SONOMA SUNDAY SCENE SEEN

Sonoma Thank You Sign

It’s another beautiful day for the IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma, the season finale for the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s a nostalgic day as it’s the last race of the 2018 season, the last race for Verizon as series title sponsor, and the last of 14 IndyCar races at Sonoma Raceway. Next season IndyCar moves south in Northern California to Monterey and WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca for the season finale.

Sunday started out warmer than the previous two days, with temps in the mid to high 70’s degrees F, with but a gentle breeze. The day’s activities are ceremonial, warming and racing-related. The Historic Trans-Am Series had a fifteen-minute warmup, and the three support series all had their second/final races of the weekend – Historic Trans-Am, IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama, and Formula Car Challenge. Something for everyone.

Top Three Sunday Trans Am winners

No.49 Gray Ghose 1964 Pontiac Tempest

JR & John Hildebrand

Left to Right: Sunday Trans Am winners, Ken Epsman, Brian Ferrin and John Hildebrand; The Gray Ghost; and Father and son, JR Hildebrand an John Hildebrand.

Noted motorsports broadcaster, Mike Joy, was slated to drive the No.89 1966 Ford Mustang, but was instead back home trying to save his house from Hurricane Florence. Car owner Ken Epsman took his place for the warm-up. However, come race time, Kenny pulled one of his usual car swaps, and raced his No.2 1972 American Motors Javelin, and Richard Goldsmith drove the 1970 slime green 1970 Dodge Challenger that Epsman just sold him. John Hildebrand, father of race car driver, JR Hildebrand, drove his own No.49 1964 Pontiac Tempest (Gray Ghost) to victory, after swapping the lead with several other drivers, so typical of this lively, frisky group.

Second and third in the race were Brian Ferrin/No.45 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302, and Ken Epsman/No.2 1972 American Motors Javelin.

One sponsorship not going away is ABC Supply, for AJ Foyt Racing. It is 14-years strong, the longest running team sponsor in Indycar. This weekend there will be 600 guests watching its driver, Tony Kanaan/No.14 Chevrolet start his 300th consecutive indycar race. He’s actually run 360 such races. He won the first IndyCar race at Sonoma in 2005.

Champagne & Cider Ceremony

Within the Formula Car Challenge 28-car field, there are four separate classes: F4, FM, FS, and PFM (Pro FM), all competing for their own separate championships. On the podium, there were distinct age groups, with the PFM group having the most veteran racers, F4 which is a FIA class and the none of the drivers are old enough to drink champagne, FM and FS – other classes with mostly teenagers.

FCC Winner, Patrick O'Neill

Saturday FS Winner, Courtney Crone

Sunday FS Winner, Rayce Dykstra

Left to Right: PFM and Overall Winner Saturday and Sunday, Patrick O’Neill; Saturday FS Winner, Courtney Crone; Sunday FS Winner, Rayce Dykstra.

Local driver, Patrick O’Neill/No.64 PFM again won overall and PFM, as he did yesterday. Quite handily yesterday, closer today. He turned the fastest race lap both days. Seventeen-year old Scott Huffaker/No.09 F4 won the F4 Class both days, and sprayed Cider. Bryce Cornet/No.1 FM won his class both days. Fifteen-year old Rayce Dykstra won the FS Class Sunday, and seventeen-year old Courtney Crone won it Saturday.

James Hinchcliffe

Graham Rahal

Simon Pagenaud

Takuma Sato

Scott Dixon

Alexander Rossi

Left to Right: James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, and Alexander Rossi. Photos by Pablo Matamoros.

In the paddock, knowing fans congregated outside the IndyCar Drivers’ Meeting, seeking autographs or a chat. The drivers were most obliging. It was nice to see so many young fans seeking and being granted their requests.

Juan Piedrahita's IndyCar Honda

Kyle Kaiser's IndyCar Honda

Davey Hamilton's  IndyCar Honda

Left to Right: Juan Piedrahita’s Honda; Kyle Kaiser’s Honda; and Davey Hamilton’s Honda.

The IndyCar Experience two-seater cars this weekend had five drivers. Mario Andretti, Davey Hamilton, Juan Piedrahita, Kyle Kaiser, and Matt Brabham. The first three handled the duties for VIP rides on Thursday and Friday. Saturday Kaiser joined them, and Sunday there were five cars with Brabham.

MC Hammer

MC Hammer

MC Hammer is the Grand Marshal for Sunday’s IndyCar race. As such, he will give the “Drivers Start Your Engine” Command. He will also ride with Mario Andretti in the IndyCar two-seater and lead the field to the Green Flag. Hammer met with the media and regaled them with humorous anecdotes and opinions on a variety of subjects. He’s a local lad, growing up in Oakland, and loves motorsports and local sports.

