Throughout the time I have been posting here, I’ve tried to be realistic about things. There is a very fine line between being too positive about the IZOD IndyCar Series, where you sound like everything is Pollyanna; and being too negative where you sound like Negative Nate or one of those dreaded Legions of the Miserable. All in all, I consider myself very bullish on the series and I like the direction things are headed.
Now that I’ve got that qualifier out of the way, the IZOD IndyCar Series is headed to my least favorite track on the schedule – Sonoma Raceway. This is the track formerly known as Infineon Raceway and Sears Point before that. This is the fourth time I’ve written a “Sonoma Preview” on this site and each time is a regurgitation of the time before, so I’ll try to keep it fresh – and brief.
One of my many complaints about this track is the appearance. It’s a dust bowl, but everyone always talks about how beautiful it is. Perhaps the surrounding area is pretty (I’ve never been to the track), but what the viewer sees on television looks like a barren desert.
I learned something new this past spring, however. When the IndyCar teams were testing the new DW12 in early March, they tested a couple of days at Sonoma. The photos and videos showed something completely foreign – lush green grass at Sonoma Raceway. I never knew that there was a time when there was actually green grass around the track. The NASCAR race is usually run in June and the IndyCar race is always mid-to late August. Apparently, the green grass fades to brown by summer and we who are unfamiliar with the area are left to think that this is the way the area always looks. Based on what I saw in March, the track is actually beautiful. This begs the question – why don’t they run a spring race at Sonoma?
I’m sure part of the answer has to do with a rainy season. The green grass of spring didn’t get that way without water – lots of water. I suspect that the weather for racing is a lot more cooperative in the late summer months than early spring or even late winter.
The series will be hosting two California races within three weeks of each other to close out the season, with the season finale at Fontana being held on Sep 15. That’s true, but these two markets are about four hundred miles apart. Would it be any different to hold a race at Sonoma in early March and then return to Long Beach in mid-April? There might actually be more interest in this traditionally boring race since it would be taking place much earlier in the season, when we are all starving for some racing. At this point in the season, many fairly hard-core fans have put racing on the back-burner with the approaching college football and NFL seasons looming. I know non-football fans say this is nonsense, but market research shows that most IndyCar fans are also NFL fans. The two entities have overlapping demographics, but the NFL is king in today’s sports landscape.
But for now, we get to watch another race on the dusty road course in the wine country. Since the IZOD IndyCar Series started racing at Sonoma in 2005, I’ve considered most of the races to be snoozers. I know that will ruffle the feathers of road course purists, but there are few moments from Sonoma that stand out in my memory. I recall Marco Andretti’s first career win in 2006 that was not without controversy when his teammate, Bryan Herta, curiously stalled late in the race to bring out a yellow that insured Marco had enough fuel to make it to the finish. The following year, the same Marco Andretti shoved his teammate, Dario Franchitti, off course while Franchitti was pursuing his first championship. Michael Andretti chided Franchitti on television when it was his son that was clearly at fault. This is strictly my opinion, but I believe that incident alone is what prompted Dario to look for employment elsewhere once he locked up the 2007 championship.
Unfortunately, the most vivid vision that comes to mind regarding IndyCars at Sonoma is Will Power’s frightening practice crash in 2009. Nelson Philippe had just spun exiting Turn Three and was turned sideways. Power topped the hill at speed and was suddenly faced with Philippe’s car. Although he swerved to avoid it, Power clipped the front of Philippe’s car and the two collided in spectacular fashion, sending debris into the air and Philippe’s car into a pirouette. Philippe suffered severe leg injuries, while Power sustained two fractured vertebrae and ending his season, which had been part-time anyway.
Since that 2009 crash, Power has made Sonoma his own personal playground by winning the pole and the race at Sonoma each year since his injury. This season, he will be faced with a modified version of the circuit that has revised three corners to hopefully make the course racier. It needs it. This race tends to have little passing and relies on pit strategy to determine the outcome – much like Mid-Ohio.
It’s unfortunate that these two races found themselves back-to-back with a three week gap in between after the China race was lost. Mid-Ohio needs to remain on the schedule simply because of its traditions and the fact that it is well-attended. I’m not as sold on Sonoma, but with so few venues available to the series right now, I guess we should feel fortunate that it is in the “probably” category for a 2013 return.
So, hopefully I haven’t been too harsh on my assessment of Sonoma. I’m just offering my personal opinion which isn’t worth a whole lot. And who is my pick to win this weekend? With his recent history at this track, I’d be foolish to pick anyone besides Will Power. I think he will win and do what he has to do to put himself in position to win his first IZOD IndyCar Series championship.