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.”

Santino Ferrucci will drive No. 14 for AJ Foyt Racing full time in 2023 IndyCar season

Santino Ferrucci AJ Foyt
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Santino Ferrucci will return to full-time racing in the NTT IndyCar Series next season, joining AJ Foyt Racing.

Ferrucci had made eight IndyCar starts with three teams since his last full-time season in 2020 while also racing part time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year.

He will drive the storied No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt’s team, which will field the car from its Waller, Texas headquarters.

“It’s incredibly exciting to be back in the INDYCAR Series full time,” Ferrucci said in a team release. “Being a part-time driver over the last two years has been hard for me, personally. I’m a race car driver, and I want to compete. Working with different teams has been exciting, and I’m proud that no matter which car I’ve raced, I’ve always shown speed and consistency. I couldn’t be more excited to join AJ Foyt Racing in the 14 Chevy. I can’t wait to make the best of it.”

Ferrucci, 24, had finished a career-best fourth in IndyCar four times, including the 104th Indy 500 in 2020. He was the 2019 Indy 500 rookie of the year with a sixth.

In nine Xfinity starts since 2021, Ferrucci has a career-best finish of 13th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I am thrilled to welcome Santino to the team,” Larry Foyt said in a release. “He’s shown a knack for getting toward the front of the field, and I think he is a racer who moves forward on race day. A.J. sees the fire in him and has enjoyed their meetings together. I think Santino’s experience will help his rookie teammate as well, so he is a great addition to our roster.”

Ferrucci will be teamed at AJ Foyt Racing with Benjamin Pedersen, who finished fifth in the 2022 Indy Lights standings. The team has yet to specify the number for Pedersen’s entry, which will be fielded out of its Indianapolis race shop.

Foyt’s two full-time drivers last season were Dalton Kellett and Kyle Kirkwood, who is moving to Andretti Autosport.