Scenes like this will be no longer at Sonoma Raceway after Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar says goodbye to Sonoma Raceway today: so long wine, hello lettuce

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SONOMA, California – For the last 14 years, the IndyCar Series loved to race at Sonoma Raceway.

Not only was the racetrack one of the most challenging permanent road courses in the country, it had ambience that most other tracks on the circuit would love to have.

There were the picturesque rolling hills that surrounded the track, and the charming flock of sheep that keep the grass trimmed.

Sheep?

Yes, the track truly employs a herd of a few thousand sheep that “cut” the grass virtually every day – and there’s sure plenty of land to munch upon.

Going to the races at Sonoma also meant there was all the touristy things to do in the City by the Bay, San Francisco, less than an hour south.

And to the north around the town of Napa, there were world-famous wineries that drivers, team members, media and fans alike all loved to visit … and do a bit of tasting, of course.

Sadly, that all comes to an end Sunday. The Grand Prix of Sonoma will make its 14th and final run at the Speedway Motorsports Inc. facility.

Next year, the season-ending IndyCar race shifts to WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway, about 150 miles south in Monterey, California. In a sense, it will be déjà vu of sorts for IndyCar, which returns to Laguna Seca for the first time since 2004, one year before it shifted to Sonoma Raceway.

According to a recent story in the Sacramento Bee, racetrack president and general manager Steve Page said there needed to be a “sustainable business model” to keep – or now, perhaps some day return – IndyCar to its track.

There have been reports that even though the so-called wine-and-cheese crowd loves to come watch the sleek open-wheel Indy car race cars at Sonoma, the race weekend was a losing economic proposition for the track for at least the last several years.

While several drivers have talked this weekend that they would like to see the series to return to Sonoma one day soon, that won’t be happening for at least the next three years – the length of IndyCar’s new contract with Laguna Seca.

“We wish IndyCar and our friends at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca the very best with their new event,” Page said in a statement when the shift to Laguna Seca was first announced in July.

Forget for now that both tracks will one day host races in the same IndyCar season. Sonoma officials have said it’s “not economically viable” to hold two races at two different tracks per year in Northern California (although some would argue that Laguna Seca is more in Central California).

But here’s where the interesting part comes in: for years, Texas Motor Speedway outright rejected any bid by IndyCar to also hold a race at Circuit of the Americas.

Well, TMS will become bosom buddies with COTA next season, as the latter joins the IndyCar circuit for the first time.

COTA is about 225 miles south of Fort Worth, a bit further than Laguna Seca is from Sonoma. But it will be interesting to see if the crowd base is significantly impacted at either track because there’s now two tracks holding IndyCar races within less than three months of each other.

In theory, there should be enough IndyCar fans to go around so that Sonoma and Laguna Seca could peacefully co-exist and be economically viable.

But that’s an argument to be explored for another day … or three years.

Including Sunday, Sonoma will have held the IndyCar season finale for the last four years, dating back to 2015. In doing so, it’s carried on a great tradition, one that has dated back 13 years, where the series’ championship has been decided in the final race of the season.

In an ironic twist, that 2015 race has been etched in IndyCar history as one of the most remarkable comebacks the sport has ever seen.

Scott Dixon entered the race 47 points behind series leader Juan Pablo Montoya, yet pulled off a stunning rally to not only win the race, but also to earn his fourth IndyCar championship.

Now, four years later, Dixon – if he wins – will bookend the season finale run at Sonoma with his fifth championship. He enters Sunday’s race with a decent – but not comfortable by any means – 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi.

If Dixon wins, he’ll become only the second driver in IndyCar history to win at least five championships (A.J. Foyt has seven).

If Rossi wins, it’ll be fitting that the Nevada City, California native captures the last IndyCar race for at least the foreseeable future – if ever again – at his home track.

When Sunday’s race ends and the new champ is crowned, doused in wine and champagne and proudly trots the championship trophy home, Sonoma Raceway is still going to end the day losing because IndyCar won’t be coming back again any time soon.

If ever again.

Oh yeah, by the way, not to disrespect Laguna, but there’s one other thing to point out that only adds to the loss of Sonoma from the IndyCar schedule.

As afore-mentioned, while IndyCar team members and race fans loved going on wine tasting excursions around Sonoma — where grapes are king — somehow, the top agricultural product of the area around Laguna Seca just doesn’t have the same tourist lure, attraction and cache:

Lettuce.

Well, then again, there is lettuce wine to look forward to, right?

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Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”