James Hinchcliffe was not sure his crew’s risky strategy would work when they radioed it to him in his car.
In the end, though, the huge gamble won him the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana on Sunday at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale.
In a caution flag-dominated, time-shortened race on a wet track, Hinchcliffe took a pit stop on the 13th lap and never went there again, passing the eight drivers in front of him when they went to the pits for fuel on Lap 33. He held on from there for his first victory since 2013, coasting past the finish line while the race was under the fifth of five yellow flags that came almost consecutively.
All eight cars in front of him went to the pits for fuel on the 33rd lap and never had a chance to catch up in what became a time-shortened, 47-lap race, down from the 75 that were planned.
“That was a big (gamble),” said Hinchcliffe, who is racing for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this year after driving for the bigger Andretti Autosport team last season. “We were really relying on (bad) weather coming, but obviously that didn’t happen. Without the yellows, we would have come up short. Sometimes you just have to roll the dice and go for it.
“I was kind of 50-50 on it when (the team) made the call, but obviously that’s why those guys do what they do and I just shut up and drive the car.”
Steady rainfall that wreaked havoc all weekend canceled some of the preliminary races earlier in the day, but the weather improved enough to allow the main attraction to start at 1:45 p.m. It mostly stopped after a clean first 15 laps, with a series of spin-outs and accidents on the slippery track forcing 26 of the last 32 laps to be run under caution.
The slowdown shortened the race considerably, with IndyCar circuit time rules taking over.
The average speed was 71.995 mph, a dramatic drop from the 125.570-mph lap that topped practices.
Still, it did not cut into the celebration for Hinchcliffe, a Canadian who had only two top-three finishes while racing for Andretti Autosport in a disappointing 2014. He was one of the biggest promoters of this New Orleans-area event, coming to the city last June for the announcement that the race would be on the schedule and riding on a Bacchus float as a celebrity in February.
“Winning the inaugural race at any track is always special,” he said. “This one is going to go down in the memory.”
Hinchcliffe gave Honda its first win on the IndyCar circuit in eight races dating to last year, with rival Chevrolet dominating until Sunday.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske was second despite making four pit stops Hinchcliffe’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson, James Jakes, was third; Simona de Silvestro, the lone woman in the field, placed fourth. Juan Pablo Montoya, the winner at St. Petersburg in the season opener last month, finished fifth.
The five cautions came back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, essentially stopping the real racing, and most of the incidents involved rookies.
The first one came when rookie Gabby Chaves of Bryan Herta Autosport spun off on to the grass on his 16th lap. A race marshal pushed him back onto the track, where he stalled.
The second issue knocked Jack Hawksworth, the eight-place finisher at St. Petersburg, out of the race almost immediately after the green flag came back out. Jakes spun in front of him, and Hawksworth went left into the wall trying to avoid him.
A little later, rookie Francesco Dracone was bumped by Castroneves, then spun exiting his pit box after getting repairs, injuring a crew member.
Right after the next green flag, rookie Stefano Coletti lost control in a puddle, skidded off the track just in front of de Silvestro while luckily avoiding contact with her, bounced off a wall and somehow regained control after a 360-degree spin took him back onto the track.
The drivers were on the 31st lap before the next green flag, which lasted less than a minute. This time, another rookie, Sage Karam, spun into the grass and stalled.
The most severe crash was the last one. Just after a restart, Sebastien Bourdais, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay were involved in a three-car collision. Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay bumped, sending Pagenaud into the grass before he swerved back onto the track and clobbered Hunter-Reay and Bourdais, taking all of them out of the race.
“Ryan pushed me off the track, so you have no more room,” Pagenaud told Motorsport.com. “It was not a professional move on his side, and I just can’t believe he doesn’t see it; it’s stupid.”
Many observers could have labeled the decision for Hinchcliffe not to go to the pits a second time stupid — until it worked.
“At the end of the day, it was actually yellow (caution flags) that saved us,” he said. “At first I was cursing the yellows that were coming out because we needed the greens to get the gap to have a better shot at it when we did stop. But a one-stop strategy, who thought that was going to play out here today?”
The day was anything but smooth for Castroneves, who still found a way to finish second thanks to strategically timed pit stops. He moved into second in the point standings behind Montoya, having placed fourth in St. Petersburg.
“If you went with a prediction, that wouldn’t be the way we would be finishing today,” said Castroneves, who also struggled in practice runs. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and certainly I’ll take it today.”
The 18 drivers (out of 24) who finished the race were all lucky to an extent, considering the rough racing conditions on a track that was dry in some parts but very wet in others. Hinchcliffe said he could barely see for long stretches of the course — an unavoidable reality with the heavy rain that preceded the race.
That was not his only issue. Anyone who ever has gotten queasy in a car could relate to the other problem.
“The biggest one was car sickness,” he said. “All those yellows, weaving back and forth and accelerating and braking, I literally felt like I was going to throw up in my helmet. It was tough out there.”