James Hinchcliffe had a premonition midway through the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana when his crew ordered him not to make a pit stop like the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series field leaders at NOLA Motorsports Park. The hunch came true when the Canadian driver took the checkered flag to win a wild and unpredictable series debut on the 2.74-mile road course outside New Orleans.
"When we first decided to stay out, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny if we could make this a one-stopper?'" said Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow/Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Honda. "I just never thought it (would happen). On one hand, I feel badly that we didn't have more green-flag laps for the fans and everybody here at NOLA, but on the other hand, those guys (on his crew) called it awesome."
Hinchcliffe won for the fourth time in his Indy car career - and first since June 2013 at Iowa Speedway -under a full-course caution ahead of Helio Castroneves, in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. The race, run in changing track conditions after heavy morning rains, ended after 47 laps due to the 1-hour, 45-minute time limit.
Most of the front-runners came to the pits on Lap 33 during a full-course caution. Running ninth at the time, Hinchcliffe remained on track and inherited the lead. The race would see only three more green-flag laps the rest of the way, allowing Hinchcliffe - whose lone pit stop came on Lap 13 - to keep the field at bay. It is the fifth win for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the team Hinchcliffe joined this season.
Castroneves logged his second straight top-five finish to open the 2015 campaign, giving the Brazilian 120 for his Indy car career, breaking a five-way tie for sixth on the all-time list.
"The Hitachi car was solid, but sometimes you'd rather be lucky than good and today we were lucky," Castroneves said. "Second place feels like a win right now."
James Jakes, Hinchcliffe's teammate, came home third in the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda to earn his second career podium finish. Simona de Silvestro, driving the No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda, placed fourth to equal the second-best finish of her Indy car career.
"The car was pretty good and the tricky conditions kind of played in our way and the team made a great call to come in at one point," said de Silvestro. "It's really cool, especially to be back here in IndyCar and especially with Andretti. It's my second race with the team and finishing fourth, it's great."
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to open the season March 29, finished fifth today in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet to retain the championship points lead with 84. He holds a 10-point advantage over Castroneves.
The race began with a wet track, but the first 15 laps were run caution-free as the entire field started on grooved Firestone rain tires. Teams began switching to the dry-condition slicks on Lap 11, but with portions of the 13-turn circuit still wet, numerous on-track incidents forced six full-course cautions for a total of 26 laps over the final 32 circuits.
Miles Impressed with NOLA Efforts
Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent of INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, gave the NOLA staff "very high marks" for getting the facility race ready and continually addressing the changing conditions this weekend.
"The track itself has done a great job," Miles said. "It's a big deal to move from a club course to an Indy car track. I think they've done just about everything we could expect of them."
NOLA Motorsports Park opened in 2012 as a local auto enthusiast facility with big dreams. The Verizon IndyCar Series event for 2015 was announced in August 2014. Extensive upgrades have occurred since, including the addition of grandstands and numerous track safety upgrades. Miles said it has shown worthy of hosting a series event, even if the weather this weekend didn't fully cooperate.
"The facility itself has never really been used like this and, unfortunately because of the rain, is probably not being tested for how it would work when you have a full house," he said. "I think it looks great; I think everybody is pleased."
Miles said discussion is already under way about the 2016 race date. This weekend's race conflicted with the popular French Quarter Festival in downtown New Orleans and, while inroads have been made in community awareness, a more fortuitous weekend could be a win-win situation. Miles firmly believes the NOLA race can become a "destination" event for the Verizon IndyCar Series, comparable with the Long Beach and Sonoma races in California and St. Petersburg, Fla.
"The perfect scenario locally and therefore for us would be if we can find a weekend when the weather's good and we don't have another major local event to compete with," Miles added.