Although the forecast is for thunderstorms all weekend, NOLA Motorsports Park owner Laney Chouest and the drivers preparing for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana maintained a sunny outlook Thursday.
With practice runs set for Friday, qualifying Saturday and the race at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, no one appeared overly concerned about the impending weather. As of Thursday evening, weather.com listed the chance of rain in Avondale at 80 percent for Friday with the threat of severe thunderstorms, increasing to a 90-percent probability of thunderstorms Saturday and a 100-percent certainty of thunderstorms Sunday.
“We hope it doesn’t rain, but if it does, the race is going on,” Chouest said. “We’re still having a party.”
Chouest pointed out the forecast did not mean it was supposed to rain all day and that anyone who lives in the area knows thunderstorms are spotty. He said the shuttle service from the parking areas will run the same regardless of the weather, and the food and drink vendors will operate under cover.
IndyCars race in the rain. Unless standing puddles form on the track — which depends on the severity and the timing of the downpours — the qualifying sessions and the race will go off as scheduled.
The people affected the most would be the spectators.
“It stinks for the fans, to be honest,” said Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and a third-place finisher at the first event of the 2015 Verizon Indy Car series in St. Petersburg, Florida, which began the season March 22. “For us, it’s nothing. I love driving in the rain. If I had to choose, it’s not because I like or dislike, but you don’t want the people that come to watch get soaked. You want a dry race.”
One practice session before the St. Petersburg race was not contested while light rain fell, but the decision not to run came because of concerns about the new aero kits on the cars rather than the condition of the road course, which encompassed city streets. Chouest said the self-contained road course at NOLA Motorsports Park would drain well.
Several drivers appeared to welcome the challenge of a potentially wet course.
“It depends how you see it,” two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves said. “From the fans’ aspect, yes. It’s the first race. You want to have great weather for everybody to come, bring their families, and every time the rains come, it doesn’t really give a taste of what (an IndyCar race) is. For us, as a driver, it doesn’t matter.
“The thing is, (rain) creates a little bit of diversity, because some drivers might feel comfortable and some others might not, and it creates that type of challenge.”
Simon Pagenaud, who has finished among the top five of the year-end standings for the last three years, went even further.
“I hope it’s raining,” he said. “I don’t wish it for the fans, but from my perspective, it’s good to watch car racing in the rain, if you’re really into it. If it were up to me, I would love a wet weekend. You see more mistakes, and that makes it more fun to watch.”
The pre-race schedule is the same as at every other IndyCar Series event. The teams arrived en masse at NOLA Motorsports Park on Thursday for meetings and strategy sessions, bringing a gaggle of engineers, technicians and assistants.
To wit, rookie Gabby Chaves’ one-car Bryan Herta Autosport team has 17 members. The three largest teams — Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport — brought plenty more, creating a frenetic energy on an otherwise quiet day.
The drivers have two practice sessions Friday afternoon, one lasting an hour-and-a-half and the next taking 80 minutes.
After a third practice Saturday morning, qualifying will begin at 4:15 p.m. Saturday and last until 5:30. The entrants in the 24-car field already are set, but their starting order will be determined in qualifying, which has three segments guaranteeing 10 minutes of track time to each car.
In segment 1, the cars are divided into two groups of 12, with the six fastest in each group advancing to segment two and the others assigned spots 13 through 24 in Sunday’s race.
In segment 2, the 12 advancing cars get 10 more minutes on the track, with the fastest six moving on the Firestone Fast Six Shootout. The six slowest will be assigned positions seven through 12 based on their fastest lap in the segment.
In segment 3, the top six cars compete for the poll position.
The drivers plan to put on a show Sunday. If IndyCar racing is no longer high on the American radar, they insist it’s a matter of visibility rather than viability.
“I would say it’s definitely the best open-wheel racing in the world,” said Will Power, the defending IndyCar Series champion. “It’s such great racing, such value for your money, always action, always passing and it’s always unpredictable who’s going to win week in and week out. That’s what’s made it so great. It’s just a matter of getting people out there to watch it.”
Last year, 11 drivers split the 18 race titles on the circuit, and no one won more than three.
“We have the best drivers in the world,” Castroneves said. “We have the strongest field. Every week you don’t know who’s going to win it. That’s the beauty of it.”
The initial reviews of the track in Avondale have been just as glowing. As long as the expected thunderstorms don’t cause issues. The consensus is everything will come off without a hitch.
“It’s a beautiful race track,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who won in St. Petersburg. “It drives better than it looks. I’m worried about the drainage if it rains a lot, but being out on this track in a race car is unbelievable. It brings out the passion in my driving.”