Looking Back At A Recent Memory

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For those of you that have Facebook, you know there is a relatively new feature called Memories that shows you where you were or what you posted on a certain date, so many years ago. Last week a photo popped up on mine that was from exactly two years ago at NOLA Motorsports Park, when Susan and I were there for the Inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana.

Was that only two years ago? It seems like forever ago. For the first few years of the current decade, it appeared that IndyCar couldn’t get out of its own way. New Hampshire was one-and-done after the infamous Will Power double-bird salute. A new race in China was abandoned because Randy Bernard assumed a handshake agreement was respected overseas. Even around this time last year, the Boston Grand Prix fell off the schedule leaving the Verizon IndyCar Series officials with egg on their collective faces.

One event that seems to have been long forgotten about was the Inaugural (and final) Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, Louisiana – just southwest of New Orleans.

At first glance, this looked like a great idea – especially if you planned on going to the race. It was in a popular tourist destination in a part of the country that was seemingly starved for motor racing. But if you dug a little deeper, you saw the holes already appearing before the race even took place.

Susan and I decided to go to NOLA as soon as it was announced. We went to the Inaugural Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in 2010 and had such a good time that we’ve been to every one since. We have always loved going to New Orleans for the atmosphere and history – but mostly for the food. She enjoys the food down there, but I love it. This was going to be a weekend to combine my two passions – IndyCar racing and good food.

NOLA Motorsports Park was designed by Alan Wilson, the same person who designed Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham. There were many different configurations of the track, but the Verizon IndyCar Series would use a 2.74 mile version that feature two very long straightaways with a couple of sweeping turns combined with a couple of low-speed corners. Unlike Barber, the course was completely flat. Although there weren’t many stands, spectators could see from one end of the course to the other – even though they probably had to squint to determine what was going on at each end.

There were some huge problems with the physical nature of the track, however. First, it was built on top of a swamp, which is quite common in southern Louisiana. Second, the track was actually below sea-level. That phrase alone should have been a gigantic red flag, especially when combined with the previous statement about being built on a swamp.

Not as big a concern is that the track was more of a glorified club track. You didn’t have to be a sophisticated racing fan to look at the track and realize that passing would be almost non-existent.

We arrived at the track on Friday afternoon just in time for the skies to open up. It would be the first of many. Practice was delayed until late in the afternoon. Many cars chose not to run, as to not risk wadding up a car for no real reason. The next morning was sunny, as all cars took to the track. Susan and I wandered over to the far side of the track just to check out different vantage points. It would be the only time we would see cars in the sunshine all weekend.

Before qualifying, there was another downpour. With so much standing water, qualifying had to be cancelled and they lined up the field by points. That was unfortunate for those that had a bad race at St. Petersburg just two weeks earlier. With few opportunities for passing, qualifying was extremely important.

With an early exit from the track on Saturday, we went into town for some of that famous New Orleans seafood. I forget where we went, but I can’t forget the meal – which was phenomenal. After splitting a dozen oysters on the half-shell, then an order of Oysters Bienville (one of my favorite dishes); I got the Crabmeat au Gratin. My mouth is watering as I type, two years later. Oh, yeah – it was Deanie’s Seafood. If you’re ever down that way, go check it out. The atmosphere was casual and the prices were relatively reasonable.

That was the highlight of our trip, because Race Day was not. We awoke to a roar outside, which turned out to be the heaviest downpour of the weekend yet. The radar showed that this was a stationary front and would most likely be with us all day. We drove to the track, but I was not expecting to see any racing at all that day. Past noon, it was still looking bleak. The heavy rains had turned into only a steady shower, but the whole area was flooded.

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But at some point, the rain stopped and most of the water had drained from the track, even though there were large puddles that looked more like lakes on both sides of the track. Somehow they were able to start the race, but it would be a timed one. Still, to see cars racing on Sunday was a miracle, considering how things looked just a few hours before.

The race was not good. The first several laps were run under the yellow just to help dry the track. When they finally turned them loose, it was mostly a fast parade with a lot of cars sliding off course and damaging their wings.

