|Juan Montoya gets some service at NOLA
NOLA Motorsports Park will host auto racing history in April, and Verizon IndyCar Series drivers got their first taste Tuesday of the track they'll ride in the first Grand Prix of Louisiana.
The inaugural IndyCar Series event is April 10-12 – tickets are available now – and six participating teams got a head start by test-driving their cars around the Avondale track on a sun-splashed Tuesday afternoon.
The debut race comes about a month before the 99th Indianapolis 500 (May 24), and three-time champion Helio Castroneves said the fast track in New Orleans brings benefits and challenges.
"It's certainly going to be a fast pace … I'm very glad to be here," said Castroneves, on Team Penske with Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. "There's no elevation, which creates the challenge of a point of reference.
"But this place (New Orleans) is about a party. People can expect a great weekend. They have the possibility to be very close to the cars and the drivers. Not many series are you able to do that."
IndyCar Series president of race operations Brian Barnhart praised New Orleans' ability to host sporting events, making it an appealing destination on their schedule.
"New Orleans has such a tremendous history and a rich history of hosting Super Bowls," Barnhart said. "Their ability to put on events of that magnitude makes it a natural to want to come here. It's great hospitality, and we'll be able to build a lot of momentum coming into (the Indianapolis 500)."
Graham Rahal, of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, cited some track changes since his first time seeing the NOLA Motorsports Park this past May. He said New Orleans stands out among his racing locations.
"The biggest differences are on turn 1 they made a bigger, harder-breaking zone for passing, and on turn 6 added some pavement to make it more of a stop-and-start," Rahal said. "For all the fans – I hope we get a great crowd – they can see almost every single turn on the track. I can only think of one place I've ever raced at that's like this, so it's pretty cool."
And something else making this race exciting for IndyCar Series drivers is the cars' new aerodynamic bodywork kits that debut this year.
Barnhart said simulations of car performance with the aero kits show improvements of two seconds per lap, and Montoya said the development will add a lot to the race.
"(This course) is fun," Montoya said. "I was amazed how the grip level on this place is really high. I think when we have the aero kits before we race, it's going to be, 'wow!'"
NOTE: Four IndyCar drivers will start their New Orleans experience early – during Sunday's Krewe of Bacchus parade. James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam and Carlos Munoz will serve as special guest riders with grand marshal actor John C. Reilly, and an official IndyCar race car will ride in the parade too. NOLA.com