By David Morgan, Associate Editor
NASHVILLE – After having the weekend circled on the calendar all season long, the NTT IndyCar Series finally got to take its first laps around the streets of Nashville on Friday, with Colton Herta putting down the fastest lap during a wild opening practice session for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix.
Herta traded the top spot with a number of other drivers, but his lap of 1 minute, 16.587 seconds was quick enough to allow the driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda to move back to the top of the leaderboard by the time practice ended.
Scott Dixon would finish the one-hour, 15-minute session in second-place, followed by rookie Romain Grosjean, Alexander Rossi, Marcus Ericsson, Alex Palou, Felix Rosenqvist, Will Power, Scott McLaughlin, and Simon Pagenaud rounding out the top-10.
Hometown hero Josef Newgarden finished the Friday’s lone practice session in 12th place.
The initial laps around the 11-turn, a 2.17-mile temporary street course made one thing clear: this track is not going to take it easy on the drivers over the course of Sunday’s race. The Korean Veterans Memorial Bridge section of the course over the Cumberland River served as the most punishing part of the track, bouncing the drivers and cars around like ragdolls as they speed across the span and enter into a narrow, winding complex of turns from Turn 4 to Turn 8 before heading back across the bridge in the opposite direction over to Turn 9.
“It’s still changing, but what we rolled off the truck with was pretty good,” Herta said. “I feel like when you go to these street circuits that are bumpy and technical like this one is, it’s about having the least worst car. It’s never going to handle nice, so you just try to get it into an operating window where it’s better than everybody else’s.
“I thought the bridge was going to be bumpy, but I didn’t expect coming off the bridge to be quite that bumpy. It could make it a little tricky if you’re braking for nine. Especially four it makes it tricky. I didn’t expect it to be quite like that.
“But it’s not a negative thing. I think it adds character to the track. It’s actually pretty interesting to follow people through there and see if people are staying out wide or cutting in, trying to avoid the bumps, just finding different lines.”
Will Power echoed Herta’s comments, noting he would like to see some work done on the transitions to try and make things a bit smoother for the drivers as they cross the bridge.
“Couple of big bumps,” said Power. “Worst one is probably going into turn four. If they could grind that down a little bit, it would be really nice. The track is cool, man. I really enjoyed it. Really typical street course, bumps and cambers of the road you got to deal with.
“It was fun. Fun, apart from the coming off the bridge heading into the city. That’s a bit sketchy with the bumps. That one big bump, that’s it, the rest are pretty good.”
Bookending the practice session would be two shunts into the wall for two different drivers, with Pato O’Ward being the first to discover just how difficult the Nashville circuit is going to be, as the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet bounced off the Turn 3 wall, causing enough damage to bring his day to an early end.
“What a cool track,” said O’Ward. “It is very physical and unlike any other place we go to, specifically the braking zones. Our car felt fine until I made a mistake going into Turn 3 and hit the inside wall, sending me into the outside wall in Turn 3. We didn’t get much running in today but tomorrow we will. We will be ready for qualifying, I’m not worried.”
With less than five minutes remaining, Conor Daly added to that list, losing control of his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet and sliding into the tire barrier at Turn 9.
Next up for the NTT IndyCar Series and the Nashville circuit will be the second practice session of the weekend at Noon Central Time Saturday, followed by qualifying at 3:30 pm.