In the end, James Hinchliffe came away with the win. He would not win again until last Sunday’s race at Long Beach two years later, mostly due to the fact that he would be seriously injured at Indianapolis just a few weeks later. It was a welcome win for Honda. They had been embarrassed in pre-season testing and in the season-opener at St. Petersburg just two weeks earlier. Honda was desperate and would take a win any way they could get it. They would not win again until another rain-affected event at Belle Isle, when Carlos Muñoz won for Michael Andretti.

Hinchcliffe and car-owner Sam Schmidt were elated in the mud-soaked victory lane, but everyone else was ready to get out of town. When we checked out of our hotel Monday morning – surprise, more rain!

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The entire weekend was a bust, for IndyCar, fans and NOLA. The problems with the track were not isolated to that weekend. It rains a lot in New Orleans at this time of year. When a track is below sea-level in heavy showers, bad things will always happen – usually in the form of heavy flooding.

But with the design and layout of the track and facilities, coupled with the fact that fans had to be bussed in from remote lots due to the lack of parking – this was going to be an ongoing problem. With the heavy rains, there were only about 10,000 fans in attendance on Sunday. But this was not a fan-friendly track. The facilities were way spread out. There were few concession stands and those that existed were very far from the track. The one thing I remember about the facility was there was an awful lot of walking involved – even more than being at IMS.

To make matters worse, promoter Michael Andretti didn’t get paid by the track and legal action had to be taken. There were lawsuits on both sides that made a very ugly weekend and event turn even uglier. Quite honestly, I’m not sure how the lawsuits turned out but I know Michael Andretti’s promotion company no longer exists. I that a coincidence? I’m guessing it’s not.

Some say that it’s a bad break that it was such a bad weekend weather-wise, otherwise it could have been a great event. I don’t think so. The track was terrible for racing Indy cars. It would more suited for motorcycles or SCCA club racing. The facility itself, albeit new, was not good for accommodating large crowds. The weather didn’t help, but it also exposed the large flaw of a below sea-level facility with a very inadequate drainage system. This would always be a problem at NOLA.

The best ideas look great on paper, but stink in reality. The Grand Prix of Louisiana is a perfect example of that. I wish it had worked out so that authentic Cajun dining could become an annual thing for us. But it was not to be and it was quickly put out of my mind – until Facebook brought it back last week. Thank goodness we’ve still got Barber.

George Phillips

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12 Responses to “Looking Back At A Recent Memory”

  1. Never again will I go to a race where you are brought in by bus from a nearby parking facility. There was no place for the fan to get out of the weather. On a scale of 0-10 rating, I ranked this experience as a (-5). Enough said.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The NOLA race was a fiasco for fans (I was one of them), competitors, and accountants alike, but I do not believe that the disaster it became was nearly as predictable as it might seem in hindsight. Does this mean I think Indycar needs to go back and give NOLA another shot? No, not really, but I also don’t think the series needs to be excoriated for scheduling the race in the first place.

    I do not think it is fair to describe the track as terrible for racing when essentially no racing in reasonable conditions was done on it. It certainly wasn’t the only track on the Indycar schedule with just two passing zones (one of which, to be fair, was added to the track specifically for this race).

    I would argue that the weather woes were the result of poor luck instead of poor scheduling. The race itself was not scheduled in an especially wet time of year for New Orleans (relatively speaking, it is a rainy city in general). April is the city’s 4th-driest month based on recent averages. The city received over 2 inches of rain during race weekend (1.5″ or so came on race day morning), and I would not be surprised if the track itself received even more. This is enough rain to disrupt about any road or street race, whether above sea level or not. The disruption on Saturday was due to lightning as much as rain and standing water, which would also disrupt any race. It’s a minor miracle anything resembling a race was held that weekend, actually.

