February 26, 2024

Why the IndyCar season finale is moving to Nashville on a new downtown street course

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The NTT IndyCar Series will take a bold new route blending cars and guitars to crown its champion next year, zooming down the famous Honky Tonk Highway to end the 2024 season.

At a glitzy news conference Thursday night in downtown Nashville, IndyCar and Music City Grand Prix officials unveiled a seven-turn, 2.17-mile course that will make its debut as next season’s finale.

The Sept. 15, 2024 race on the new layout will run through the heart of Nashville’s famous neon nightlife district on Broadway and past the Country Music Hall of Fame but still include a section of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge that has become one of the race’s signature visuals.

IndyCar will hold its 2024 awards ceremony the following night at Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

“This is the kind of city we ought to do the finale in for this kind of event.,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports. “It’s a vital urban center. The attributes of Nashville are it’s a growing, top-tier city in America that’s known for putting on big events, having great parties, turning out their people and having a civic cohesiveness that supports events. So the fact that it’s that kind of market is right.

“It’s a great IndyCar market in terms of race in and race out, and it’s always in the top echelon of audiences for our broadcasts. The event has an international cache. Nationally, I think it’ll make our championship and the finale a bigger deal. So all the attributes are there, and it’s a really unique, sensational way to present our finale in the right place. We’re all in for bigger impact, and I think Nashville provides us that.”

Nashville will become the third street race to play host to the finale since 2020 but the first by design – St. Petersburg (2020) and Long Beach (’21) both concluded the season because of pandemic disruptions to the schedule.

The Music City Grand Prix will supplant WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca as the season finale. From 2015-23, IndyCar had scheduled its finale at northern California road courses, first at Sonoma Raceway and then Laguna Seca. From 2003-14, the series had concluded its seasons on ovals that included Texas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Here are answers to some pressing questions about the reimagined Music City Grand Prix:

Q: How much of Nashville becoming the season finale was predicated on the course’s new location?

A: The decisions were made somewhat independently, but Music City Grand Prix organizers have been lobbying to play host to the season finale for “years before we signed an agreement,” according to Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles.

“No one in Nashville seems to be bashful about the attributes of their city, and their ability to put on mega events that are successful,” Miles said. “And so they always said, ‘We’d love to be the finale.’ Until recently, we just said, ‘We’ve gone one. We really didn’t seriously consider that a possibility for lots of reasons, mostly because we didn’t have any experience there, and nobody knew whether it was going to be successful.”

Those questions were answered in 2021-22 as the first two editions of the race drew weekend crowds well over 100,000 and sparked massive interest from IndyCar team sponsors that have turned Nashville into a hospitality and marketing bonanza.

With Nissan Stadium set to be razed for the Tennessee Titans’ home, the majority of the current course would become unworkable after this season, and Music City GP presented a plan to IndyCar for 2024 and beyond.

“They came to us months ago and began to describe the concept that the whole thing moves to the central downtown area, and that Broadway and other iconic streets and places are a part of it,” Miles said. “We use the bridge again, but to go the other direction out. And our first reaction was that would be just spectacular. We’ve been through this monthslong process to check the boxes and ensure that it’s feasible, and it’s in that process that you begin to understand what it can do in amping up the event and engaging more celebrities and special places.

“Then we began to say that maybe it could be the finale. Maybe it rises to that level. Of course, they liked the idea a long time ago. From their point of view, it’s going to deserve it. It came together, but it’s not like they said, ‘We’ll do all this if you make us the finale.’ It was a conversation that evolved.”

Nashville will welcome the IndyCar finale as the latest prized acquisition in its hospitality-driven mentality as the South’s answer to Las Vegas. Among other galas, the city also has played host to the NFL draft, the country music awards and the NASCAR awards ceremony.

“Big events are their bread and butter,” said Miles, who once predicted the Nashville race could rival F1 in Monaco “at the absolute top tier of street racing in motorsport across the globe.”

Q: How difficult was it for the city close down its most famous thoroughfare?

A: It wasn’t as much of an obstacle as IndyCar officials initially feared.

Nashville often closes sections of Broadway, so apparently cordoning off a few blocks for a three-day weekend wasn’t a big ask.

“They said, ‘This is Nashville; this is what we do,’ ” Miles said. “So the idea of doing it for big events is not novel. We didn’t believe it until we had a couple of meetings with the mayor and his people, and their convention group and security people. And all the people you’d want to hear from said, ‘Yeah, we can do that’. They never had much doubt that they could pull it off.”

Q: What’s the layout of the new course?

A: It’s essentially the reverse of the current track, which had featured the bulk of its action on the east side of the Cumberland River. Much of the racing now will shift to the downtown side (which had occupied a four-turn sliver of the 2021-23 track).

The new layout will start with a left turn onto Korean War Veterans Boulevard and then a slight turn onto the 1,600-foot bridge that is 192 feet above the river. After reaching the stadium side (which is where the pit lane and paddock area will remain), it’s a quick hairpin back over the bridge and into downtown.