In the IMSA Porsche Race, Pole sitter Zacharie Robichon/No.19 Porsche 991/2017 won overall and the GT3P class, and turned the fastest lap of 1:37.827/87.766 mph. Second and third were Trenton Estep/No.3 Porsche 991/2018 and Roman De Angelis/No.1 Porsche 991/2018. Victor Gomez/No.25 991/2016 won the GT3G class, and turn the fastest class lap of 1:40.318/85.587 mph. Second and third were Mark Kvamme/No.43 Porsche 991/2017 and Kurt Fazekas/No.52 Porsche 991/2016. There were 18 starters, and sixteen finishers, with 14 of them on the lead lap.

Sunday IndyCar Rookie of the Year, Robert Wickens tweeted from his Rehab Facility bed to wish everyone good luck and promise that he was going to rehab as fast and as hard as he could. Better! Stronger! Faster! That’s the mantra in the IndyCar paddock, and on the stickers seen everywhere and on race cars.

Get Well Wicky!

ICEMAN RULES!

Scott Dixon.Photo by  Nico Matamoros.

Scott Dixon.Photo by Nico Matamoros.

Saturday morning for the third/final practice session for the Verizon IndyCar Series at Sonoma Raceway was sunny, bright and breezy. It was crystal-clear visibility, with nary a cloud in the sky, compared to Friday afternoon when so many whispy clouds floated and covered that it was a spectacular sunset. The ambient temperature Saturday morning was climbing towards 70 degrees.

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Nico Mataoros

Alexander Rossi. Photo by Nico Mataoros

Will Power. Photo by Nico Matamoros

Left to Right: Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power. Photos by Nico Matamoros.

The four Contenders for the 2018 Championship are Scott Dixon/No.9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda; Alexander Rossi/No.27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Andretti Autosport Honda; Josef Newgarden/No.1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet; and Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. In that order. And all were in the Top Five at the Checkered Flag.

Dixon was the final fastest driver at 1:17.9697/110.120 mph. Second through fifth were Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda; Rossi and Newgarden.

Overall time-wise, Dixon and Power were fastest in the first session, Newgarden in the second, and Rossi in the third.

Rossi and Dixon each topped the charts, pitted for front and rear adjustments and went out to run faster. Rossi said “The team made big steps today.” Dixon said “We’re just trying different spring settings for this afternoon (qualifying.) This is extreme competition and we all want to win. It’s not going to be easy. It will be an interesting race, strategy-wise.”

Zach Veach.  Photo by Nico Matamoros

Zach Veach. Photo by Nico Matamoros

Zach Veach/No.26 Group 1001 Andretti Autosport Honda was the fastest Rookie, in seventh position.

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo by Nico Matamoros

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo by Nico Matamoros

Overall, for the weekend, Ryan Hunter-Reay is still the fastest at 1:17.5742/110.681 mph. The qualifying track record of 1:15.5205/113.691 mph was set last year by Newgarden.

It was almost a full Green Flag session, until a Turn 9 spin and stall brought out the Red Flag. Carlos Munoz/No.6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda was quickly retrieved, and the down time was only 1:59 minute. The session restarted, and the drivers got another lap or two.

Someone said Friday, in terms of race strategy, “Four drivers have everything to lose, and 20 drivers have nothing to lose.” Actually, it would be 21 as there are 25 drivers in the final field for 2018.

Santino Ferrucci

Santino Ferrucci. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Among those who led during the session were: Rossi, who led twice; Simon Pagenaud/No.22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet;
Rookie Santino Ferrucci/No.39 Cly-Del Dale Coyne Racing Honda; Takuma Sato/No.30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda; and Dixon.

Defending Series Champion, Josef Newgarden/No.1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet had to sit out the final ten minutes of the 45-minute session, for hitting personnel during the Friday Pit Stop Practice. He will also be assessed a post-race monetary fine.

Sebastien Bourdais.Photo by Nico Mataoros

Sebastien Bourdais.Photo by Nico Mataoros

Sebastien Bourdais/No.18 SealMaster Dale Coyne Racing Honda had a mechanical problem and ended his session with 12 minutes remaining. He was 25th in practice.

Trans-Am Paddock

There is a lot of spectator interest in the Historic Trans-Am. Those devout IndyCar fans who went to the Long Beach race saw this group of ground-pounders, which calls itself the closest racing series in the world. The Pre-Grid Saturday morning for the practice session was lined on both sides with fans with cameras and phones taking videos and photos.

