Lopes on NOLA: “If the weather was different, we’d be having a different conversation”

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The inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana had one culprit that consistently played havoc with the weekend schedule: rain.

But it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the fans and corporate sponsors who made the trip to NOLA Motorsports Park for the Andretti Sports Marketing-promoted race.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Andretti Sports Marketing president John Lopes, the weather was cited as the single biggest issue of the track’s inaugural Verizon IndyCar Series weekend, and also the thing that brought out the resolve from those who were on site at the race.

“It’s disappointing because of the weather,” Lopes told MotorSportsTalk. “If the weather was different, I think we’d have a completely different conversation right now.

“The place would have been jammed. New Orleans is a big walkup crowd, and this killed the walkup. Essentially what you saw there was advance ticket sales, this didn’t include a walkup because they by and large stayed home.

“Our sales were down by as much as half because of the weather, so you can imagine what it would have been otherwise.”

One of the weekend elements that received some – if not condemnation, certainly question marks – was the use of shuttles to shuttle in both fans and competitors from off-site parking lots, which were grass fields.

Lopes noted this is the nature of the circuit, and actually similar to what is done at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, the Roger Penske-promoted event that now is generally hailed as one of the best-run events on the IndyCar calendar.

“The footprint itself was not originally built for an IndyCar race, so we made a footprint work,” Lopes explained. “Things like shuttle systems, fans aren’t used to it. The first year in Detroit people didn’t know, and now it works smoothly in Detroit.

“Parking for this event is similar to what is faced with the Zurich Classic (PGA Tour event in New Orleans) every year. It’s the same issue.

“There’s not enough parking on site to accommodate the number of cars. Every single parking pass and place was used, so there was literally not one spot available on site. So then remote shuttles are the necessity of that track – it’s one lane in and out.

“In the future there will be more parking, but might require more clearing of land. Right now that was the only way to accommodate things. So what occurred, is we ran the shuttle system.

“If it hadn’t been raining, the experience would have been different. It was by necessity. Designed to work. I can understand… people weren’t used to shuttles in Detroit, but now it’s part of Belle Isle. It’s the same thing here.”

The rain also cut plans for a proper New Orleans and Mardi Gras-themed driver parade that was due to introduce the field of 24 before the race kicked off.

“There were things we had to cancel, the Mardi Gras-style parade, where drivers would be introduced,” Lopes said. “We had a lot of fan entertainment planned. Those are things we want to work on for next year.”

Lopes noted the drainage situation at the track should be improved for next year, and also said he was impressed by how clean the IndyCar drivers kept it when the race was in the rain.

“I’ll tell you the track is planning to do some things to improve the drainage,” Lopes said. “The track’s pretty flat, the land’s flat, and the soil in that part of the country makes it challenge. In a sprinkle everything’s OK, but in a downpour it’s tougher.

“We raced in the rain and drivers by and large did an amazing job during the race. I was just shocked the first few laps went on without incident, and only as they all got racier towards the end did we get back-to-back incidents.”

Surfers’ Paradise in 2002 was used as a reference point, with a start-line crash there in the rain and the near entirety of the 40-lap race run under yellow. It’s oft-referred to as one of the flukier races in North American open-wheel history.

With this being the first of a three-year deal for the event, the potential is certainly there for improvement, especially given the areas that were identified as points to improve following this year.

“I think reviews of the event have been a little mixed, and I don’t think they would be as mixed if the weather would be better,” Lopes admitted.

“We had to make sure it happened. The race couldn’t have been delayed because teams had to get to Long Beach. As you saw, the facility being inundated with weather made things worse. All that caused a bit of chaos. Those were the biggest issues.

“But I think the event has great potential long-term. The state has committed, partners like the New Orleans Advocate, Ochsner Health Hospital, DHL, Verizon and more all there.

“One of the New Orleans sponsors… one guy stood next to me at the start and he was in tears… he couldn’t believe it was finally happening after all these years. He’d got emotional like people do at their first Indy 500.

“I do think there’s a lot of potential for the future. I’m excited about next year.”

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”