Random Thoughts On Sonoma

When I had heard that there was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake near Sonoma in the wee hours of yesterday morning, I was afraid that would be the only excitement to come out of that region all day. Instead, we got a fairly entertaining race, by Sonoma standards.

Fortunately there were no fatalities, but more than one-hundred people were injured – some seriously; so this is no joking matter. There were also many homes and businesses destroyed and some lives were changed forever. Let’s keep the people in the Napa region in our thoughts and prayers.

As for the race…based on his history at the track, his qualifying performance and his early dominance – this race was shaping up as a snoozer to be won by Will Power. But just before the halfway point, that all changed. First, Power was beaten out of the pits by Scott Dixon. Then on the first lap of the re-start, Power put the power down (no pun intended) and spun coming out of Turn Seven. By the time he recovered, he was the last car in the group.

This was an unforced error, when he was in a position to all but put this championship away. On Lap One, his closest threat in the championship chase and teammate, Helio Castroneves, got caught up in a Turn Two melee. By the time Helio got a new nose, he was way back in the pack and his day looked done. But after Power’s spin on Lap Thirty-Nine, Helio found himself in front of his teammate. For a while, it appeared that Helio might actually make up ground on his teammate in the points, but it was not to be. Helio finished eighteenth, while Power was eventually scored in tenth place.

At the beginning, one would have thought the race would be won by one of the occupants of the front row, either Power or Josef Newgarden. Newgarden was coming off of several races he could have won, and it was announced yesterday morning that he had re-signed with what will next year be known as CFH Racing. But Newgarden lagged at the start and never seemed to be much of a threat, on his way to a sixth place finish.

Tony Kanaan spent his time up front, but had to pit late and finished thirteenth. Graham Rahal led a total of eighteen laps, but had to come in for a splash of fuel with three laps remaining. He finished twentieth. After leading twenty-one laps earlier, Mike Conway was in fuel conservation mode late in the race as well. After Rahal peeled off, Conway crossed the line with the lead. But Scott Dixon had been sitting back patiently in third for several laps. Once Rahal was out of the way, Dixon made his move and took the lead from Conway heading into Turn Two. Dixon never looked back and took the checkered flag for his second win of the season. Meanwhile, Conway ran out of fuel and coasted across the line to finish fourteenth.

It was a whacky day that started with a terrifying earthquake. Then it looked like there could have been a major blow dealt to Power in the championship standings. In the end, both could have been much worse than they turned out to be.

TV Coverage: This was substitute-weekend in the NBCSN booth. There has been so much shuffling this season, I’m not really sure who the regulars are anymore. I think they are Leigh Diffey, Wally Dallenbach and Townsend Bell. For various reasons, none of them were there yesterday. Instead, we got Brian Till, Sam Hornish and Paul Tracy.

Brian Till is OK, but I prefer Diffey or Bob Varsha. Paul Tracy has been the most pleasant surprise as an analyst this season and he just keeps getting better and better as he gets more comfortable in that role. I think he has made a strong case to become part of their regular team next season –and that’s from a person that never cared for Tracy in his driving days.

When I watched qualifying on Saturday night, I was a little worried about what Sam Hornish might bring. He seemed justifiably nervous on the qualifying broadcast, but he seemed to get that out of his system by Sunday and did a decent job. I don’t know that I’m ready to campaign for Hornish to become a regular, but for a fill-in gig, he did just fine.

GoPro Shot: During the pre-race show, they did a segment on Ryan Hunter-Reay doing a lap with a GoPro camera mounted in or very near the cockpit. This seemed to give perhaps the most realistic view of what a driver sees. The camera mounted over the airbox gives a good wide-angle view, but you always feel like it looks nothing like what a driver sees.

In the early to mid-nineties, ABC used to use a “nose-cam” mounted near the front of the car. Bobby Rahal and Scott Pruett both used to have that camera mounted on their cars from time to time. I always thought that was a fairly realistic view, but what GoPro showed us yesterday was the most realistic yet. Too bad they probably can’t use that view in a race.

