GP of NOLA provides unique experience for area fans

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Video: Top three finishers rave on first Indy GP of LA
Local officials overcome hurdles to impress with inaugural Indy race

AVONDALE – While the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana was just as much as race against Mother Nature as it was an IndyCar race, the event still succeeded in delivering an array of excitement and fun in its inauguration at NOLA Motorsports Park. While many people criticize the sport as just a bunch of cars going around in circles, racing is one of the most exciting and fan friendly sports for spectators to attend.

Growing up with parents who were avid Dale Earnhardt fans (my dad even spent two nights at Earnhardt’s house in the early 80’s as a sales rep for Tidecraft boats), I naturally became a racing fan at a young age. In 2010, I finally made it to my first race in person, attending the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend. Immediately after arriving at the track, I understood why it was called the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

The track attendance had an estimated 250,000 fans in attendance (track officials do not provide official attendance amounts for the Indy 500). The yards and shoulders of Georgetown Road were lined with food trailers, merchandise tents and of course, ticket scalpers every 10 feet.

With hoards of people heading in various directions to and from the track, I constantly found myself running into spectators or their coolers, and vice versa, all while having to walk several miles to get to my entrance gate in Turn 3. After making it to my seat, I was treated to nearly 4 hours of intense racing, which ended with a spectacular last lap wreck and Dario Franchitti winning his second of three Indy 500 races.

The Grand Prix of Louisiana event’s inaugural weekend was loaded with many of the same festivities I witnessed in Indy. While the event clearly didn’t have the overall attendance of Indy, the one thing it did have was plenty of land space for fans to enjoy their time without feeling crowded at every turn and fighting for elbow or cooler space each step. With parking located offsite, fans could easily park and catch a shuttle to the facility, eliminating the stress of trying to find parking and without having to feel claustrophobic with the crowds as they made their way to the ticket gate.

Just inside the main gate, the Family Fun Zone offered plenty of entertainment with carnival rides and virtual racing tents set up for kids to play the latest Indy racing games on the market. Official merchandise tents located in the Family Fun Zone and further up closer to the race track, provided a variety of racing gear. The black long-sleeve Grand Prix of Louisiana shirt was by far the most popular item of the day, flying off the shelf and selling out completely at one location. Disappointingly though, the variety of merchandise specifically for the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana was very limited.

On the plus side, event organizers bucked the trend of other sports and made the cost of food concessions moderately priced and fan friendly. In addition, event goers could follow the red arrows on the ground to the “Taste of Louisiana” tents where booths offered local fare, such as crawfish rolls, po-boys, jambalaya, as well as beignets and café au lait from Café Du Monde. (Good luck finding this type of premium cuisine at the Indianapolis 500).

Noticeably absent from the culinary choices were a variety of food trucks that are a staple at many sporting events these days. One can only hope event organizers will find a way to utilize the land space afforded to them to create a section dedicated to the local food trucks, further enhancing the unique culinary experience offered at a New Orleans auto race. Who knows, maybe this could even lead to food truck racing at NOLA Motorsports Park?

Perhaps the best part of the Indy Car experience is the ability for fans to get up close and personal with the Indy Car crews. Hours before the race, fans can walk up and down the paddock observing pit crews as they complete pregame tweaks and preparations under the tents next to the haulers. Just to put this in perspective for non-racing enthusiasts, this would be the equivalent of Saints fans having pregame access to the locker room at the Dome and getting to watch the trainers tape up the players prior to the game.

Walking into the paddock myself, the moment I turned right I found myself directly in front of aforementioned Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti, casually sitting on a mini-scooter and happily taking photos with excited fans as he made his way back to the Chip Ganassi racing hauler.

Just a couple of haulers down, fans crowded the barricade in front of Marco Andretti’s tent for a glimpse of the third-generation driver, whom many hope to see find the same racing success as his legendary grandfather Mario Andretti. Next door, fans had the opportunity to see reigning Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay examine his car pre-race and some even got treated to photos with the star driver.

Whereas an event like the Indy 500 only gives spectators the chance to watch one race, event organizers scheduled five additional races at NOLA Motorsports Park to entertain fans before and after the Grand Prix of Louisiana. Many of these races fell victim to the poor weather Sunday and had to be cancelled, but they will certainly be back on the docket for the 2016 racing schedule and will once again provide spectators with the chance to see a wide variety of auto racing in their own backyard.

Sure, Mother Nature rained on the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana’s parade, but New Orleans locals are well seasoned in parading through any type of weather. As the weather proved, holding an auto race in New Orleans in April will always run the risk of inclement weather. But compare this with trying to hold the race later in the year such as June or July with the oppressive south Louisiana heat and humidity.

The Grand Prix of Louisiana is guaranteed to only get better in 2016. There is no guarantee rain won’t make an appearance again in 2016, but even if it does, hopefully New Orleanians will dig out their rain gear and race out to the festivities for the second annual Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park.

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Matt Sims

Matt Sims

WGSO/SportsNOLA Contributor

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