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.

Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)