A decade ago, Jane LeBlanc of Baton Rouge helped her husband fulfill an item on his bucket list by buying them tickets to Indianapolis 500.
“He was a huge fan, and I didn’t know much about it,” LeBlanc recalled. “But we had such a fabulous time up there that I was the one who became the real fan.”
Unfortunately, LeBlanc’s marriage didn’t last.
But her love of IndyCar racing has.
“I know the drivers, I know their car numbers and I know where the races are held,” she said,
So on Saturday it was no surprise that LeBlanc — along with her boyfriend, John Detillier — was at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale to view the qualifying runs for Sunday’s inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana and all of the surrounding activities.
Unfortunately, the late afternoon rains canceled qualifying, making Sunday’s starting positions revert to the finishing positions from last month’s Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening race in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
They’ll try to get in the main race on Sunday, albeit earlier at 1:40 p.m. With a predicted 60 percent chance of more rain at race time, everyone is likely to get wet again.
“I love driving in the rain,” driver Tony Kanaan said. “But it stinks for the fans. So if I had to choose, it’s not what I like or dislike. For the people who are going to come to watch, you don’t want them to get soaked. You want them to enjoy the race.”
Before the rain, folks were enjoying themselves. While IndyCar racing is new to the New Orleans area, there’s apparently a large local underground following for the sport, either from attending past events or from home.
Terry Stoskopf, an auto dealer from Madisonville, has been to Indy as well as several NASCAR events.
And even at age 62, he didn’t consider himself too old for getting autographs from the IndyCar racers during their availability in the fan zone.
“You’d never get that close to getting all of the NASCAR guys’ autographs in one session,” he said. “I went through the line here in about 15 minutes.”
In the same line with Stoskopf was 18-year-old Robert Quioga of Baton Rouge, a senior at St. Michael who came with his dad, Robert Sr., as sort of an early graduation present.
Quioga junior and senior were first- time attendees for any motorsports event.
“I’ve always been a big fan and watch racing of any kind whenever it’s on,” Quioga said. “But it was too far away for me to go to anything.
“I can’t believe the access you have to the drivers. Yesterday, we saw Tony Kanaan and even though he was in a hurry, he still stopped to make a picture with us.”
Imagine asking Drew Brees to stop for a selfie on the way to the field.
Trackside, Alan Gomez of Metairie was watching the early practice session with his daughter, Rosiland.
Alan’s love of motorsports is so passionate (“I’ll watch anything on four wheels”) that on Saturday he was wearing a Grand Prix du Mardi Gras cap, vintage 1992. That was the late, unlamented IMSA event that made three unsuccessful attempts to stage a race around the Superdome.
But Rosiland was an IndyCar rookie.
“I’m not as much of a fan as my dad, but I’m loving this,” she said “You get so up close to the cars and it’s so loud.
“I never realized that. But I’m definitely coming back.”
Nearby, 6-year-old Jacob Creel of Baton Rouge played with six of his extensive collection of toy race cars, unbothered to the real ones whizzing by at 125 mph while his parents watched the action on the track.
“I like the noise,” said Jacob, a first-grader at Galilee Baptist Academy in Zachary. “I make my cars sound the same way.”
Back in the fan area, Jane LeBlanc was expressing the hope that the Grand Prix of Louisiana will become a permanent fixture on the local sports scene.
“I think it can catch on,” she said. “But around here, it’s like nobody can think about anything but football.”