    I won’t defend other issues like the spread out and poorly-laid out amenities or off-site parking and busing. I will, however, note that there are other Indycar races with similar issues. Despite the fact that NOLA was a permanent track, the event itself operated much more like a street race than a road course race. Because of this, it seemed to feature the biggest headaches a fan might encounter at both types of tracks, sort of the worst of both worlds in many ways.

    NOLA was probably never going to be a promising event, the severe financial issues it faced would indicate that, but it is unfortunate and unlucky for Indycar that the weather turned it into the mess it became. Like the one-year return to New Hampshire back in 2011, weather ensured that it didn’t really get a fair shake.

  3. Indyspeeddmon Says:

    I enjoyed the weekend but the track action, not so much. Sadly that raced seemed doomed from the start and only got worse, it was as if every point that things could go one way or the other always went negative to the race weekend. The NOLA PR team was memorable for how amazing they were, the food was unbeatable, the music and atmosphere were great. Idk, maybe if money had been there and they had fixed the 1st year mistakes it might have been okay at a different part of the year.

  4. While I can’t say for sure, I have often attributed the demise of Andretti Racing Promotions to their not getting paid for NOLA. I don’t know if they ever got paid.
    Just an aside: George, are you the Rain Man? I recall that the night and early morning hours before your first Road America race last June, the skys opened up and it poured rain. Should those interactive weather maps showing the location of rain cells include a “Phillips approaching” note?

    • Oh no, don’t say that. I am so looking forward to race day at Road America. Hope to catch up will all of you.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        As I recall, you are a California girl so I am delighted that you are coming to Road America-America’s National Park of Speed. The rain did not delay the race at all last year and it turned out to be a delightful sunny Wisconsin day. As we get closer to that weekend, I will try to give you some clues as to where we might meet, but I can tell you now that it will be close to the best brat and beer stand. Ron

  5. Chris Lukens Says:

    I always thought the highlight of that race was the un-named track worker that pushed the car out of the mud so that we wouldn’t have watch another 15 laps under yellow.

  6. SkipinSC Says:

    I love New Orleans for the food, nightlife, and entertainment, but it occurs to me that insufficient attention was paid tho the racing. Weather you cannot control, but the race course itself, you can. I suspect that after Baltimore and NOLA, IndyCar has become a lot more careful about who they’re “in bed with” for the race itself.

    All that being said, however, I would not be adverse to trying it again with a better, more responsible group as a street race.

  7. Thanks for bringing up the double bird salute. Probably one of the most memorable salutes to the idiot that was running INDYCAR at the time and I’m not even going to mention his name. For it conjures up unpleasant memories for drivers as well as fans. Thankfully those days are behind rather than ahead. In regards to NOLA I’m glad IndyCar at least tried something new and different even though it was a disaster.

  8. Now let’s hope for good weather at Gateway this year.

    The IndyCar broadcast from NOLA was a chore to watch because yellows breed even more yellows when the track is as wet as this and drivers get impatient because of it. Carlos Huertas would have challenged Hinch for his 2nd victory if he hadn’t spun off on a tiny river running across the final corner on what turned out to be the final restart.

    Loudon looked even nicer on paper than NOLA but the audience wasn’t there.

    Baltimore is different, though. That was a lovely circuit which produced great racing. It just wasn’t economically viable for the city to hold a race there.

  9. I remember when Nola was first announced being skeptical. Turns out I was right. I think the Loudon disaster was unfair to indycar and really more about wider SMI vs Indycar politics than one bad weather event. NOLA was bad in about every way. I don’t think even with good weather the event would have survived. It had the drawback of not being close enough or important enough to really attract a lot of casual fans. There wasn’t and probably never would be great racing. New Orleans would be an interesting market for Indycar but it would need a better track option than this.

    Post Boston GP disaster Indycar has been a little better at scheduling events. The Watkins Glen replacement race was a great thing- I can’t believe Indycar pulled it off. I really hope they will be able to grow with interesting new tracks in America. Not sure how confident I am about that- but the Mark Miles International tour seems pretty dead. Formula E probably takes a lot of the pressure off of Indycar to go international- those places are spending their money on FE instead of Indycar if they want a race.

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