Louisiana Grand Prix: Rain, Racing, Dollars And Dogs

IndyCar Series driver Will Power runs in the rain at New Orleans Motorsports Park. [Chris Jones Photo]

IndyCar Series driver Will Power runs in the rain at New Orleans Motorsports Park.  [Chris Jones Photo]

That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.

Listening to him describe it, one is convinced of its inevitability.

In the flat grasslands of Gulf-coast Louisiana, removed from the raucous Cajun and the creole of Nawlins lies the most incongruous and absurd wonder of all the seven of the world—a full-fledged motorsports playground of nearly four miles length and 13 wicked bends overlain with black rubber tire marks and ambient, eye-stinging, ethanol exhaust.

Yet this improbable marriage seems completely organic, whole, one and the same of this white-clay-crossed, alkaline-besotted soil, as though the devil were for one day humored by self-appraisal of her tricks when she wiped forehead and brow clean of the humidity’s sticky residue, tumbled into her bentwood rocker on her unpainted, rough-hewn, oak-plank porch and popped open a cold one on the day New Orleans Motorsports Park was born.

She was my rain. She was my unpredictable element. She was my fear. But a racer should not be afraid of rain; a racer should embrace the rain.

She was named Katrina. She ravaged the Mississippi delta and its city, flooding 80% of New Orlean’s narrow, cobbled and ivyed, red clay, brick-walled streets and alleys.

Fifteen hundred people died. One hundred and thirty-four remain missing to this day.

Thirty-three thousand residents had to be rescued in high water by the US Coast Guard. Eight hundred thousand citizens of the vieux carre were forced into public shelters. Nearly two years later nearly 50,000 were still estranged from their homes.

Close to a million insurance claims were filed, siphoning 23 billion dollars into the muddy, dysenteric waters that engulfed Nawlins, exhausting once-solvent insurers and creating financial panic to compound the already-terrifying death and destruction Katrina left in her wake.

The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstaclespreferably of his own makingin order to triumph.

A lot of people thought he was crazy. Physician turned speed-addict turned entrepreneur turned visionary race-course builder and promoter Larry Chouest (pronounced “chew hay”) and his dream of bringing big-time professional auto racing to the west banks of the Mississippi River in the wake of not one but two profound, fecund disasters was abject, undeniable, financial suicide.

“He’s going to do what???” they said, and they shook their heads in earnest, one dirt farmer or fisherman to another, concern. “Nearly a thousand acres of that worthless, no-good, leachy-clay, baking soda wasteland turned into a race track? Only a fool would try to build anything on that ground, a shack even, much less a course for cars.”

In the wake of two full-on disasters, first Katrina and then the inter-national, “too big to fail” economic collapse of 2008, Chouest was unbelievably and inexplicably courting a third.

“The whole track process some people have said is somewhere between visionary and nutty guy with an obsession,” Chouest said. Chouest, a genuinely likable, though verbose, raconteur and erudite man of prodigious talent is charming in his disingenuous manner. “We’ll let people decide, especially when they visit the facility.”

Perhaps the only thing that permitted his project to go forward was the potential for his own family’s financial ruin, the total loss of a life-time’s worth of personal wealth from off-shore oil and gas—a potential triple-header of environmental and economic and wastrel personal catastrophe to entertain the community’s cadré of Cassandra’s, train-wreck-loving voyeurs, and the usual mocking, opportunistic flock of anti-progress catholocists common to all rural American south coordinates of latitude and longitude.

A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.

With a three-year commitment from INDYCAR to race at New Orleans Motorsports Park, or NOLA as it is called informally, the 750-acre complex debuted to a national racing audience today.

The 13 simple and complex turns, bends, hairpins and S-curves are married to long engine rev-limiting, shriek-inducing straightaways that stretch the Dallara DW12 chassis and Honda and Chevrolet power to downforce and drag-limited extremes of around 190 mph on this dead-flat, wide-open prairie of a road course.

In time it is possible that an economic gain of $100 million will ensue from Larry Chouest’s vision. It is possible that the several millions of dollars that the affable Chouest levered from the Jefferson Parish treasure-chest of tax receipts may actually yield a positive return on investment in monetary and human terms.

The race course may fuel property development, construction, business openings and economic growth and prosperity in this patch of heretofore unfulfilled and unappreciated real estate fifteen miles west of downtown New Orleans—an area that many now see as ripe with potential.

There’s a new golf course in the works, a technical college, an industrial park and a promised expansion of the local community college onto a riverside campus that could pump millions of dollars and thousands of young people onto the roads and streets of Fairfield—the newly minted moniker of the town everyone hopes will erupt around a motorsports-mad, red-hot volcanic core of industry.

This is what Danny says. He says racing is doing. It is being a part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment. Reflection must come at a later time.

When a crowd of spectators almost as big as the ones at a Louisiana State University Bayou Bengal Tigers football game takes its seats on Sunday, to witness the inaugural Louisiana Grand Prix professional auto race on this course, a dream that arose from the grimmest times of southern American history will unfold in reality of fast fact.

Among the attendees will be executives and guests of Bridgestone, of Firestone, Honda and Chevrolet, media and teams, and others who have in recent weeks past already brought cars and drivers to the track for testing.

“They’re planning to come here for the race and further discussions about what they can do to spur growth further,” said a local official in the know of the heady corporate assembly that may attend at NOLA this weekend.

The race is only a part of a celebratory weekend, with trackside food vendors, entertainment, safe-driving demonstrations, go-karting and in all likelihood the bayleaf-infused aroma from boiling kettles of tailgate gumbo, Andouille sausage and crab-meat jambalaya, and pots of crayfish etouffe in the parking lots.

“This is professional racing,” another local said. “This is taking it to a whole different level.”

“It’s like any festival or major event,” he said. “We have the first one, and then you continue to grow it. It seems natural to me that you can then have ancillary services that develop over time.”

And to that, Enzo would offer a toast:

Racing is about discipline and intelligence, not about who has the heavier foot. The one who drives smart will always win in the end.

Quotes from Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain, as delivered by the golden retriever, and canine narrator of the book, named Enzo—after the Commendatore’ of Maranello.



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