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


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.


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.

Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).