Editor's note: This is the latest “RACER fan diary,” in which race fans submit a selection of photos and words to capture the atmosphere and ambiance of a race weekend beyond the classic “who won, who lost and who stood out.”
Our fourth fan to offer one is Jeff Podraza, on Twitter at @jeff_indycar, who attended the IndyCar/Pirelli World Challenge weekend at Sonoma. The Californian recaps his first weekend of the year and catching up with the “racing family.”
It's Friday morning, I am excited to leave for the track, and can't wait until I cross the Golden Gate bridge. I find myself watching cars, merging onto the 101 and thinking, “I'm trying to beat them!”
There's something great about picking up pit and garage credentials – this sport allows you to watch the crew work from just a few feet away.
As with most races, there are lots of vendors, sponsor booths and food booths. When you're walking around, you're always looking to see who's there at the moment. Seeing Ed Carpenter brought back memories of the first time I met him, at Kentucky in 2009, when he finished second to Ryan Briscoe by a hair. I wished him well – then moved on and realized I forgot to ask how it feels to be a new team owner!
As it's my first race this year, I took lots of pics of the DW12 and the new paint jobs on the cars, as there were a few this weekend. I saw the National Guard's San Francisco 49ers-themed livery only to be upstaged by JR Hildebrand's football uniform firesuit. Then, I stopped to take pics of the KV Racing haulers (my favorite team) and saw Tony Kanaan's blue Mouser scheme as opposed to the Green GEICO car.
While walking through the garages, I ran into the IndyCar family. Here, I'm not talking about the driver, owners, and personnel, but rather speaking of friends that I have met at Sonoma or other races. It's like a family reunion. Questions quickly flow from asking how families are, to predictions for the weekend and rumors for the offseason. We wonder who's going to Fontana in a few weeks, and grow sad that the season's ending so soon – all this while Chip Ganassi, Mario Andretti and Jan Beekhuis are walking by us.
On Saturday, I got to the track at about 9:15 and headed over to the Novo Nordisk booth for a meet-and-greet with Charlie Kimball. He personalized a hero card to and one to my sons. Later I got a chance meeting with Justin Bell while walking through the eBay Motors booth, and got a picture with him as well.
As the crowds increased, the atmosphere grows more fun as well. The IndyCar Village is in full swing, with games providing chances to win everything from sunscreen to T-shirts and even tablets. The lines form for the autograph session, but no one minds the length. There was even a Q&A for TrueCar's racing team and its “Women Empowered” racing initiative for female drivers this year.
Once IndyCar practice was about to start, I headed behind the garages to see the pits. I like watching this area because I can't see these pits from the grandstands in the race, so this allows the chance to watch the engineers adjusting on the cars. Later, I ran into a friend in a visit to the Service Central booth, who was gracious enough to introduce me to Graham Rahal's mom, Deb. She loved talking about how he's doing this year and what's his future with the Ganassi team. I spent the rest of practice walking between Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan's pits, and got the chance to meet one of TK's PR reps, Benito, who does TK's tweeting during the race.
We later participated in the Bryan Herta Autosport and Barracuda Networks tweet-up at the IndyCar Village with a few friends, and all got a free shirt and raffle ticket. A funny Q&A with their driver Alex Tagliani ensued, and after Alex left, the raffle began where fans got to win everything from hats, to B&W headset, to a golfbag!
Beyond IndyCar, the Pirelli World Challenge series was racing, too. A shuttle ride to its paddock behind Turn 7 provided the chance to walk through their paddock and see their fleet of cars. We were very lucky to run into a few of the engineers and crew from CRP Racing allowed a friend and I to see the Hawk Performance-sponsored, souped-up Nissan GT-R. He popped the hood and showed us how he move the engine back and down for a different center of gravity and give more performance to the car.
There was another Q&A session to come – this time with the NBC Sports crew of Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Robin Miller. It's always good to see them in a more relaxed atmosphere and answer questions, and Robin always makes the crowd laugh.
After qualifying, where there was a great view from the KV pits and Will Power took another pole – which led to another great photo opportunity – we prepped for Saturday night. It's my favorite night of the weekend at Sonoma as "our" group – we've known each other for years – get together at dinner. We swap stories about the season, how we met and what our offseason predictions are. These friends have become like family to me, and the evening ends with the race merely 14 hours away.
Race morning features a bigger crowd when I arrived by 9:30, with two-seater and pace car rides already flying around the track. The crowd's larger and much livelier than Friday or Saturday. Over at the IndyCar Nation stage, the father-and-son combo of Arie Luyendyk and son Arie Jr. are in another weekend Q&A with Arie Jr. taking Bachelorette questions.
A pre-race meal would cover me for the race. When sitting down, a lady and gentlemen sit down next to me with their food and we strike up a chat. I noticed very quickly that they're out-of-towners. It turns out they were from outside the continent!
Coming from Christchurch, New Zealand, they booked a week in California for this race – naturally, they're big Scott Dixon fans. He relayed the story of a Formula 1 race where he couldn't gain access to any drivers or associated areas. Here, he bought the garage and pit pass and was amazed of how close he was able to get to the No. 9 Target car of Dixon and the hauler. What he didn't expect was the chance to get 10 minutes to chat with Scott about New Zealand and racing. He even met Dario Franchitti, when Dario needed to talk to Scott! I love hearing the stories because it makes me appreciate the series and the fan commitment all the more.
A final trip through IndyCar Village and with IndyCar Nation access, we get to see the driver introductions up close – thus providing many opportunities for candid shots. We can walk across the grid before heading to our seats, and before doing so I had a chance to wish good luck to Justin Wilson, Mike Conway and others. Then I headed up to my seats with my friends in the main grandstand my friends and got ready for the green flag.
I sent a few photos from my vantage point over Twitter and comment to friends who were unable to make the race. We speculate if Will Power will take this and lead every lap as it has been the last few years here in Sonoma. We see the incident between Bourdais and Newgarden. Although we don't feel Power has an issue we wonder if the fact that the pack will get brought back together will have any differences in the outcome. We see the little misstep in Power's pit stop, which allows Ryan Briscoe to take the lead and then the eventual win.
As the crowd thins, I make one more pass through pit row, and spot drivers debriefing with engineers, and other teammates. As we start saying her goodbyes to friends, as they head off in their own directions and flights I think about how sore my feet are, how sunburned my face is and wondering how I'm to make it to next year in August when I'm back on this track. I will love the fact that I have hundreds of photos, dozens of videos, and a stack of hero cards in a lifetime of memories to go through.
To me, Sonoma has once again put on a great show and wonderful race, providing IndyCar fans a chance to go home with great memories and a better appreciation for being at the races.