Monday, April 13, 2015

GP of Louisiana - Fan Experience - Race Day!

First of all, for anyone who has read Part 1 and Part 2 of this GP of NOLA Series, thank you for reading along, and thank you for bearing with my typos. For normal GBS coverage there’s plenty time to get this stuff out as a member of the media or in the solitary of the home office, but this trip is “as a fan” which means my wife, son, brother, mom, dad, cousins, in-laws, friends and more are with me at the track and hanging out in the city at night, and I’m putting these pieces and the pictures together as quick as I can in the late post-midnight hours. This trip started 11 days ago with me running in the Crescent City Classic (article on that later), a week of amazing food and music culminating with the GP of NOLA race weekend, so to say I’m out of energy is an understatement. And with that, Race Day!

So after the qualification rain out it proceeded to rain on/off the rest of Saturday night and well into Sunday morning with periods of overcast non-raining. It was still an upbeat morning,  the local news on TV had reporters out doing coverage on TV, and the New Orleans Advocate had a full page spread in the sports section… even if the writer/editor swapped “mph” in for “horsepower.”

This led to a conversation with my dad and brother on if you could even perceive a 700 mph race with your eyes, hah. Now with the schedule moved up action was on the track at 7am, and if it were just me, I’d have made my way out to the track, but I knew weather was looming and I have a 2 year old son I do not want to test the limits of during a potential rain delay. So we headed to the track at 10am figuring we’d see the Porsche GT3s and Pro Mazda races.

Sadly on our drive the rain came down hard, and by the time we got to the track both races had to be cancelled. Let’s make no mistake right now, a LOT of people are being snarky on the internet about NOLA’s lack of drainage or amount of rain. I lived in NOLA for 25 years. The amount of rain we had in 3 days was more than the monthly average for the month of April, NO track or any amount of additional infrastructure would have been able to drain this much water out; it was a simple fluke of nature, the entire week leading up to this was sunny and 80 degrees.

But this left us with 2 hours to burn while the rain was pouring down, so we were huddled in the Trackside Club along with hundreds of others.

The only problem with the Trackside Club is that none of the PA speakers exist in the club…? Not sure why but you never could hear any updates about what was going on or when things were changing, thank god for phones/twitter. Thankfully teams let us hang in their tents/paddock areas during the rain and check out everything they were doing to prep. Enough can't be said for how friendly the teams were with the fans during all these conditions.

Finally the rain cleared up and the masterful Air Titan and a bulldozer (to push water) went to work taking care of the worst spots on track as fans filed in. If anyone should win awards for this weekend it’s the track workers who constantly kept getting the track ready for racing amidst the worst of conditions.

The second award goes to the fans. The rain was so bad Sunday morning, I was actually getting mentally prepared for them to scrap Sunday and move to Monday and we’d have to fly back Monday and miss the race. I completely don’t hold it against any fan for staying home in the conditions we dealt with; there was serious doubt we were getting a race in… but these stands were packed! Seriously, I think we still managed to be near 80% capacity, and probably 90-95% capacity on the front stretch. (open up that photo and you'll see the back stands filling up as well).

And for folks who have never been to NOLA, the crowd lived up to “Big Easy” everyone was wet but having a blast, we were all laughing about everything and anxious to see some racing. There was a serious roar from the crowd on the call to start engines. And was also happy to see the 2-seater go around in the conditions, though they maybe should have explained it over the loud-speaker, as I had to explain to many folks:

Now the beginning of the race was a masterpiece, all the drivers did a great job on the wet tires and Graham Rahal in particular was a treat to watch as he was picking off 1-2 cars every lap, he was simply in the “Takuma Sato in the rain” zone. Sato himself though, was having car/engine issues so he was never able to materialize his own mastery of the wet track.

Then some drivers got ballsy and started going to red/slicks while there was still water on the track, and this is where things got interesting, exciting and also eventually downhill. Order as getting all mixed up as we were seeing who was willing to blink first for reds. We got to see Tony Kanaan power boating to get out of the swamp in turn 13, and the loudest cheer of the day was when Gabby Chaves got pushed out by a (brave yet maybe stupid) track worker. Sadly Chaves stalled and thus began the downfall of this race. The restarts…

The yellows were unusually long even for IndyCar standards; that’s fine for the first yellow, to do some cleaning; but now with cars packed up plus some water still out there, it became silly. Rahal was making out on restarts like a bandit, Newgarden too. But sadly Coletti found some water trying to make a pass and slicks at speed vs water don’t mix. Then Huertas, then Dracone, suddenly after doing 15+ laps under green, drivers suddenly forgot how to drive again.  When we got restarts and a lap here and there the action was great.