Newgarden’s Future: As I mentioned earlier, Josef Newgarden re-upped with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, the team that gave him his start in the series and is merging with Ed Carpenter Racing next season. I was glad to see that happen for a number of reasons, but I’m not totally convinced it was the best move for Newgarden.

As everyone keeps saying, the Nashville native is the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series. He is bright, articulate, good-looking and one heck of a driver. Why sponsors and marketers have not flocked to Newgarden is beyond me. His name was being mentioned for possible openings at Schmidt, Andretti and Ganassi – all perceived as better rides than his current one. Maybe he knew something we don’t and he had no other options. But I’d like to think that Newgarden showed loyalty to those that showed it to him three seasons ago, when he was trying to break into the series, They both experienced some growing pains along the way and they both seemed poised to be on the brink of good things happening.

With the leadership and money that Wink Hartman brings, along with the feel-good stories of Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher – this could be a fun team to watch in the coming years.

Who Wants It?: After the Mid-Ohio race, I caught flack for suggestion that the ultimate winner of this championship may eventually win it by backing into it. After Will Power’s performance at Milwaukee, I was convinced that he was the one to emerge and act like he wanted it.

But mediocrity set in again on Sunday. Power had a self-inflicted bad day, Castroneves had a horrible day that was not of his making – except for being penalized during Fast Six qualifying, which put him back in the third row to begin with. Had he been further up – he may have come through unscathed on the first lap.

Simon Pagenaud was the benefactor. He finished third and crept within eighty-one points of Power; thus keeping him alive for the championship heading into Saturday night’s finale at Fontana. Helio entered the weekend trailing Power by thirty-nine points. Even with his bad race, Power still managed to extend his lead over Castroneves to fifty-one points. If it were not for double-points at Fontana, this championship would be all but over. As it is, Castroneves has a realistic shot at winning it and Pagenaud could still by winning the race and Power having a DNF. Stranger things have happened.

Backing into a championship may be a bit harsh, but I cannot remember a championship where all the front-runners kept allowing competitors to climb back into it.

All in All: This was about as exciting as I would expect from Sonoma. I’ve made it abundantly clear that this is one of my least favorite tracks to watch a race on television. It may be great in person, but for those of us on the couch – it’s one you dread to see show up on the schedule. This is the first time this race has been run this close to the finale, so the championship implications kept things interesting. There were a few good passes and some interesting strategies to watch – some more successful than others.

But overall – I’m glad to see Sonoma in our rearview mirrors for another year.

On Another Note: Whether or not you are on Facebook, you have no doubt seen the Ice-Bucket Challenge to raise money and awareness for the ALS foundation. For those unaware, people challenge others to either make a donation for ALS or get dunked with a bucket of ice-water. What is happening is that people are doing both.

Personally, I was among those that had gotten tired of the whole thing and I was hoping I would eventually slide through. But on Friday night, Paul Dalbey from More Front Wing challenged me to do it. Although I winced at the thought of getting drenched with ice-water, I was not about to shy away from it. Plus, I thought it would make me look like a stick-in-the-mud, as if I were above it all. So, I decided it was better to poke fun at myself than to be a Grinch about the whole thing.

The problem was, Susan seemed especially giddy about the whole thing on Friday night. So, I decided to give her the honors of dunking me. Unfortunately she gladly accepted. Please watch the following video through to the end. You’ll see she played along and was a very good sport about the whole thing. That’s why I married her.

George Phillips

18 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Sonoma”

  1. I did enjoy the race, for a first time Sam did alright in the booth and could use a bit more work but PT is terrific.

    As for your challenge, I accept!

  2. The 9 team is so good, Dixon may even be the weak link. He gains spots every pit cycle. His mistake at Indy is looming large in this championship.

    I was disappointed to hear New Orleans will be at the back end of the schedule. I was already mentally planning a trip in early March. Football season is out of the question.

    Anyone ready for Will Power to NASCAR rumors?

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Once again, Indycar somehow puts on a pretty interesting race at a track that is not expected to produce interesting racing. In spite of the gut-wrenching result for the finally fast Graham Rahal, I was very entertained.

