A couple years back, a pal who was going through some bad mental health stuff decided to throw a party. She invited a bunch of people, but didn't want anyone to see the inside of her trailer, so we all had to stay outside in an overgrown yard. She didn't provide food, or drinks, or anywhere to sit. The experience raised the question of what exactly constitutes a party.
Now, having squandered a day at the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana, I wonder, similarly: what is a Grand Prix? Can I even claim I attended one? I have a ticket stub that shows I paid $27 to enter; my photographer can vouch that we were both there—but where were we, exactly?
Where we were, and where most people weren't, was the Louisiana Raceway, a privately-owned IndyCar track way out past the West Bank of the Mississippi, where stood previously 750 acres of boring indigenous cypress swamp. The Raceway is new, built at a cost of only $4.5 million to taxpayers. I'm not accusing you of being interested in the financials of Louisiana, but suffice it to say that in a state that's running a $1.6 billion budget deficit and awarded the Green Lantern movie $35 million in subsidies, the racetrack isn't likely to make anyone's top 10 outrages list.
The facility itself was nice enough, considering it was comprised almost entirely of parking lot. Despite this, there was no on-site general parking. The roads leading to the track were closed by police; your options were $20 parking and a brief shuttle bus from the next town over or a much longer $5 bus ride from the casino in downtown New Orleans.
I don't pretend to know much about IndyCar; I'm more of a dirt-track guy. I really like figure-eight racing. I'd say I like street racing, but honestly I'd just be talking about the Fast & Furious movies, which I also like. A friend's father who watched this first ever Grand Prix of Louisiana on TV said, "Weather makes a big difference. It was the first year. It was a bad weekend." Keep that in mind.
Almost no one else was at the track on the day we attended, giving the whole affair the spooky vibe of a North Korean propaganda project. There were banks of empty grandstands, rows of porta-potties, and a far-flung scattering of tiny tents offering things for sale or survey-based raffles, all baking under the sun. The colors were bright, the paint was fresh, and the people were absent. It was a Potemkin Village.
The vast swaths of abandoned macadam encouraged thinking in terms of geometrical vectors; there was so much space, containing so little, and one spent so much time traversing it. Plebs like us had to hoof it across the asphalt tundra; people who were somebody zipped around on scooters and golf carts.
My photographer and I would spot some distant tent, and as we trudged towards it on a vague errand of investigation, the sun would move across the sky and the light would gradually change. When we finally reached the tent, hoping for something free and instead finding yet another unselfconsciously inquisitive touchscreen-tablet survey, the relief of finally having arrived outweighed any disappointment.
The Louisiana Raceway reps spoke to the press of trying to establish a "festival-like" atmosphere to lure the curious and casual. Alas for the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana's gate numbers, it was competing that weekend with two massive, long-established, and beloved (free) festivals: French Quarter Fest, which is mostly music, and the Louisiana Strawberry Festival, which is a little of everything, but mostly strawberries.
Whether they were suffering under restrictions of budget or imagination, the Grand Prix's attempts at Festive Louisiana Flavor didn't impress. Although they mostly showed blue "No Signal!" rectangles, the electronic billboards arrayed around the horizon-spanning parking lots occasionally displayed a Twitter survey on jambalaya vs. gumbo; the punitively priced food court did offer both. In a forsaken midway, surrounded by unridden carnival rides whose gondolas dangled lifelessly in the heat, a funk band blew brass towards an empty arpent of parking lot.
Two festive characters were on hand: a grinning stilt walker and a man wearing a gigantic papier-mache jester head. In part because of their unusual silhouettes and in part because of the dream-like emptiness of the venue, we spotted them often, even across long leagues of deserted lot— the looming, skinny stilt walker, like a railroad tie in high-contrast rayon, or the grotesquely balloon-headed jester. Their mandate must have been to mingle, but mingle with whom? They drifted like the rest of us: strange, misshapen figures moving aimlessly and unpredictably on invented and invisible errands, video-game NPCs with skittish AI.