Then it’s a right on 1st Avenue, a left for three blocks on Broadway and a left on 4th Avenue to the finish line just before Demonbreun Street and the Bridgestone Tower (North American headquarters for the parent company of Firestone, IndyCar’s exclusive tire supplier).

Q: How will the race incorporate the Honky Tonk Highway?

A: Lining both sides of the track will be bars owned by country music stars (Kid Rock, Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Garth Brooks, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and Blake Shelton, to name a few) who already are major draws for Nashville clientele.

“It’s one of the reasons we can say this is going to be a more star-studded event, because we expect they’ll want to be engaged,” Mile s said.

The popular establishments are working with race promoters to create de-facto hospitality chalets and other viewing options.

“It could be instead of a suite, you’re up on a rooftop or on X floor with a balcony,” Miles said.

There are plans to close each day of the race weekend with a “takeover” of Broadway featuring high-profile street concerts.

Q: Did having unexpected street race season finales in St. Pete and Long Beach plant the seed for Nashville?

A: No, according to Miles, but both might have reaffirmed that it was a move that could work.

“It’s just obvious that a vibrant event in a big city that makes an impact in that city is a bigger event than in a smaller market,” Miles said. “You’re going to get more attention, eyeballs, audience. Long Beach is a really big event and first or second after Indianapolis in terms of attendance and impact. But even as much as Long Beach is a huge asset for IndyCar, the fact is that’s Long Beach and not really in L.A. But downtown Nashville is right in the center of this big city. It has even more to recommend it.”

Six-time series champion Scott Dixon said recently that he thought the 2021 Long Beach Grand Prix was among the best season finales in IndyCar history with a buzz that he felt was lacking in the 2019 and ’22 finales at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

“We’ve got to finish the championship with a place that’s got energy,” Dixon said. “Right now, we’ve not been doing that. It’s very sleepy. So you’ve got to go to a place that’s a lot of fun, that’s got a lot of energy and looks that way both on TV and at the venue.”

Q: What do IndyCar drivers think about holding the season finale on a street course?

A: Some admittedly are wary (more than 40 percent of the first two 80-lap races in Nashville were run under caution) but seem willing to give it a shot for the tradeoff of juicing the event.

“I like the idea of a race like Nashville as the finale because the show and atmosphere is great,” said Marcus Ericsson, whose car went airborne on Lap 5 in winning the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in 2021. “Laguna is a beautiful track, but I always feel you come there and it feels a bit not that sort of energy for a finale. That’s why I like it, but the last couple of Nashville races have been complete disasters. A good disaster for me a couple of years ago.

“It’s so unpredictable. To decide a championship on a track like that, it could be good, could be bad. In general, I’m a fan.”

Points leader Alex Palou, who clinched his 2021 championship in Long Beach, said he’d prefer a more predictable road course such as Laguna Seca.

“As of now, I wouldn’t like it,” Palou said of a street course finale. “It’s tough to put the season finale, normally the biggest race apart from the Indy 500, to a place where the race can go so many different ways. So I wouldn’t like it.

“I love Laguna, but it’s true that you go there and don’t feel like, ‘Oh my goodness what’s going on here.’ I could see that. But I prefer just the quiet season finale than a boom. A place you can win by 30 seconds and just go home. We would get used to it. But it would be crazy.”

Q: What happens to Laguna Seca?

A: The picturesque road course in Monterey, California, will remain a part of the 2024 schedule that is planned for a release next month (possibly when IndyCar is in town for the Sept. 10 finale).

Recent schedules sometimes have included a four- to five-week gap between the St. Pete season opener in early March and the second race at Texas Motor Speedway, so Laguna Seca could slot in during early spring.

Miles said IndyCar had no contractual obligation to keep Laguna Seca as the finale, though the track had been scheduled as the last race since returning to the circuit four years ago.

“They’d rather be the finale,” Miles said. “Now we’re working with them on what date will be best for next year. We’re not done with that conversation. There are multiple options. Ultimately, we’ll find a good new home.”

Q: Does this move come with an extension of IndyCar’s deal with the Music City Grand Prix?

A: This is the final year of the original contract, but Miles said an extension is being worked on and merely a formality to complete.

“We expect that Nashville will be the finale for years to come,” he said.

Q: With the race moving to mid- September, are conflicts now possible with Tennessee Titans home games?

A: Yes, though there are some mitigating factors. The Titans’ stadium won’t be done anytime soon, so they won’t be playing an NFL game directly across the river during a race for at least the next couple of years.

Miles said NFL franchises and cities often work with the league to request away dates.

“We do it with the Colts all the time,” he said. “It is conceivable the NFL wants to schedule the Titans when we otherwise normally schedule the finale. I’m not worried about that. I think it would be rare. There’s more than one way to skin the cat. We probably could do it on the same weekend with a night game. And it’s not inconceivable we could move a week or two earlier or later. It’s an issue that if or when it comes up, we’re sure we can deal with it.”

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