This weekend, the IndyCar Series travels to what is my least favorite track on the schedule – now that they no longer run at Belle Isle in Detroit. They are running at Infineon Raceway, formerly known as Sears Point Raceway near Sonoma, CA. It is the site of the very first natural terrain road course run in IRL history in 2005, when the plan was to run two to three road courses per year. My how things have changed in such a short period of time, with nine road courses making up the 2010 schedule.
The track opened in 1968 on land that had been a dairy farm. The first event was an SCCA race in December of that year. The IndyCars first ran there in 1970 as a USAC event with California resident Dan Gurney as the winner. Like most natural terrain road courses in the US, the track has hosted virtually every form of US based motorsports including, NASCAR, USAC, IRL, SCCA, AMA and Grand-Am. There is also a drag strip on the grounds, which hosts NHRA sanctioned events.
NASCAR started racing at Sears Point in 1989. That is when I learned to not care for this track. Out of boredom, I would always watch at least part of the annual NASCAR race at Sonoma. It seemed to always run on the same afternoon as the Portland CART race. I would watch Portland and then watch Sears Point. Announcers always amazed me by describing the area as scenic and beautiful. I always wondered if we were watching the same race.
I’ve never been to Sonoma, but I have been to nearby San Francisco. Sonoma appears to be dry and arid. Perhaps that is perfect weather for growing wine grapes, but it does not make for a very scenic racetrack in my opinion. What grass there is that surrounds the track appears to be brown and dead. The ground seems to be as dry as it looks. Every time a car goes off course, it appears to be encased in a shroud of brown dust that hangs in the air forever. It seems an eternity before the car in question is identified.
There are some elevation changes, which make it nice – but the track seems way too narrow to allow much passing at all. Next year’s race at Barber Motorsports Park has come into question for the same reason. I’m willing to bet that Barber offers better chances for passing than Sonoma
Tony Kanaan won that first IRL road course race in 2005. It was remembered mainly for the novelty of watching the IndyCars turn right. Probably the two most memorable of the IndyCar races that have been won at Infineon both involved Marco Andretti. His lone IndyCar win came at this track in 2006 – his rookie season, albeit under controversial circumstances. Marco was leading but clearly needed either a pit stop or a well-timed yellow flag to finish the race. His teammate at the time, Bryan Herta – who excels on road courses – mysteriously spun towards the end, causing a full course yellow. This gave Marco the fuel mileage he needed to make it to the end giving him his first, and so far, only IndyCar victory.
The following year, Marco used fuel strategy to move toward the front late in the race. His teammate, Dario Franchitti was leading the championship points battle and had led the race most of the day. A win at Sonoma could have all but sealed the championship for the Scot. Franchitti needed a quick splash of fuel near the end. As Franchitti came out of the pits, Marco raced Dario for the lead and spun his teammate off track – damaging his car. Franchitti was able to limp around the track to finish third, mainly because teammate Tony Kanaan faithfully remained behind him in fourth, refusing to pass yet preventing anyone else from passing. Franchitti’s closest rival in the points chase, Scott Dixon, won the race.
Team owner and Marco’s father, Michael Andretti publicly blamed Dario for the incident. It is believed that the culmination of events that day in Sonoma is what ultimately made up Franchitti’s mind to leave AGR at the end of the season.
Ryan Briscoe holds the track record for IndyCars. He set it in 2005 while driving the third Target car for Chip Ganassi. He made an untimely move trying to pass rookie Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves in one move, which ultimately took all three of them out. Briscoe enters this weekend’s race a much-improved driver and trailing points leader Scott Dixon by only three points. I expect Briscoe to be strong out of the box this weekend. Team Penske does well at this track. Briscoe finished second to teammate Helio Castroneves at Sonoma last year.
Briscoe’s closest rivals will be the same as it has been all year – his teammates and the two Target cars. This is a Will Power race so expect Briscoe to be pressed by Power and last year’s winner, Castroneves. Franchitti has been slipping out of the hunt just a little and sits twenty points back. He needs a strong showing while his teammate needs a little bad luck. Dixon’s car has been stronger on the natural terrain courses than Dario’s. I think Dario’s crew will get it right this week. I expect this race to come down to Briscoe and Franchitti with Briscoe coming out on top, and making this a very tight three-way race heading into the final three ovals of the season.
Graham Rahal has been showing more consistency lately, but still seems to make ill-timed mistakes. Count on him repeating his recent pattern – running up front early on, and then falling back as the finish approaches. I would also look for his new teammate, Oriol Servia to make great strides from his running at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago. Of course, Justin Wilson has to be considered as a strong candidate for the win as well. This is another Milka Duno race, so that wild-card will be looming all weekend. Hopefully, she will not figure into the final results of the race or cause an accident. It will be interesting to see if she is able to pick up her pace from her horrible weekend at Mid-Ohio. If her performance is that of two weeks ago, Brian Barnhart needs to park her…permanently.
I don’t anticipate many, if any, surprises this weekend. I think that the two target cars and two of the three Penske cars will finish at the front. I’m a little concerned about Helio’s frame of mind lately. Perhaps the legal troubles that engulfed the beginning of his season are starting to finally show their effects. Helio seems tired and ready to get this season behind him, and who can blame him? I expect him to have a solid, yet unspectacular weekend at Infineon Raceway.
After watching the IndyCars follow the dusty trail this weekend, they finish out the season on three ovals. Based on the last oval race at Kentucky with all of the aerodynamic tweaks put back in, there will be an air of uncertainty at those races. Not at Sonoma. Qualifying will determine a lot about this race and will tell us a lot of what Sunday will hold, as passing will be at a premium. It shouldn’t be that way.