The Music City Grand Prix Invitational, held August 5-6, smashed its way through “watercraft racing norms” from start to finish; from the invitation-style race roster, to the Friday-Saturday schedule, to new racing formats for both the Friday slalom drags and the Saturday Closed Course race – not to mention functioning as a “supporting cast” instead of the lead actors in the weekend event. Everything about the Nashville weekend was unfamiliar and different – and those differences led to a plethora of racer comments – both positive and negative – to this photographer over the weekend.
Each “new” aspect gained its proponents and detractors, and in many circumstances, racers saw both positive potential, and frustrating downsides to each of those aspects. And there was little doubt that the promoters felt the same rollercoaster reaction to the groundbreaking experiment in opening up new PWX avenues.
While Nashville was not the first “invitation only” race the PWX community has ever seen, it is a rare occurrence in stateside races, and especially in the Pro Watercross Tour. And, while there were online mutterings here and there about who was, and wasn’t, invited.. The fact remains that the race rosters were some of the fullest I’ve seen in many years, with riders representing almost all regions of the country.
The inclusion of the PWC races with a larger event is also not completely new – Can-Am Watercross’ Belle River race in conjunction with the SunSplash Festival, and several HydroCross Nationals races held as part of community events, come to mind. But the inclusion of the Nashville races with the Music City Grand Prix Indy Car event took this concept to a whole new level, opening up watercross racing to a huge population of potential new fans – not only Indy Car aficionados, but the location – in downtown Nashville – meant exposure to a large audience of “unintentional” spectators. Not to mention the added “after race” enjoyment for the race family – from touring IndyCar pits, to adjacent access to Music City Row and some memory-making nightlife, to a Tim McGraw concert.
But, this partnership with MCGP meant that the watercross races – promoters, racers, crews and family – were cast in the unfamiliar role of being minor players on a big stage. Racers felt it, but even moreso, promoters felt it. Choices, schedules, formats and logistics that are normally fully within the promoter’s discretion were rigidly controlled by the MCGP rules and parameters.
Which brings us to the technical formats for both Friday and Saturday’s races – Friday’s head-to-head slalom races, organized under the innovative direction of long-time Pro Watercross familiar face and Team Faith leader Brian O’Rourke, and the one-day, heat-based closed-course format put in place by Pro Watercross’s AJ Handler and team. But the discussion of those formats – the technical components, the challenges they posed, the potential they represent, and the racer reaction to them – will far exceed my word count limit for this article, so I am going to convince Kevin to let me tackle each of those in an individual follow-up article, and instead close out the Nashville Invitational wrap-up with a comment from SlalomDrags.com mastermind, Brian O’Rourke:
“I didn’t want to produce just another jet ski race. The watercraft racing industry has been doing basically the same thing since its inception over the last 40 years in terms of format and general layout and anatomy of a race. Things like starting from the shore and having the first turn the farthest away from the audience of potential fans, huge tracks where there are very few passing opportunities and the average non-enthusiast coming up to a race site can’t make heads or tails of the layout, and so many classes competing that nobody, including the racers, have the attention span to watch them all.
“These are the challenges we face as an Industry for creating more fans for our Sport, I believe. As much as I love closed-course racing and even offshore endurance racing, those disciplines have proven to be difficult to acquire the new fan base we all think our sport deserves, and I’d like to thank AJ and the entire crew from Pro Watercross for supporting me and giving me the opportunity to try this new race format on such a huge stage.
“I came up with this format featuring arguably the best PWC racers from all over the US coming together to showcase a brand-new racing format with side-by-side racing on 2 identical tracks consisting of slalom turns and long drag straightaways. Starting from a stationary launch pad, competitors try to time the Drag-style light tree for the best reaction time because the fastest elapsed time leads to the Overall Victory.
“It’s easy to understand for anyone, the racing is exciting and entertaining, the starts are equal and fair for each competitor and the focus is more on the rider than on the equipment they ride. Pair this with recognizable on-air talent for TV like Supercross’ Daniel Blair, Lucas Oil Off-Road and Watercraft racing’s own Dave Arnold, and Snocross’ Arica Alread as pit reporter and put the race smack-dad in the middle of downtown Nashville during the Indy Car Music City Grand Prix and now you have an event that has the potential to help grow the fan base of the Sport!”
Slalom Drags: Pro/Am Ski GP: Matthew Richuk; Sport Spec: Sammy Nehme; IROC Stock: Ryan Rasmussen; Jr. Ski 10-15: Maddox Haynes. Pro Watercross Closed Course: Pro/Am Ski GP: Jimmy Wilson; Sport Stock: Matt Johnson; Jr. Ski 10-15: Maddox Haynes; IROC Stock: Ryan Rasmussen