Maybe it was sometime between getting final certification from auto racing’s international sanctioning body and figuring out whether enough porta-potties had been ordered.
Or maybe it was while tending to her soon-to-be year-old son Evan.
Whatever and whenever, NOLA Motorsports Park president Kristen Engeron reported feeling “an eerie peace” that everything connected with next weekend’s inaugural IndyCar Grand Prix of Louisiana is going to turn out OK.
“It’s a very challenging time,” Engeron said. “We’ve got to worry about how ticket sales are going, about programming the music, about coordinating things with NBC and about getting the grandstands completed, which is our biggest line item.
“I’m working from sunup to midnight and then waking up at 2 a.m. because an idea came to me.”
Engeron, who in 2013 left a career as a consultant to take up NOLA Motorsports owner Laney Chouest’s offer to run his facility, isn’t doing it alone, of course.
Andretti Sports Marketing, which produces the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Milwaukee stop as well several other domestic and international events, is doing the marketing plus other services. Tim Ramsberger, who ran the series’ St. Petersburg, Florida, race, for the past 10 years, is serving as the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana’s general manager.
“Over the course of 10 years, the St. Petersburg race has become a staple on the entertainment landscape in St. Pete and Tampa and an important part of the IndyCar series because it’s the leadoff event,” Ramsberger said.
“I don’t see any reason we can’t have that level of success in New Orleans.”
That will take some doing — starting with the venue.
Imagine the task of putting on a major sports event for the first time and doing it not in an arena or stadium, but an open tract of land that has never before been the site of anything comparable.
While the 2.75-mile road course track itself is ready, it is just that — a track.
The rest of the stuff needed to accommodate up to 17,000 fans — starting with the stands — have to be built as temporary structures, as the stands are, or transported in, such as the concession, entertainment and, yes, bathroom facilities or, in the case of parking, located elsewhere.
Because Nicolle Boulevard, the road that first passes by the Alario Center in Avondale, has only two lanes and there is but a single entrance into NOLA Motorsports Park, spectator parking will be at Signette Field, the Lapalco neutral ground and the old Avondale Shipyards with shuttle service provided. (Fans can even grab a $5 ride from Harrah’s Hotel and Casino.)
The parking setup is the same as used for the Zurich Classic at the nearby TPC of Louisiana, which at least has a history of dealing with such logistical challenges.
“We figured we’d be doing that out pretty quickly,” Engeron said of the parking solution. “And we’re using the same folks as the Superdome for the concessions (Centerplate).
“Events of any kind are very chaotic by nature, and we know we have a lot riding on this. We have no expectations that everything will go off perfectly, but you don’t learn if you don’t make mistakes.”
Those logistical challenges aside, there is also the challenge of introducing a new sport to the area.
New Orleans hasn’t been the site of a significant motor sports event since 1995, when the short-lived, poorly received Grand Prix du Mardi Gras (an IMSA GT race) was contested around the Superdome for the last time.
And while NASCAR may have a strong presence in other parts of the South, it’s never gained a toehold in Louisiana.
That, though, might be an advantage.
“It’s hard to find a new venue without it being in the NASCAR footprint,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series. “We feel like we’re in the right spot with the right venue and the right partner to put on a stellar event.
“It’s an opportunity to put our best foot forward.”
While the Indianapolis 500 remains a signature event, albeit one far less prominent than in the past, the rest of the series has been reduced to a 15-race tour (one of which is also in Indianapolis) with all but three races airing on the obscure NBC Sports Network, including the Grand Prix of Louisiana.
After a scheduled season-opening race in Brazil was canceled due to the withdrawal of governmental backing, the series is now confined to North America despite the international popularity of open-wheel racing.
“You don’t want to come into a market, run a couple of races and then leave,” said Ramsberger, who could have been citing a street race in Houston that was abandoned after just two years. “So it’s safe to say that, as a partner, IndyCar has a big stake in helping to make this a success.”
Already IndyCar, or, more accurately, the 10 ownership teams that operate the 23 cars which compete at every stop on the tour (an additional 10 run in the Indy 500) plus Chevrolet and Honda, the tour’s two engine manufacturers, have come to NOLA to test not just the new track but also the aero kits which will give each car a distinctive look after years of cookie-cutter chassis before going on to their regular preseason testing venue at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I know they had some work done (two of the turns were reconfigured at IndyCar’s request), but the track was very fast and very level,” 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon said of the NOLA Motorsports layout.
Of coming to Louisiana, he added, “New Orleans is about sights and sounds and food, so fast cars going almost 200 mph will just add to the atmosphere. There’s got to be a good reason they put a motor sports park there.
“We’ve scaled back to get a good look at how things are working, but coming into new places like New Orleans is a highly positive opportunity.”
That there is an IndyCar race coming to New Orleans happened almost by chance.
NOLA Motorsports owner Laney Chouest had originally built and developed the facility primary for recreational and commercial use, although there had been some low-level competition since it opened in 2011. (The facility also doubled as a Formula 1 track in Brazil for the Will Smith movie “Focus.”)
But at Jazzfest in 2012, Burt Benrud, the vice president of Café du Monde, met Starke Taylor, then an IndyCar executive who is now vice president of Andretti Sports Marketing, in the Acura Tent, where Taylor talked about IndyCar’s desire to come into new territories.
“I said, ‘Well, then, I’ve got a friend you ought to meet, because he owns a racetrack,’ ” said Benrud, who has a driving membership at NOLA Motorsports Park.
“We got Laney to come meet us, and I guess it was, like they say, history.”
Indeed. After Chouest was able to secure a $4.5 million tourism development grant from the state, the Grand Prix of Louisiana was announced last year.
It’s a costly venture. Already, Chouest said, he has spent $2 million above the $4.5 million to get the facility up to par and market the event.
He added that he’s not expecting to make money not just this year but for the next two years of the contact with IndyCar.
“We really need a title sponsor, but that’s hard to get for a first-year event,” Chouest said. “A lot of what we’ll be doing during the race weekend is hospitality for potential sponsors plus the ones we already have. (The New Orleans Advocate is among them.)
“We like to say, ‘We’re not bringing the race to New Orleans but bringing New Orleans to the race.’
“We just need to get things established and do it right.”
That’s part of Engeron’s job, the part she’s confident about.
“All of the big decisions have been made,” she said. “We’ve got our ducks in a row, and we feel very confident that we’re going to pull off one of the best events IndyCar has ever seen.
“Now, it’s time for the game plan to be executed.”