NASCAR takes over Valley
CORKY CAPRARA, with United Striping 101 out of Penngrove, paints the traditional track logo at Sonoma Raceway in preparation for this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday.
OK, it wasn’t a true NASCAR ride; it was a training mule with a passenger seat and it only had 700 horsepower, which meant that when Dave Smith dropped the hammer and pushed the beast into the former Infineon Raceway’s (just can’t quite stop saying it) turn 2, my heart did not entirely stop beating and my vertebral column was not terminally flattened by the G-forces. Breathing was a bit of a challenge, though.
But while we weren’t approaching the ridiculous velocities of the actual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars that will take to the track this weekend, with 850 horsepower and enough torque to twist a tree in half, Dave’s ride was wicked enough, set up for the express purpose of teaching NASCAR drivers how to run a road course.
As we rocketed through 2 and headed for the down-up-down roller coaster of turns 3, 3a and 4, I wondered if this is how Danica Patrick, the former queen of Indy Car racing and now a NASCAR newbie, had learned to handle these 3,450-pound monsters after a career in open-wheeled cars that weigh a solid ton less.
And as the cockpit heat began to slowly baste me inside my quilted, fireproof, Nomex racing suit, I wondered how a woman of Patrick’s modest stature would be able to handle the brutal forces generated by this motorized bull, when an Indy car is more like a turbocharged gazelle.
Alas, we won’t be able to witness the answer to that question since Patrick doesn’t have Sonoma on her 2012 NASCAR dance card, and she’s only running a handful of Sprint Cup races while she acclimatizes herself to the nuances of copious sheet metal and the bump-and-grind tactics of what are euphemistically referred to as “stock” cars. Most of Patrick’s 2012 NASCAR track time will be in the second-tier Nationwide Series where the speeds and the level of competition are a small but significant fraction less severe.
Real NASCAR fans – as opposed to the merely curious who view NASCAR racing with the same interest they have in watching large trucks collide or seeing catapults fling pianos – will be eager to find out how former local icon and fading golden boy Jeff Gordon does in his attempt to win an unprecedented seventh Sonoma race. Gordon, who has set numerous NASCAR records, appears to be on the backside of his career, although he is perpetually in contention against younger, and possibly hungrier, drivers.
Other fans seem to descend on the Sears Point site – and its companion 50 Acres RV park – just to drink extremely expensive beer, roast too much bare skin to a painful pink and ogle the hardware (cars) and the softwear (young women in modest amounts of clothing).
There will, of course, be the usual aerobatic jet planes, the military color guard, the vendors with every aftermarket car part, T-shirt, cap, cozy and even toy cars.
But the racing is front-and-center and is, whether you’re a race fan or not, some of the more exciting motorized competition on the planet. Unlike Indy car racing, which is Miles Davis to NASCAR’s Dwight Yoakim, NASCAR races are visceral, physical and full-contact. In an Indy car race at Sonoma, the lead will change three or four times if you’re lucky and contact typically knocks you out of the race. A start to finish procession is not unheard of.
NASCAR races, on the other hand, involve a kaleidoscope or lead changes and it’s rarely clear until the final lap who’s going to win in what kind of shape. There’s so much contact that missing body parts are almost de rigueur.
Rotating around turn 7, Dave lifts the inside tires completely over the curb and then floors it heading into the esses. The Gs compress my face and I will myself to breathe. I know he’ll be out here on Saturday competing in the Pick-n-Pull Racing to Stop Hunger 200 Pro Series West event, so I figure these are good practice laps for him. But then he does an unexpected downshift, drops into the exit chute and unwinds into the pit lane.
It’s too late to protest. Others are waiting in line. But Dave, really, you stiffed me on a NASCAR lap. I’m taking your IOU. Maybe next year?
For more meaningful details on the weekend’s motoring menu, see the NASCAR story in Sports.