Drivers laud officials for getting race in _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--James Jakes, right, who finished third, battles Gabby Chaves on a wet track at turn 12 at the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana on Sunday in Avondale.

Fans who came to see some of the fastest racing in the world were subjected to what amounted to a turtle race for much of the afternoon at NOLA Motorsports Park on Sunday.

But for the drivers who participated in the rain-hampered, yellow flag-rampant, time-shortened Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana, that the race was run at all qualified as a major triumph. The way the rain-soaked track looked in the morning, you would have had to believe in unicorns to think it would happen.

“The conditions were very difficult,” said Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who negotiated the wet track to finish second despite having anything but a smooth run. “I have to give a big thumb’s up for the entire Verizon IndyCar Series and the track workers to push to make this race happen. If you would have said in the beginning of the morning, there was no way we’d be racing. So for the amount of water that was out there, it turned out to be great.”

The six caution flags came one after another, usually on restarts after the last incident was cleared. The result was only six laps under green after the first 15, but winner James Hinchcliffe made it clear the problem was not bad driving.

“It was just tricky conditions,” he said. “There is a reason why we saw a lot of guys spinning coming to restarts. You’re on slicks, and there are still puddles and rivers running across the track, so it’s not easy. It was just about being smart out there was the biggest thing. I mean, I got pretty sideways a couple times on some of those restarts.”

Castroneves was more specific about the track’s primary dangers, pointing to Turn 13 and the back straightaway between Turns 9 and 10. After rain and lightning canceled qualifying Saturday, forcing the field to start in the order it finished in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, more heavy rain fell overnight and continued through Sunday morning.

The unavoidable product: some wetness on the track when the weather cleared and allowed the race to start at 1:45 p.m.

“The track was dry, but in two areas it was a river,” Castroneves said. “It was water running in those areas. For us, when we’re passing around those areas, even on the straightaway, you don’t have to do anything, not even turn, and the car was about to take off. It was like ice.”

The race became a battle of staying out of trouble rather than trying to pass. The drivers wanted to put on a better show for the fans at the inaugural race, but the spin-outs that turned the race into a crawl were unavoidable.

“For those people who don’t understand, we’re trying our best, obviously, to keep the car on the pavement,” said Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “But our cars are not supposed to be in those conditions, and that’s why I give credit for the (IndyCar) series for pushing.

“We all want to race. Don’t get me wrong.”

Hinchcliffe intimated a few drivers pushed the limits too much considering the conditions.

“It was tough out there, and some guys were driving a little bonsai,” he said. “Kind of making sure you weren’t in a position to get taken out was the name of the game.”

After the first caution, the restarts rarely lasted more than a minute or two before the next yellow flag came out. There was no way to keep all of the water that fell over the weekend off the track, even though IndyCar officials borrowed the best track-drying equipment from NASCAR to give it their best shot.

“It was like a river out there (on the restarts),” said James Jakes, who finished third behind his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate. “We were on slicks and trying to get the power down. It was a nightmare. It was very difficult.”

The odds are next year will be better. The Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana is on the IndyCar schedule through 2017.

“Obviously there are a few little teething problems just with the drainage,” Jakes said. “We could see those. But I think with the amount of rain we’ve had over the past two days, it would have been the same anywhere.”

The top three drivers all said they were disappointed for the spectators they could not run a full race with more action. But they added how much potential the track and location had and how appreciative they were of the healthy turnout in the grandstands despite the tough conditions.

“To have that kind of enthusiasm and come out and sit through what was not exactly an ideal weekend weather-wise, it means a lot to us,” Hinchcliffe said. “I hope they enjoyed it, and we can’t wait to come back next year and hopefully put on an even better show.”