My photographer and I finally reached our assigned seating only to discover that, as at my friend's party years back, there were no seats. Our $27 entrance fee only entitled us to stand in a patch of muddy grass behind some metal fences. Access to any of the grandstands, which I reckoned at roughly eight percent occupancy, would have cost us each an extra $20. I try not to be a princess, but at an event with many thousands of empty seats, this patch of open turf was total bullshit.
Through the fences we could glimpse adorable little Mazdas buzzing around the track. My home in New Orleans is a few miles from the highway, and at night, people sometimes race motorcycles on the highway. The sound of a motorcycle race miles away was the sound the Mazdas made up close. They did look like they handled well.
The track was built up a few feet above ground level, which was sensible given that this had been swamp. Experientially, this meant we could not actually see the race: our patch of muddy grass was at an elevation below that of the racetrack. We could see each little Mazda only when it hummed along the piece of track nearest our piece of fence. Otherwise, the cars and the course itself were nearly invisible, further obscured by the visual static of multiple chain-link fences. I could make out only an occasional corner of colorfully painted roof as the Mazdas muddled through unseen curves, moving back and forth in the hazy middle distance beyond the stretch of track we were gazing up at. It was unfulfilling. Since we couldn't see and couldn't sit—the ground was too wet—we set off walking.
There was a break in the fence around the facility. Beyond some trailers and RVs were heaps of humongous dead cypress in bulldozed mud. It wasn't cheerful, but it was restful. Birds were chirping; bees nuzzled spindly yellow wildflowers. A hundred yards away, a thick line of invasive Chinese tallow trees stood between the bulldozed area and the remaining cypress.
Eventually we re-entered the miles of empty concrete. Over by a tent selling $35 Grand Prix of Louisiana t-shirts, we saw a pair of skinny ladies wearing Las Vegas showgirl outfits, walking somewhere. Because they seemed to have purpose, my photographer and I followed them. They were going, it turned out, to the prize podium, where the fastest drivers of the Skip Barber Mazda Speed Pro Challenge were to be crowned.
The three young men who'd won posed on the podium in a succession of branded baseball caps—Mazda, then Goodrich—for a half-dozen rounds of pictures. "Trophies up, please," the emcee said each time the men changed ballcaps. When all the pictures were done, he said, "Let's break out some champagne. It's New Orleans; it's time for a party!" Each of the three men popped a bottle of Andre, which, if not champagne by the strict standard, is inarguably a nice drink on a hot day.
If you've seen one winner's circle, you've seen 'em all. Something I hadn't ever seen was cars driving 200 miles per hour, and that opportunity—actual Indy car racing—was finally on offer. The crowd in the grandstands had swelled, going from 1/8 full to maybe 1/5, and I snuck to a slightly different vantage point by a sharp right-hand turn.
The Indy cars didn't look like earth cars. They were something sexy and powered-up that cars in an anime would transform into when challenged. Despite the wet track, they went fast as hell. The sound they made was that of a plane taking off nearby, crossed with an air-raid siren. The major variation in the noise was when each driver eased off the gas for a split second on the turn, which created a stutter in the roar. Drivers handled the turn differently; some drifted left across the course and then back right, some corrected more sharply with a coy post-turn butt wiggle, terrifying given their speed.
As before, the race beyond the curve adjacent to me was invisible; only the cars' rear spoilers stuck up like shark fins as they criss-crossed the course above and beyond my sight line. Behind me, empty tiers of grandstand towered like construction scaffolding.
We had to wait a long time for the bus that would take us back to New Orleans. No one on the bus ride back was smiling. People were complaining, which made it clear to me that my disappointment wasn't just my failure to "get" Indycar's appeal.
"Where on the website did it say we gotta sit in the mud?" the man behind me asked his seatmate, before continuing rhetorically: "Would you like to buy an upgrade? No. Would you like to fill out a survey? Will you be coming back? No! Not just no, but HELL no. Sucked, sucked, sucked."
"We still get back in time for some music," his seatmate said. "That French Quarter Festival. Get my drink on, dance a lil' bit. Oughta be fun."
The complainer grunted. "We should'a slept in and just done that. Never again with this bullshit."