As a fan, I really can’t wait to see more races at NOLA, the track has really come out well, the front and back straights are downright amazing in person, and the passing at the end of them is top notch. The track itself in general is amazing, especially since they listened to IndyCar/Cotman and straightened the back stretch. It may be my #1 and #2 favorite parts of a track right with the Mid Ohio esses and Indy turn 1.

The only downside from a fan perspective is that the “stupid” race control tower blocks your view of turn 1. I say stupid in quotes because obviously that’s more important and was there first, but seriously would be nice to be able to see the cars go all the way to turn 1. See in this photo (and the videos) how you get blocked.

But that being said, I stated on Friday the amazing view you get of the pits, and yeah its awesome come pit-stop time, you look right into the team's stalls completely unobstructed:

SO I’ll have another post later to talk about IndyCar Race Control, the race and all that; this series is just for the fan experience. And I have to say NOLA delivered a race, a great venue, food, and the sightlines are amazing. To top things off, this is bar none THE BEST LOCATION FOR VICTORY LANE EVER. Every track I've been to (I've been to about 10+) Victory Lane is almost always in some VIP un-accessible area. At NOLA they leave the track, and park right next to the f’n grandstands, anyone can walk up and it super open as an area, you could fit thousands of people around the victory stage.

None of the fans or even my family complained about the timed race nonsense (again that piece coming later) they all understood you can’t change a rule once the race has started, everyone was happy and wanting to come back for more, but now it was time to leave. This is where NOLA has some serious work to do. They tried to use the satellite parking/shuttle bus system that the PGA uses for the Zurich Classic (which is right next door), but it simply does not work for the race because unlike golf, everyone leaves a race at exactly the same moment. The Segnette lot is Loyola’s baseball field and is easy to get to, the Lapalco parking is a terrible idea with rain because its parking on the median between the street, and you’d never want to normally park at the Avondale Shipyard. None of them are that close to the track.

It took us over an hour to leave the track and get bused to our car… with a 2 year old… Thankfully we were mostly able to keep him entertained but it was a complete mess, with no one directing the crowd, track staff standing around hanging out with each other, and mud to stand in… We literally stood in this giant crowd not moving for over 30 minutes, eventually it started moving, but all in all it took 70-80 minutes to get from the facility entrance mob to our car in Segnette.

This can totally be summed up as a first year jitters (IF they fix it). Kentucky and Richmond Speedways are bar none the worst post-race situations I've experienced and this was pretty close. A solution seems very simple. There was TONS of pavement at the facility that went unused, and also tons of unused grass lots that can be rocked over, and turn all of that into parking and ditch the buses. Or at least make that parking a premium price and then less people will be on the shuttles.

All the areas in red were un-used and should be made into parking.
I’ll leave it at that, many people will put up with it once, but if they they don’t fix that parking/shuttle mess it’ll start affecting attendance. In fact the issue could be much worse if we had good weather and there were even more fans.

So post-event what are the overall observations. The track is amazing, the go-kart facility is amazing, the sight lines are amazing, the weather was crappy but NOLA Motorsports Park and IndyCar have no control of that.

The track has a few spots that seemed to be collecting more water than others and they should invest some money to upgrade the drainage in those areas. They also need to ditch whoever they used to hire all their workers, and instead they need to upgrade to college students or something. I already talked about the workers kicking us out of the stands after the rain had stopped on Friday, but we had many issues, like concession workers who couldn't do basic math. MY brother gave one a $20 bill, for $13 of food, and she gave him back three $5 bills and five $1 bills. My brother being nice explained to her it was wrong, so then she gave him $3… so then he nicely said “let me do this for you.” But this was one of several concession and track “yellow shirt” stories we had from the weekend, including them standing around and not helping as people tried to get to the shuttles.

For the event itself is was majorly a positive and a great start to being an annual staple. The only adjustments aside from the above notes is #1 they need to coordinate the date better. Not because of The Masters or anything like that, but it was the same weekend as French Quarter Fest in New Orleans and also the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival which are fairly big events to the area. That being said the race still packed in fans and we all had an amazing time.

The #2 thing they need to do is sort our some additional options for seating. I’d pay a HUGE premium if I were allowed to sit on the other end of the track, say by Turn 1/5. The RV lot on the back stretch looks amazing to try next time, but curious if that will stay there as its slated for housing…

All in all this was a great first event baring all the crazy ass rain that had to be dealt with, and if the drivers could keep their skills along with the red tires its sure to be even greater. Definitely recommend for race fans or anyone wanting an excise to visit New Orleans.

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