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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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500