    Power’s mistakes continue to puzzle. When Munoz spun in the same spot right after Power, I thought there might be some fluid on the track, but that was apparently not the case. Power was fortunate that he only had to slide from 9th to 10th after passing under the yellow. Still, it appears he is going to need to be pretty bad at Fontana to lose the championship. With the Penske oval setup book behind him, I don’t think I would bet on that.

    Brian Till did well to prompt Hornish, who was very reluctant to talk. When he actually did offer up his thoughts, Hornish was quite insightful. Tracy continues to impress.

  4. All I have to say is if you like technical racing and strategy than 2014 has been the greatest Indycar season ever. If you like passing, close finishes, and on track action, well at least we had Indy, and Fontana is next. I was excited to see Rahal potentially win, but the reality was without cautions, it was impossible to save that much fuel. And it was. No one needed to see Dixon win another race. I really thought this was Newgarden’s weekend but strategy didn’t work out for some reason, and despite what some say, it is Sonoma, and you can’t pass that many cars on track. Newgarden really needs a win, and has been fairly close all year. Long Beach stings a lot more, knowing what we know now. Next year looks good, assuming the team is more ECR than SFH who knows how high he could finish in the points?

    I think I’d be more appreciative about an Indycar strategy race if we didn’t have so many of them, and if we had a few more races decided by close finishes on the track. Closest finish so far this year was Indy, and it was the only true side by side finish all year. Iowa was also good, and St. Pete and Houston were okay. everything after that has been about the same, in my opinion. Very fuel focused, very technical. Kind of boring.

    At least Will Power didn’t win by a mile and put the championship away completely. He still enters the final race with a significant lead on Helio. It will take some bad luck for Power and a top finish by Helio to reverse the order. Which would be more likely with more than 22 cars, but 500 miles is a long time. Power has already benefited from smaller fields and few cars on the lead lap at Texas and Pocono, could he benefit from that again? Or will he implode giving Helio his first title? Either way Penske’s got this won unless something crazy happens and allows Pagenaud to win while Helio and Power crash early. I want Helio to win; he’s the more interesting driver and it’s the more interesting story. Everyone expects Power to beat Helio. But I do wish he’d have won a little more.

  5. I also continue to like Paul Tracy in the booth. I am sure he would rather be in a car, but it’s a paying gig and I hope he continues next season.

    For those who may be happy to put Sonoma in their rear view mirror, perhaps you should be happy that there is a race there. Continuity at tracks is not a strong point of IndyCar with your Baltimores, Houstons, Loudons, etc. coming and going on what is unfortunately a regular basis. For example, new fans who may have been created by an enjoyable experience at a race that is here today and gone tomorrow are not likely to remain fans.

    To forestall the inevitable comments that may appear here and elsewhere that “the stands looked empty on TV” (How I hate that phrase!) , folks who just experienced an earthquake are perhaps more likely to stay home to reassemble their belongings than go to the race.

    One more race. 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 ……………………………

  6. Sherman Nelson Says:

    George, you’re IndyCar Review is excellent.

  7. Chris Lukens Says:

    No comment about the Sonoma race other than what usually is a rather boring race turned into a rather entertaining race this year.

    My comment is that IndyCar has to get those big butt sidepods off of these cars. We are starting to see too much “rubbin’ is racin.” Power muscles Wilson off the track to the left and in the same turn muscles Bourdais into the wall to right. If this keeps up someone is going to get hurt. These are supposed to be open wheel cars, if the wheels were actually out in the open, you couldn’t get away with crap like that.

    George, good for you, taking the ALS challenge. I took the challenge also, except I did it a little different. Instead of pouring ice cold water on myself, I poured an ice cold beer into myself. Then I wrote a $200 check to the ALS Association.

    Then for good measure I wrote another $200 check to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

    • Agree on the sidepods. But they built this car for road courses just so they can “rubbin”. It probably would take a change in philosophy to get them off. We can only hope.

  8. SO CSS en Says:

    I always have and continue to despise the old adage the the guy in front has the ‘racing’ line and everybody else can go suck it even if you’re right beside them when the next corner comes.

    in F1 Hamilton chops Rosberg even though Rosberg was right BESIDE him. When the inevitable collision occurs, it was obviously Rosberg’s fault for daring to be anywhere on the track. The bastard!
    So in Indycar we have Dixon taking out Hinchcliffe on the first corner starting the mayhem because Hinch dared to be right beside him.

