Bay-area beauty: The joy of racing in California wine country

Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California during the Save Mart 300 NASCAR race. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR)
As a racing writer, you get on a lot of PR lists. Most of the time, yours is just one of dozens of e-mails that are on the receiving end of a mountain of publicity missives - correspondence elevated above pure junk mail only by the fact that it is targeted to the sport you cover and, occasionally, contains bits of real news that are worthwhile.

Occasionally, though, one of those multitudinous e-mails is addressed to you personally, and even though in your heart of hearts you know that the sender probably only saw your site for the first time that morning, that little extra effort is worth acknowledging.

In this case, an e-mail from the promotional agency involved with the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association went that extra mile. But the reason why I am publishing the link to their VIP trip to Sonoma, CA for the IndyCar event in August has less to do with raising awareness about sugarcane ethanol (hey, at least it's not a commercial for BRAZILIAN COFFEE) than with discussing the enigma that is Infineon Raceway.
Living in Arizona as I do, I'm supposed to be predisposed towards disliking or disdaining anything to do with California. The rivalry between the two states is hotter than a Phoenix summer and there is no love lost when it comes to sports.

But that rivalry doesn't extend to motorsports - thankfully enough, because I have spent some of my best moments in racing at California racing venues. From the smallest track (the lamentably late El Cajon Speedway, for instance) to the biggest superspeedway in Ontario, I've had the pleasure of sampling some of California's best racing venues and disciplines.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that California is one of the nation's most important focal points for the racing industry. After all, the American car culture's heart is in the Golden State. The only real surprise - to me, anyway - is how difficult it has been for big-time racing to make an impact on California lately.

The sprawling Auto Club Speedway in Ontario is arguably Roger Penske's magnum opus as far as his track-building career goes. It is an immaculate facility, wide and spacious, and lends itself to the kind of racing that drivers love - multiple grooves, room to run three- and four-wide comfortably, and fast as lightning. But outside of the first years of the track's existence, filling the grandstands has been an annual struggle regardless of the series running there. The superb IndyCar races there are a thing of the past and even the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has seen swaths of empty seats at its recent Ontario races.

It's a specific example of a disturbing trend at all California tracks - the big series simply don't seem to draw the interest that you'd expect. Which brings me back to the subject of Infineon Raceway.

The twisting multipurpose road course located in the wine country in Sonoma has been a fixture of major league American racing for years. It is located out in some of northern California's prettiest scenery among the many wineries of the region. Rolling hills, trees and greenery surround the area off of Sears Point Road (for which the track was named prior to the Infineon title sponsorship agreement) between Novato in the west and Vallejo in the east and northwest of San Pablo Bay.

I first started watching races at Infineon Raceway twenty years ago, but I didn't really get to appreciate the place first-hand until nearly thirteen years later when I was working PR for a NASCAR Southwest Series team. By the time I got to see it in person, the wine-country ambience had been irrevocably wiped out by new owner Bruton Smith. Smith, the track-owning mogul behind Speedway Motorsports, Inc., had taken bulldozers and graders to the green-covered hills and foliage around the track and had turned it into a dirt brown and asphalt grey wasteland in the name of sight lines and "fan friendliness." The soaring elevation changes remained but were surrounded by a uniform drab desert and blinding aluminum bleachers.

Still, the track still had character - whether it was the heart-bursting hike up the hill to vantage points outside of turn four or the flagging position down at the end of the "esses." What Smith had done to the scenery had done nothing to change the challenges of the track surface (unless you count the new "NASCAR shortcut" that removed the sweeping carousel from Sprint Cup racing forever).

Infineon is a driver's racetrack, no question about it. It is a frustrating mix of technical driving and conservation of momentum that rewards that elusive combination of skill and balls that only the top racers possess. There are some who hate racing in Sonoma... largely because they cannot master it. But for drivers who are up for the challenge, a race at Sonoma offers as many thrills and as much satisfaction as any track in the nation.

It's hard to describe the appeal without actually taking a turn at the wheel. How do you communicate the rush of pointing your car straight at the wall blocking the dragstrip past the start/finish line with your foot flat on the floor, only to wrestle the nose to the left and gasp at the G-forces as your car careens up the hill towards a completely blind right-hand corner? Or the thrill you feel when you discover the proper rhythm through the esses that causes the cars ahead of you to fall within striking distance in the final braking zone?

Simply put, it's like driving a roller coaster, and like the other famous road course in Monterey - Laguna Seca - it is a racer's dream.

And maybe that's part of the problem. Drivers' tracks sometimes aren't fan tracks because of how difficult it is for the racers to gain position on each other. Fans who don't understand the dynamics of driving a track of this type may get impatient with the lack of action that they might see at, say, the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland. TV doesn't help much either because television tends to focus on the leaders and not on the pack - and it is a fact of life that much of the best action on a road or street course occurs behind the top three or four leaders.

The reality is that Infineon Raceway has struggled to fill the facility from the first year that the IZOD IndyCar Series raced there. For me, that's a real shame because of my fondness for the place - both as an observer and as a driver. And that's why I'm taking the folks at the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association up on their request to publicize their contest.

See, Randy Bernard has said that venues that don't perform will end up being excised from the IndyCar schedule. If Infineon Raceway cannot bring their attendance up, it's likely that it will be one of those events dropped. That would be a shame... at least to me.

So click on the contest link and try to get that free VIP trip to Infineon. But even if you don't win, make a point to watch the upcoming IndyCar race there (or, if you live in California, try to get out there in person). It's worth another look, especially if you can see it through fresh eyes. I think you'll find that the racing in wine country to be an excellent vintage.

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