Jimmy Hague, driving the iconic red/white/blue No.2 1972 American Motors Javelin had the pole position for Saturday afternoon’s Historic Trans-Am race. His qualifying lap was 1:55.845. Twenty-one of the 23 entries qualified.

The race was exciting, with the lead changing almost lap by lap. There was an ongoing battle between Hague, John Hildebrand/No.49 1964 Pontiac Tempest, Jim Halsey/61 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302, and Ken Adams/No.45 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302. All four led at least once during the 10-lap race. In the end, it was a photo finish, with Adams taking the win, a mere 0.074 seconds ahead of Hague. Halsey was third, with Hildebrand in fourth and Drew Alcazar/No.70 1969 Ford Mustang Boss 302 coming in fifth. This group will have a second race Sunday right before the IndyCar Pre-Race Ceremonies.

First thing Saturday morning the IndyCar drivers had its autograph session, and fans queued up in the chilly morning sunshine.

IndyCar Autograph Session

NOT QUITE FASTER FRIDAY

Scott Dixon No.9 Honda

Scott Dixon No.9 Honda. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

The weather warmed up nicely Friday afternoon, to nearly 80 F for the afternoon practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series, with wind ramping up to 6mph. Nothing like the gales and gusts experienced yesterday.

Alexander Rossi

Alexander Rossi/No.26 NAPA Auto Parts Andretti Autosport Honda was fastest overall at 103.342 mph/1:08.5567. This wasn’t faster than the morning’s top time of 1:08.41122. In the combined overall times for the day, Rossi and one other driver were the only ones who were faster in the afternoon. Rossi said “It was good to be P1 in Practice 2, it’s where you want to end the day on Friday. To have two team cars 1-2 is pretty awesome. We have a lot of motivation after last year to come back and really be strong here this year. We have a lot of work ahead of us still, and hopefully we can continue that over the next two days. Our main focus right now is trying to win Long Beach and get redemption on last year.”

Second through fifth were Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda, Joseph Newgarde/No.1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, Takuma Sato/No.30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda and Scott Dixon/No.9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Zach Veach. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Zach Veach. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

The top Rookie was again Zach Veach/No.26 One Thousand And One Andretti Autosport Honda, in thirteenth position. “Overall, I think it was a good first day here. Phoenix went better than St. Pete and so far, this weekend has been going better than Phoenix. So just one step at a time. I think we definitely have the speed to transfer tomorrow to the fast 12, and maybe even a chance to get to our first Firestone Fast 6. I have a little bit of learning to do tonight, but I’m excited to show what we can do tomorrow.”

Other leaders in the afternoon session were Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet-twice, Kyle Kaiser/No.32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet, Gaby Chaves/No.88 Harding Group Chevrolet, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet, James Hinchcliffe/No.4 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda, Power, Newgarden, and Graham Rahal/No.15 Total Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. RHR held the time much of the session, before Rossi topped him.

Power said “With the sessions being so short at 45 minutes, it’s important to use the time well. Long Beach is a real driver’s track. Accuracy is needed. The walls are right there. It is a cool track.”

Dixon and RHR were the fastest two drivers for the day. Overall, the top five were Dixon, RHR, Rossi, Pagenaud and Hinchcliffe.

Dixon said “The cars are so fun to drive though. The track is really awesome without the added downforce too. The braking zones are a bit bigger and the power down is impressive especially out of the hairpin corner. I think come around Lap 20, drivers are going to be screaming for new tires around here. It’s great to be back here overall, though. Great cars, great atmosphere and being out there pounding around the Long Beach city streets.”

Regarding qualifying on a track rubbered up after the two-hour IMSA race on different tires, Dixon said “It’s always tough, but it will be the same for everyone. So it’s always tough to figure out. I think the ambient conditions probably play a little bit more havoc, but you’re right, it could be totally different, especially after a two-hour race. That’s a lot of Continental and Michelin rubber that’s going on. I know even driving the Ford GT, the Continental tire, the rubber messes a lot with the Michelin.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Ryan Hunter-Reay. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Hunter-Reay said, regarding being bolder with less downforce, “Bold, probably not. You’re not able to get away with quite as much. The car is more on top of the racetrack, moving around. You’re constantly catching it. You can feel it’s lighter in the brake zones, especially when you’re coming off modulating out of the brake pedal coming into the corner, you can feel you just have a little bit less of an elbow to lean on through the corner. It’s just a bit more lively. It’s fun, we love it. It just takes a bit of an offset kind of in your approach, and like Scott mentioned, it’s the same for everybody, so it’s a good thing.”