    I don’t get it. Where I race, if a guy is beside you, …he’s beside you and if you run him into a wall on purpose you’re going to pay.

    Dixon doesn’t deserve that victory.

    • Brian McKay in Florida Says:

      Yeah; I really liked Castroneves’ selfishness, coming late (third) to insist that he, Bourdais, and Saavedra go three-abreast into the tight HAIRPIN. Or did he expect the KV guys to let him go through before them?! Selfish. Loved Will Pouter elbowing his was past Wilson and then blocking Bourdais in a yellow-flag zone approaching Conway’s stopped car. Selfish and unsafe. If Power doesn’t win the championship, Penske should tell him that his services are no longer required as he does not win championships or Indy 500s.

  9. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    That’s another good blog post, George! Thank you.
    I love your comments, criticisms, and observations, including “winner of this championship may eventually win it by backing into it.”
    I do not remember dull Dallenbach in the booth this season … forgettable analyst, apparently. Like you, I was not a PT fan, but he has acquitted himself in this context until he said that the championship was “wide open” and Newgarden “wins poles.” Oh, well.

  10. well another boring accident filled sonoma race. glad for a good guy like dixon to win if newgarden couldnt . felt bad for rahal and conway after terffic runs. RELIVED WE DIDNT HAVE TO HEAR VICTORY LANE DRIBBLE FROM POWER. SADLY I THINK HELL BE CARRYING CHAMPION BANNER FOR WAT WILL BE A L-O-N-G OFF SEASON . LETS HOPE THAT EITHER CASTRO NEVES OR RH RHEAY CAN BEAT HIM THIS WEEK AT FONTANA! LETS GO GUYS!

  11. My goodness. Some of the comments today… I think I’m just going to say that I enjoyed the race, and leave it at that.

  12. If I complained about other circuits as much as the IndyCar nation likes to voice its displeasure with Sonoma (my home track), I would probably be run out of town (and that may happen after I write this comment). I do appreciate that some circuits are not strong on TV, and I recognize that there are faster circuits, and even ones with more green grass. It’s true that road circuits like Sonoma are hard to pass on; but it’s not impossible, because good drivers do it every year. That’s the challenge of racing, it’s not supposed to be easy. Almost every driver I interviewed this weekend likes to race at Sonoma; they love the “technical” challenge and routinely describe the track as “fun”. I wish the IndyCar community would support all of the circuits on the calendar, and find merit in each, rather than single out a track that so few fans east of the Rockies have ever visited in person. Using grandstand shots on TV as a barometer of success is not helpful at Sonoma, as the property is almost 1600 acres and crowds tend to be all over the circuit. I spoke to one driver who believes Sonoma simply needs better TV directing and different camera placement. If the race was such a dud, you’d think that the series would look elsewhere by now. Seeing as this is the 9th year of IndyCar racing at Sonoma, I think the circuit deserves a break or at least more respect.

    • That certainly needed to be said. LARGE THANKS! I believe I will now pour a glass of Villa Andretti Riesling, watch the race again, and be thankful that there is a race there.

  13. I totally agree with you, Scott. Thanks for the comment. Personally, I think there are NO bad courses on the schedule. Each has their own characteristics, and as you said, in spite of the “experts” saying it’s tough to pass at a lot of them, we certainly see a lot of passing.

    Didn’t Dixon recently win a race going from last to first at one of those “hard to pass” courses?

  14. Paul Tracy’s performance in the booth was amazing. He was the lead announcer this time, not Brian Till, right? He did a very good job at that, and made things more exciting than Leigh Diffey had done all year. I’d even go so far and say that the Tracy-Hornish dynamic was more interesting and informative than anything Paul Page and Pippa Mann have brought to the IMS Radio Network. In fact, a combination of Tracy, Pippa and Townsend Bell in the booth might be the best there can be after this race.

    The championship, well, it’s open again. I cannot watch Fontana due to conflicting time zones, so to all of you who can: enjoy it! It’s going to be a long off-season, hopefully with quite a few episodes of “One Take Only” to help filling it 😉

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