Coming from a background in finance, Kristen Engeron realized she had a lot to learn when she accepted the challenge of staging the first IndyCar race in Louisiana.
Stuff like where to secure 45,000 tires to be used as safety barriers for the Grand Prix of Louisiana, to be held at NOLA Motorsports Park. Tickets for the event, scheduled for April 10-12, go on sale Monday.
“Not only that, but literally the nuts and bolts of assembling them,” said Engeron, who is president of the Avondale facility. “I can show you where and how to fasten the tires together. But this work has to be done very precisely, because the drivers are depending on us to keep things safe.”
The tire walls, which will be stacked three- to five-high and 10-deep while being secured with large strips of rubber, are the first line of defense, designed to absorb the impact of any cars that might go off the 2.6-mile race course.
“We had to have them shipped here from around the country, unloaded and sorted and then bolted together,” she said. “It’s very tedious work and obviously takes a lot of manual labor. Luckily we had some from the race in Baltimore they’re not running anymore, so that saved us a lot of work and money.”
Engeron estimated the installation of tire fence is about 40 percent complete. It will be backed by a guard rail and debris fencing, all of which will cost an estimated $1 million.
Another $1 million has gone toward adding a new asphalt surface to the two straightaways, one of the turns and to the pit area entrance and exit.
Engeron said the track will be ready for full-speed racing by the end of the month. The work done so far has received conditional approval from FIA, the international sanctioning body for auto racing.
“If you don’t pass, you don’t race,” Engeron said. “And it’s very detailed because driver and ultimately spectator safety counts more than anything else. They are able to take our plans and put it into a simulator, just like a video game, that shows what you’re doing right and what you might need to improve on.”
But not all of the preparations for race weekend are so precise or so grimy. Much of the planning is geared toward fan hospitality, especially for tour sponsors who will be coming to New Orleans for the weekend.
“We’re a destination city with a unique culture,” Engeron said. “No offense to Indianapolis, which is a fine city, but nobody can match us when it comes to fun, food and great music. We’ve got a lot of stakeholders in this, the biggest of which is the state (which is providing $4.5 million from tourist development funds). And everything has to be done right, because you only get one chance to make a good first impression.”
Michael Andretti, president of Andretti Sports Marketing (which is producing the event) and whose Andretti Autosport team will enter at least four cars in the event, agreed.
“The first thing you look at with a new event is how the sponsors will react,” he said. “When we talked to them about coming to New Orleans, they were very excited, because they know its reputation as a party town. From an owner standpoint, you’re always glad to see a new market, because you know that’s good for the series. ... And we’re getting a ton of support from the community, which is the key for making sure the event keeps going for years to come.”
Another challenge, Andretti added, is bringing an event to an area that is not noted for its interest in auto racing. Temporary grandstands seating 15,000 to 25,000 will be built to accommodate spectators.
“You market this as an event and not just a race,” he said. “It’s meant for all ages, and you can come out and have a lot of family fun at a reasonable price. That’s something you have to get across to fans.”
Laney Chouest, the local physician who invested $70 million in developing NOLA Motorsports Park, said he foresees the Grand Prix of Louisiana becoming second only to the Indianapolis 500 on the 18-race IndyCar circuit.
“We’re not saying that it will happen overnight,” he said. “But we feel like we can create great value for sponsors in New Orleans because it’s such an accessible, exciting city.
“And in having a road course where spectators can see the entire race circuit, we can promise fans that they’ll never get bored. We are going to deliver the kind of festival New Orleans is famous for to IndyCar racing.”
Tickets for the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana, set for April 10-12, 2015, go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday.
They can be purchased at NOLA Motorsports, 11075 Nicolle Blvd. in Avondale, or at gpofnola.com.
Three-day passes for adults are $105 to $125 or $40 to $70 for children. Single-day general admission tickets are $15 to $50 for adults and $5 to $30 for children. Paddock passes are $15 per day or $40 for three days.