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Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama draws crowd of 63,690 — ‘This place is absolutely gorgeous’

Jeff Wynn said he was in heaven Sunday as he was finally able to take in the spectacle of IndyCar racing at Barber Motorsports Park.

The Eutaw resident said it has been five to 10 years since he’s attended an IndyCar event, but never at the Birmingham track just outside Leeds.

“Every single time, something happens that week,” Wynn said. “I was supposed to come two years ago and it rained out and I couldn’t get a chance to go that Monday. Last year with all the restrictions and everything, I didn’t really want to chance it.

“Even now, I’m kind of skeptical,” he continued, “but everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, so I’m kind of happy about that.”

Wynn and his nephews Cameron and Brenden were among the estimated 63,690 who took in at least part of the three days of racing of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama fans enjoy a great day at the races from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The marquee event of the weekend produced an unanticipated finish as Spaniard Alex Palou recorded the first victory of his career. It was his debut in the No. 10 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, the team’s first win at Barber and its 114th in IndyCar.

Palou is the 14th driver to stand atop the podium for Ganassi. He crossed the finish line 0.4016 seconds ahead of Will Power, who has twice won at Barber. It was the tightest margin of victory in the 11 IndyCar races on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile course.

But Palou was hardly the only victor. Counted among the winners were the fans who came from far and wide to take in a live sporting event, something many have missed since the pandemic first spanned the globe.

There was no fan shuttle this year and thus no remote parking at the Outlet Shops of Grand River. That reduced the crowd by about 25%, said Gene Hallman, CEO of Zoom Motorsports.

This was the second live event of the weekend in which Hallman and the Bruno Event Team were involved. They also coordinated the McDonald’s Magic City Classic presented by Coca-Cola, the football meeting between Alabama State and Alabama A&M universities that was pushed back from October 2020.

“I would give them A-pluses in terms of people feeling comfortable being back out in crowds,” Hallman said. “I believe we created an environment in both where there were many COVID restrictions in place. Secondarily, there’s a real sense people want to get back out. They really miss the human interaction that comes from attending a live sporting event.”

The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama had a mix of first-timers and frequent visitors. Count the Formentano family among those who long ago learned the route to Barber.

Chris Formentano, 33, of Chelsea said Sunday was the second time his family has come to the track. Sons Peter, 3, and Walker, 2, played on the grassy hill while his wife, HannaKate, held their third son, 1-month-old Oliver.

The family always comes with Chris’ father, Alfredo Formentano of Hoover. The seeds for his love of racing were planted by his father.

“I’ve been coming here from the beginning, the first time they had the Indy race,” the elder Formentano said. “It’s just kind of a family thing. I’ve been watching car racing – like Formula 1 and Indy – a long time. My dad got me into Formula 1. This morning, I got up at five minutes to 8 and the Formula 1 race in Italy raced live. I watched it and then we all packed up and came here. All-day racing.”

Sylacauga High sophomore Brooklyn Leonard said her first trip to Barber was like a minivacation. Her boyfriend, Justin Love, introduced her to the sport.

“It’s really, really exciting,” the 16-year-old said. “I’m pumped up about it. I’m also really, really nervous, but I love the atmosphere here. It’s been really, really nice. To be around all these people and watching the racing, it’s, like, so fun.”

Christy Reynolds of Wabash, Indiana, attended races at Barber for the first time. She was with her husband, Dylan, who’s been to four or five, and their 2-year-old son, David.

“I love IndyCar and this place is absolutely gorgeous,” Dylan said. “Combine the two things and it’s a great trip, worth the trip from Indiana every time.”

Especially as everyone crawls out from COVID-19 isolation.

“That’s the great thing,” Dylan said. “We’ve all been cooped up for most of the year, but out here if you want your space, it’s easy to find. There’s pretty good masking in front of the trams and crowded areas, but you can find a seat where you’re on your own and feel safe with your family and watch some great racing.”

Michael and Myra Campbell relaxed on the grassy hillside as cars zoomed by. A Texas native, she was thrilled that her move to Pelham meant being close to a track where open-wheel racing is done.

“It’s my favorite,” she said. “We love this park.”

“The beautiful thing about Barber’s is it’s outdoors,” Michael said. “Literally, they call it the Augusta of Racecourses. As you look around, everyone’s able to come outside, enjoy a beautiful day here in springtime in Alabama. It’s just so refreshing to see folks finally able to breathe without a mask, mask if they choose, sit outside and finally get out and enjoy the day.

“It’s a wonderful day and it’s a wonderful way to spend it.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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