the water. I’ve said that and then just don’t say anything else and people don’t know if you’re serious or not,” two-time series champ Josef Newgarden said. “I’m pretty sure they do have divers, so I feel very comfortable. If you go overboard, someone’s going to be down there to come get me.”
He’s right: IndyCar has two dive teams and four boats at the ready in case of emergency. Let them have as leisurely a day as the home run catching hopefuls drifting in San Francisco’s McCovey Cove.
In the same week Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil wore an IndyCar hat and howled, “How many race fans are out here tonight?!” at the Nashville crowd on a stage neighboring the track, IndyCar President Mark Miles compared the city race setting to the Formula One race in, spit take, Monaco.
“The setup here in this city will immediately propel them to the top level of street races,” Miles said. “I don’t mean to disrespect Monaco.”
They’ll raise a glass of PBR at a Broadway bar for that one.
But one question for Nashville: Has anyone seen a yacht docked among the party boats for the race? Captain Lee isn’t floating through that door and the prosecco popped by winners in Monaco is usually dumped in OJ, or more likely the floor, on the Music City party scene.
Romain Grosjean raced in the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula One and now tackles Nashville as an IndyCar rookie. He appreciated Miles’ enthusiasm — even as he said it was a touch off base.
“Here, it’s people enjoying the streets and having fun in the city and then turning up to come and see the race,” Grosjean said. “In Monaco, you go there to watch the race and you enjoy the parties that are made for the race. Here, I feel like all the time it’s parties, a great atmosphere and the race is a bonus.”
Lost in the hoopla of Nashville’s debut — yes, that’s driver Rinus VeeKay getting in the spirit of things by wearing a cowboy hat this week — is the fact the IndyCar title picture is tight with six races left this season.
We last saw IndyCar a whopping 34 days ago when Newgarden won at Mid-Ohio before sending the sport off into a summer break (forced in part by the pandemic that canceled the Toronto race and NBC’s commitment to the Olympics).
Palou and Pato O’Ward are 1-2 in the points race and six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon is third. Newgarden, the Tennessee native and pingpong enthusiast, is 69 points behind Palou entering Nashville.
“All the teams are starting from zero, all the drivers as well,” Palou said. “We need to figure out what works here.”
Palou and O’Ward both won their first IndyCar races this season, leading a youth movement that shows the series is ready to usher in a new crop of stars. They are the only drivers with multiple wins this season.
They’ll face a crowded field as they both chase a third checkered flag. Helio Castroneves returns for the first time since he won his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 in May. The field boasts 27 entries, IndyCar’s largest non-Indy field since the 2013 race at Long Beach.
“I think it’s going to be a quick classic, if it stays in IndyCar,” Felix Rosenqvist said. “I think it’s going to be a race that people will want to come back to.”