NEW ORLEANS – There wasn’t anything subtle about NOLA Motorsports Park president Kristen Engeron’s message to Carlos Munoz.
“You’ve never seen anything like it in your life,” she told the sophomore Andretti Autosport driver earlier in the week during a Verizon IndyCar Series team test at the road course that will host the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana.
Was it a warning or clue? Actually, it was a harbinger of one of the most rollicking events he – along with fellow INDYCAR drivers James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Sage Karam, Aaron Telitz and Neil Alberico – has participated in during his 23 years.
"Children’s Stories That Live Forever" was the Krewe of Bacchus Carnival parade theme, and the drivers’ first experience seeing, let alone participating in, the parade was one that will live on in anecdotes at least through the April 10-12 race weekend.
They were on the Krewe of Bacchus Officer’s float, tossing brightly colored INDYCAR-branded beads to the tens of thousands of spectators lining the 6.3-mile route.
“The only thing I could compare this to is the Indy 500 with all the people. I think the coolest part is seeing how people try to get your attention so you will throw beads and just seeing the people’s reactions,” said Karam, 19, a Chip Ganassi Racing Teams development driver.
The Krewe of Bacchus parade – named for the Greek god of wine – has been a cultural mainstay since 1968 and is the largest of the "super parades" that are part of Carnival. The parade is held annually on the Sunday before “Fat Tuesday,” which rings in Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.
Drivers, among the 1,400 participants, arrived at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center hours before the parade stepped off for its four-hour run in downtown with the krewe's signature floats the Bacchagator, the Bacchasaurus and the Bacchawhoppa whale. A two-seat IndyCar, wrapped in 700 square feet of vinyl -- a yellow, green and purple argyle pattern, plus images of 11 masks and the state of Louisiana – preceded the colorful Officer’s float during the procession.
“This is by far the coolest thing I think we’ve ever done with INDYCAR,” said CFH Racing’s Newgarden, who, like other riders on the floats, wore a harness so if they would inadvertently stray off the float being pulled by a tractor the crowd could push them back up. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever experienced. New Orleans and this Mardi Gras scene has gotten me right into the party mood.
“My technique for tossing the beads is all about trying to toss it right on their necks so they don’t have to do anything too crazy.”
Following the parade, the drivers remained in their firesuits at the Rendezvous party for more than 5,000 revelers. They also were guests Feb. 14 at the King’s Party, which was held in honor of parade king John C. Reilly, an Academy Award nominee who lived in New Orleans for five months while filming a feature film. Reilly followed in the footsteps of previous celebrity kings, including his "Talladega Nights" and "Stepbrothers" co-star, Will Ferrell (2012), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (2010), actors Andy Garcia (2011) and Val Kilmer (2011), and last year's king, Hugh Laurie of "House."
“You really feel the southern hospitality, and it’s amazing to explore the city with the INDYCAR family and see this market that we’ll be coming to race in,” Newgarden added.
“I think it’s a great way for us to kick off our experiences in a new market.”