Local officials dodge hurdles to successfully cross Indy Grand Prix finish line

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NOLA Motorsports Park owner Laney Chouest waves the green flag signaling the start of Sunday's inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.

NOLA Motorsports Park owner Laney Chouest waves the green flag signaling the start of Sunday’s inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.

Video: Top three finishers rave on first Indy GP of LA
GP of NOLA provides unique, fun fan experience

AVONDALE – Getting to the finish line of Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana was two years in the making for Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who won his first race on the Verizon IndyCar circuit since June 2013.

Coincidentally, it was also a two-year run-up for local officials to produce the first-ever IndyCar race in the state of Louisiana.

The excitement of Hinchcliffe’s return to the top step of the podium was likely exceeded only by officials of NOLA Motorsports Park and Andretti Sports Marketing, who combined to host this weekend’s event.

“Emotional,” said NOLA Motorsports Park president Kristen Engeron following the podium ceremony. “I couldn’t be happier. The community came out and supported us. I think just about everybody that walked away from this going ‘I had no idea what (IndyCar racing) was all about.’

“This is what we’ve been working toward for almost two years – to create a new IndyCar fan base in south Louisiana.”

Track owner Laney Chouest built the sprawling facility three years ago, and as the famous movie line said, they came.

“This is a result of the vision (Chouest) had and the commitment he made,” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who was part of the podium ceremony. “If you had come out here and looked at this land and said in a couple of years, you’re going to have an IndyCar race here, everyone would have said you’re crazy.”

Chouest got the honor of dropping the green flag, which provided him the perfect view of the start of the race.

“I said ‘Let’s get a chair. Let’s stay up here’,” said Chouest of the view from the stand. “I liked that spot.”

Rain on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday stopped about an hour before the green flag. A Sunday afternoon at NOLA Motorsports Park was almost like a Saturday night at Tiger Stadium. Chance of rain: Never.

“Miracles happen,” said Engeron. “God was definitely on our side. The community came out and supported us, rain or shine.”

Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana general manager Tim Ramsberger came on board in August after running another Andretti Sports Marketing event, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, for a decade.

“With all the adversity we had to overcome with the weather conditions, it was a great collective team effort to pull this out,” Ramsberger said. “I’ve evacuated race sites before, but never back-to-back days. Then today, to pull this race off, it’s a real testament to everybody behind the scenes.”

Chouest’s lasting impression of the event?

“The raw talent of these guys,” he said. “It’s very impressive. I drive around the track as much or more than anybody else, and they were out there running faster on wet (conditions) a whole lot faster than I do in my fastest car on dry.”

An event in New Orleans is different than comparable events, and host officials tried to deliver an event New Orleanians are used to seeing, complete with food, music and interactive events.

“I’ve been to a bunch of Indy races, and none of them have this,” Chouest said. “We think from (IndyCar officials’) reaction that they were all excited about it. By reading them, I think they were quite happy.”

This was not a one-time show. The host committee has a three-year commitment from IndyCar, so officials are already looking ahead to 2016.

“That starts next week,” Engeron said of next year’s race preparation. “We’ll vet out what went well this year and what we can do better.”

“There’s a whole lot of things (to improve), like parking and traffic,” Chouest said. “As far as on-track, everything was pretty sweet. We didn’t have any giant hiccups.”

The ancillary impact of hosting such an event is that thousands of locals and tourists were exposed to the three-year-old facility for the first time.

“It’s very important and very significant,” Chouest said. “The people that said, ‘We’ve never heard of you,’ they don’t have many excuses anymore.”

Indeed they don’t … on a day where the congratulations and thank yous went far beyond the winner’s podium.

“The eternal gratefulness, I will never be able to fully show anybody,” Engeron said.

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder

Sales/Content/Production

Lenny has been involved in college athletics since the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane; since then, he has remained involved in college sports. He works in television production of many college sporting events and served briefly as managing editor of New Orleans Metro Sports Magazine. Lenny also served for 11 years on the management…

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