Preview: Rain, parity may reign during IndyCar’s inaugural weekend at NOLA

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AVONDALE, La. – Two variables are in play with the potential to jumble the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN): a new circuit, and the impending threat of rain.

The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans this weekend, for Round 2 of the season and the first permanent road course race of the year.

It’s also the first new road course circuit the series has visited since its Southeastern cousin, Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., in 2010.

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More than beignets, baguettes and other French Quarter references, the word that comes up most when referencing NOLA as a facility is a city pretty far removed from anything Parisian – Cleveland (which isn’t Detroit).

Multiple drivers have mentioned Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport circuit, a staple of the North American landscape from 1982 until 2007, as a comparable circuit in terms of the viewing opportunities.

Nearly all of NOLA’s 2.74-mile circuit can be viewed from the single grandstand atop the final corner complex.

KVSH Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the No. 11 Mistic Chevrolet, ticks off both pre-NOLA targets then in describing the track; he’s French, and he is a past Cleveland race winner.

“It’s a very smooth version of Cleveland,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk heading into the weekend. “It’s very flat, and very fan friendly because you get the view for everyone. Everyone can see the track from any one point. But as a new event, it’s always very difficult. It’s tough to know exactly how it will go.”

Bourdais cautioned against comparing NOLA’s track surface directly to Cleveland’s though, even if the sight lines might be similar.

“I’m more comparing the setting to the track itself,” he said. “Cleveland was a very rough concrete, specific track on its own. I wouldn’t venture comparing NOLA to that. But we have a pretty good idea where we need to be here, setup-wise.”

Indeed Bourdais was Chevrolet’s thorn in Team Penske’s side at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg two weeks ago. Penske’s quartet of Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finished first, second, fourth and fifth after sweeping the top four spots in qualifying, albeit not in that order.

While the Penske contingent will no doubt look to continue their dominance this weekend, Bourdais for KVSH Racing and Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams will be among those looking to interrupt the Penske group.

Dixon, along with teammates Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Sage Karam, actually christened NOLA for IndyCar with a January test. The three-time series champion described the improvements from that first test, pre-aero kits, to then their second test on March 14 with the aero kits.

“Obviously the speeds were up, and by a big amount,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk. “It was at least a second for everyone. For us, we were almost two seconds a lap quicker from when we were there with the old kit.”

Dixon, who will be in a blue Brita-backed No. 9 Chevrolet for CGR in what is unofficially the first non-Target race since 1989, expects Turns 1 and 10 to be the two primary passing opportunities at the new circuit.

“It’s going to be hard to tell until the tire degradation to the end of stints,” Dixon explained. “Turn 1 they’ll need to turn it down. It’s sneaky into 3 and maybe 4 as well? Then if someone makes a mistake in 5, it’s possible to get one into 6. But the big ones should be after the straights 1 and 10.”

Tire degradation, at least of Firestone’s primary and alternate dry-weather tires, may not be a factor. Heavy rain is in the forecast for each of the three days this weekend and that presents another threat: puddles if the track’s drainage system fails to drain properly.

“There’s at least an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms… if that’s the case, it would be a challenge,” Bourdais said. “They did a nice job on the track, but drainage wise it would be a problem. We could have a weather issue.”

IndyCar was affected by rain at three events last year: Barber, Houston race one, and Toronto.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the time-shortened Barber race; Carlos Huertas scored a shock win at Houston and Bourdais and Mike Conway split the shortened, single-day doubleheader in Toronto after rain washed the first of two races out and postponed it.

St. Petersburg winner Montoya was a star in the rain in his first CART stint – he won his most recent IndyCar street race prior to St. Pete in the wet conditions at Vancouver in 1999.

Other podium finishers in the rain last year included Marco Andretti and Dixon at Barber, Montoya and Carlos Munoz in Houston, and Castroneves, Power and Tony Kanaan in Toronto. Takuma Sato was also a joy to watch in the Houston rain before an accident with Mikhail Aleshin took them both out.

Judging by Huertas’ win though in Houston, and the fact most IndyCar races are wide open to begin with, it’s difficult picking any winner for the inaugural race at NOLA.

Dixon is as good a bet as any though. He has won revived or new races at the Motegi road course (2011), Detroit street course (2012), Pocono (2013) and Houston race one (2013) in the last four years.

Pagenaud will look for back-to-back inaugural race wins, having conquered the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last year.

In terms of a surprise pick? Andretti, Kimball and Graham Rahal are sneaky good in the wet, and Kimball traditionally runs well at faster road courses. Keep an eye out for these three.

But until the Penske quartet is knocked off their perch, in any weather, it’s still tough to bet against any of Montoya, Power, Pagenaud or Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

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“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”