Because James Carville’s Uptown home isn’t fully Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, wheelchair-bound IndyCar owner Sam Schmidt couldn’t get inside during a pre-Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana party last Thursday night.
So NOLA Motorsports Park owner Laney Chouest came outside in the courtyard to meet with Schmidt, a former driver paralyzed in a 2000 practice crash.
“We probably chatted for about 2½ hours,” Chouest, who had never met Schmidt, recalled Sunday. “He’s a wonderful guy who really believes in the racing industry and really respects our ideas about what we’re trying to do here.”
So it was no surprise that Chouest was more than a little extra-happy for his newfound friend Sunday as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pulled off an unexpected 1-3 finish at Chouest’s Avondale facility.
“(Winner) James Hinchcliffe really helped us get engaged in promoting this and savored his time in New Orleans,” Chouest said. “So it was sweet to see him win.”
But not as sweet as it must have been for Chouest to see the event that he didn’t really conceive of when he started pouring what wound up as some $70 million of his own money into the facility so that he and some fellow driving enthusiasts could have a place to run at high speeds come to fruition Sunday.
And somehow miss the rain to boot.
As of Saturday, there was a 90-percent chance of rain in the area for Sunday afternoon. The race was moved up an hour in hopes of dodging the worst of it.
To be sure, there was rain Sunday morning.
But by the time the 1:45 p.m. start time arrived, the skies were miraculously clearing.
Laney Chouest has a lot of money, but even he couldn’t control the weather.
“I had a strong feeling it was going to pass over us,” he said. “We did our research and had the experts working on it. So we really weren’t that worried about it. We had a lot of contingency plans but, when the skies cleared, we knew everybody was going to have a good time.”
Despite the dire weather conditions and competition from the French Quarter Festival, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival and the Masters on TV (as was the race), about 5,000 people showed up for the first major motorsports event in the area in two decades.
They might not have seen the most exciting of events — six cautions within an already-shortened length of the race because of the rain threat will do that — but most folks seemed to feel they got their money’s worth.
That was rewarding for Chouest.
“There’s an opportunity to do something here,” he said. “We said we were going to do it, and here we are.”
The same could be said for Schmidt.
Not one of the deepest-pocketed owners (adding Canadian businessman Ric Peterson as a partner in 2013 helped), Schmidt had only four victories as an owner before Sunday, all of them in the past two years by Simon Pagenaud, who jumped to the powerful Team Penske this season.
So Schmidt restocked his team by bringing in Hinchcliffe, a popular Canadian with three IndyCar victories, and Jakes, an Englishman with 50 career IndyCar starts but only one podium appearance before Sunday.
The two Honda drivers didn’t show much in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Florida. Hinchcliffe finished 16th and Jakes 22nd. Saturday’s cancelation of qualifying because of rain relegated them into those starting spots Sunday.
But they managed to maneuver themselves to the front of the pack by the final third of the race and held on through the chaos behind them.
“Right before the race, Steve told me just to stay out of trouble,” Hinchcliffe said. “He said the quickest car doesn’t always win these races. So it was about being at the right place at the right today. I couldn’t be happier.”
That included his feelings about Schmidt, who had one victory in 27 career IndyCar starts before his accident and now gets around in a motorized wheelchair.
“He’s such an inspirational guy,” Hinchcliffe said. “He comes out to the track every day, and he’s a strong competitor. It’s great to be able to come here and do him proud.”
For Schmidt, the feeling was mutual.
“It’s always emotional when you win, especially with a new team,” he said. “We knew we were doing the right thing picking up James and James. Our whole crew did a hell of a job today.”
Schmidt also had complimentary things to say about IndyCar’s newest venue and its operations.
“They did an unbelievable job of pulling this off, especially considering the weather,” he said. “You can tell this is a crew that really loves this sport.
“We need more good venues for racing. New Orleans is a unique place, and we had a unique race to get things going here today.”