NOLA Motorsports Park challenged by first bout of rain Friday _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Charlie Kimball practices with other drivers Friday during preparation for Sunday's Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.

It did not take long to find out how NOLA Motorsports Park track handles heavy rain.

A late afternoon deluge delayed the second practice by more than an hour Friday evening, forcing fans indoors as a cleanup crew worked on drying up standing puddles on the track. Earlier in the afternoon, drivers completed a full 90-minute practice on a dry track in preparation for Sunday’s inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.

The second practice, which was supposed to last 80 minutes, started more than an hour late at 5:25 instead and was stopped after 21 minutes as workers tried to dry the track some more. That delay lasted a half hour, with drivers finally getting back on the track at 6:14 and racing for another 15 minutes before the session ended.

The thunderstorm was strong enough for track officials to evacuate the grandstands and open areas as the bad weather approached, announcing that fans should take shelter immediately in one of the indoor locations at the facility.

“You had puddles, and it was a bit slippery, so it was really difficult to drive on,” said 2014 IndyCar Series winner Will Power, who completed only six laps in the evening after driving 23 laps in the first session and posted the second-fastest qualifying time behind Tony Kanaan. “It’s tough when water pools. The tracks learn and put drains in where the water pools. These guys (at NOLA Motorsports Park) are fairly new, so it will come (in the future).”

The track’s ability to absorb rain in the present was pretty good, too.

“I thought it did fine,” said Derrick Walker, president of operations and competition for IndyCar. “We had a lot of rain, and it wasn’t just like a shower. I don’t know of too many places that could absorb that kind of downpour. It dried up remarkably quick.

“There were a couple of places where there were big puddles that we worry about the most. We have some new equipment here for blowing or sweeping the water off the surface, and we wanted to test that out.”

The rain still wreaked havoc since teams needed all of the preparation they could get on a track with which they are not familiar. Larry Foyt, president of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, lamented the lost time after his two drivers, Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth, had the third- and second-slowest runs in the 24-car field during the opening practice.

“Every track we go to has some unique characteristics, and we’re all still trying to figure out what’s missing here for us,” Foyt said as the rain arrived. “If we have to miss a practice session, it will really throw us all a loop, and it’s going to get really interesting for everybody.”

Although the second session was not canceled, the drivers had limited runs on the wet course.

“We didn’t learn much,” Power said. “I guess you get an understanding of where the puddles sit, so if you have to be in that situation (it’s better), that’s about it.”

If anything, the rain took the focus away from dominant Team Penske for a day. Talking Thursday, long-time Penske driver Helio Castroneves was nothing if not confident in his team’s ability to control the Verizon IndyCar circuit this year.

Asked about Penske having four of the top five finishers at St. Petersburg in the opening race of the season, he feigned disappointment.

“I was surprised to have one guy there (third-place finisher Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing) who wasn’t on the Penske team,” he said.

If Friday’s first practice run was any indication, Team Penske will be in for a much bigger challenge to duplicate that effort on Sunday.

Kanaan and fellow Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and rookie Sage Karam turned in the first, third and seventh fastest times in the 90-minute session with Kanaan averaging 125.058 miles per hour in his fastest lap.

Castroneves struggled a bit, placing 14th in the field of 24, and St. Petersburg winner Juan Pablo Montoya was 10th.

Montoya admitted some tweaking needed to be done with all of the Penske cars before Sunday.

“We tried something with the down force level, and it didn’t work, so we learned,” Montoya said. “We’re not that happy with the cars to be honest, so we’ve been trying some changes. The Ganassi cars look really, really strong, but we have a little bit of work to do.”

Penske has won 175 races since 1996, nearly double the total of second-place Ganassi, which has 97 victories. Since 2008, only one Penske full-time driver has finished lower than sixth in the season-long point standing, when Castroneves was 11th in 2011.

The addition of Simon Pagenaud this season gave Penske four legitimate contenders for the points championship. Pagenaud, who finished fifth in the point standings in 2014 while racing for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, had the fifth-best lap time in the first practice Friday.

“To me, (Penske) is one of the best teams in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of pretty good teams,” Pagenaud said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it. We have the best equipment out here and we have the best crew and the best teammates.”

Ganassi’s entire team sat out the evening session, opting to protect their cars.

“The track was a few seconds slower, so we were not going to learn anything,” Kanaan said. “If it’s the same condition tomorrow, we’re going to have to go out for qualifying in the afternoon.”

Josef Newgarden of CFH Racing was the top American in the first session, turning in the sixth-fastest lap after finishing 12th in St. Petersburg. Also among the top 10 were James Hinchcliffe (eighth) of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and rookie Gabby Chaves (ninth) of Bryan Herta Autosport, neither of whom was a factor in St. Petersburg.

A third practice session is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with qualifying to start at 4:15 p.m.