Declining to give away his tire strategy going forward, Dixon said his Preferred Tires were all blacks.” RHR agreed.

RHR said “I think everybody was a bit surprised the red wasn’t faster today, so there’s some questions, I think, hanging over everyone’s heads now about what the potential there is and where the long-term life is with that tire.”

Watching the on-board video from Sebastien Bourdais/No.18 Team SealMaster Dale Coyne Racing Honda, one gains a whole new appreciation for how bumpy is the ride.

There were several stalls and stumble, for the most part no harm-no foul, including but not limited to: Pagenaud, Dixon, Rookie Zachery Clamon de Melo/No.19 The Paysafe Car Dale Coyne Racing Honda, Kaiser, and a couple of cars so fast to recover they weren’t identified.

Someone in a blue car grazed the concrete wall but kept on going. Charlie Kimble/No.23 Tresibe Carlin Chevrolet kissed the front straight concrete wall and continued. It was more like a hen peck.

Takuma Sato - before crash. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Takuma Sato – before crash. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Takuma Sato/No.30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda was the first to really hit the wall. He brought out the Red and Checkered Flag with 12 seconds to go when he hit in Turn One. He came in too hot and slid rear first into the wall, bounced around and hit the front on the same wall. He said “We made good progress today. It was a productive day until the end of the session.”

Newgarden was eating lunch and was late to the mandatory weigh-in after the first IndyCar practice. His punishment was to be parked for the last ten minutes of the second practice.

IndyCar Weigh-in

All 24 drivers were weighed after the first practice session – that session chosen as it’s the least busy for the IndyCar tech team. The weights are averaged, and when the average weight is determined, each driver either is allowed to find ways to delete weight from the car to compensate, or add weight to the car to compensate up to the average weight. Last year Graham Rahal was the ‘heaviest’ of the full-time drivers. This year at this weekend, the specific details are not yet known. But, no matter what is the magic number, Rookie Zach Veach will have to add weight to his car.

Thirty-two HMSA Historic Trans-Am cars are entered for their Challenge race. One of the drivers is John Hildebrand, father of IndyCar driver, JR Hildebrand, and JR is here crewing for his Dad. The Hildebrand 1964 Pontiac GTO is Number 66 – same as JR’s 2018 Indy 500 car. Historic Trans Am cars are required to have a documented history, be prepared to the period specifications, liveried in the manner they raced, and have actually raced in the Trans-Am Series 1966-1972. That is the cutoff date, according to Series Director, Chris van de Griff, as SCCA changed the rules after that and the current Trans Am Series is nothing like the original.

In the Friday afternoon Trans Am session, Chad Raynal/No.64 1969 Chevrolet Camaro was fastest. Second fastest was Karman Cusak/No.22 1968 Ford Mustang. Jimmy Hague/No.16 1970 Ford Boss 302 Mustang was third fastest. Twenty-seven cars were on course.

Robbie Gordon/No.7 was fastest in the midday practice session for his Super Stadium Truck Series. His fastest time was 1:45.6727 including the ramps and jumps. He was followed by Series points leader, Matthew Brabham/No.83, Jeff Hoffman/No.47, Gavin Harlien/No.55 and Blade Hildebrand/No.68. There are 14 Trucks in all.

James Davison

Another IndyCar driver was announced Friday for this year’s Indianapolis 500 race – James Davison of Australia. He will drive No.33 Chevrolet for Foyt Racing-Byrd’s Racing, Hollinger Motorsport and Belardi Auto Racing. Try saying that fast, even once. Last year Davison filled in for the injured Sebastien Bourdais – on short notice. This year Davison is tickled that he will be having his first full two-week program. It was seeing Davison fill in for Bourdais that first brought Davison to the attention of the Byrd Brothers. Hollinger Motorsport supported Davison in last year’s Indy 500. Davison was running fifth when involved in a multi-car pileup.

Conor Daly

For the first time in awhile, there will be more than 33 entries for the 2018 Indy 500. Also running the race is Conor Daly, who will run the No.17 Air Force Honda for Dale Coyne Racing and Thom Burns, who partnered with Buddy Lazier last year. Daly acknowledged that it is a low-budget program so there will be no SIM testing. He is re-viewing his previous race videos and has kept up with his race workout training.

A refresher Indy 500 session will be held on 30 April 2018 at the Brickyard.

Saturday’s IndyCar schedule calls for a morning practice and mid-afternoon qualifying.

Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Photo by Pablo Matamoros