Several IZOD IndyCar drivers had meet and greet opportunities Friday at Sonoma Raceway, ahead of Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Ryan Briscoe
Ryan Briscoe

Last year’s IndyCar race winner, RYAN BRISCOE/No.4 Panther Racing Chevrolet was the first of several.

This is his last race with the Panther team for this season. His regular ride this season is with Level 5 Motorsports in the American Le Mans Series, racing a HPD LMP2. The two series run together at the upcoming Baltimore Grand Prix. While Briscoe would very much like to run both IndyCar and ALMS, “It’s up to Level 5, and they think it’s too dangerous for me to run both races in a weekend.” It was an ongoing discussion, but after his accident at the Toronto IndyCar race where he broke his wrist, Briscoe admits “I lost that argument. The team doesn’t want to take the risk, which at this point is fair enough.”

Briscoe is racing at Sonoma with a brace which protects his hand from flexing back too far, and he is holding up well.”Originally the brace got in the way, but that’s OK now. Briscoe said it was 90 percent healed. “So far, so good. I’ve been training so my squeezing grip is doing well. I tested all day Monday and Tuesday with Level 5.”

Regarding defending his 2012 Sonoma race victor, Briscoe feels confident. “I tested here twice with plenty of miles, I have my experience from last year.”

Briscoe was another driver talking about the tricky wind changes and the tire degradation. “We were starting to get a handle on the setups. There are lots of compromises around the track. Track position is crucial, so getting a good grid position is key – making a good qualifying lap to run up front..

“The tires go off here faster than at any other track. Low grip translates to tire wear. The track has high grip for a lap or two, and it then drops off because of abrasive track surface. NASCAR has the same problem.”

Helio Castroneves
Helio Castroneves

Like Briscoe, current IndyCar points leader, HELIO CASTRONEVES/No.3 Team Penske Racing Chevrolet, also had an Aha Moment in a race not on his regular 2013 schedule. The personable Brazilian had a long-standing engagement to run a Brazilian stock car race, and the date was changed to accommodate his busy schedule. Castroneves has raced with this (top) team before, and the series gave him an extra 50 minutes of solo acclimation time.

Castroneves spotted and pointed out a barrier wall right off which he thought was unsafe, but “I’m just an outsider, and the wall couldn’t be moved.

“The stock car brakes are very different from an IndyCar. I had trouble with the pedal, and it went completely down. I was trying to downshift, at 130-140 mph. I threw it at the wall trying to stop – 140 down to 60 mph. I hit my shin on the dash, which opened a deep small cut on my leg. There’s not much muscle there, just bone, so I had to have stitches. I also had some neck pain from the hard hit. They took all kinds of tests (MRI, C Scans, etc.) I bruised my ribs, but my seat belt actually protected the ribs, so I don’t feel a thing now.

“I raced with this team last year, and the team went to a lot of trouble for me. After NASCAR driver/team owner, TONY STEWART, broke his leg in a Sprint Car dirt track accident I had second thoughts.

“It wasn’t a fun call from Roger” – ROGER PENSKE, Castroneves’ IndyCar team owner.

JR Hildebrand
JR Hildebrand

Local IndyCar driver, JR HILDEBRAND, is racing with Bryan Herta’s Barracuda Racing team this weekend, and the car is parked side by side in the same garage with his former team, Panther Racing. But, life goes on.

A relaxed Hildebrand smiled a lot during the interview. “I’m happy to be back (racing IndyCar.) I’m definitely having fun, and really enjoying it. Having a bit of a hiatus put things a bit more in perspective. I appreciate the opportunity to be back. It had been easy for me to get caught up in the stress of things the past two years. Working with Bryan and the Barracuda team has been fun.

“It’s a part-time situation with Barracuda. I have two and a half years driving and perspective on what it takes to go fast around this track. I feel I”m much better prepared to show up and do well.(JR will race the season’s finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana CA.)

Hildebrand is enjoying working for a former driver. “I thoroughly enjoy having Bryan around, and having access to someone like that, who is invested in it. That’s rare. He’s totally focused on what you’re doing for a long time. I like having him on the pit stand, and what he says and does is quite useful. I’m looking forward to building on it, and pulling more out of him as we go along.”

“Having something to prove this weekend is not how I look at it. It’s me coming out and doing a good job. Collectively me and the team are capable of having a good weekend. Being results oriented doesn’t necessarily make for better results.”

Hildebrand was ninth of 25 drivers in the morning practice session. “Sonoma is definitely a tricky track, and it changes so quickly. Here, the track is more open to the wind. Those changes have a significant impact on the car. When the wind goes the other direction, like last week’s tail wind. If it picks up, the track just goes to junk. There is a lot of grip in the first part of the track, you get a head wind and feel like an animal. Then you get to Turn Nine and go off.

“It’s a task working out with a new team, but we have a good idea on where are focus needs to be and we’re certainly making headway.

“The communication, speaking with my engineer, is going well. We’ve definitely had conversations just about that. Everyone is different, what they want, what can I give, and each team handles it differently. We had a test day to work on that. Now we’re sort of dialing it in as we go along.

“In qualifying, the blacks (primary Firestone tires) are great for two to three laps and then they start to degrade, and reds (alternate tires) are the same for qualifying. We take a look at the flag – it helps determine how to drive the track.

Hildebrand was asked to compare Honda’s single turbo (current car) to Chevrolet’s twin turbo (his former car.) “The Honda definitely a bit different. The cars are pretty equally matched around this circuit, manufacturer wise.” But the politic JR, saying as he was looking straight at DAN LAYTON, Honda IndyCar PR, “Here’s a ‘cryptic hint’ – The difference is not what you expect to be different. We have the ability with the Honda power to do quite well here.”