motorsports, nascar, sports

NASCAR at Sonoma Raceway

 

It’s taken me years to say this openly, but here it goes: I love NASCAR.

When I tell people I’m a lifelong NASCAR fan, I usually get a funny look from them in response. The stereotype is that stock car racing is for rednecks, folks from small towns with small minds who like getting drunk in the sun and yelling “Woo!” at cars that turn left.

But that isn’t the case. Twice a year the cars turn right, when they go on road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

And lots of different kinds of people like NASCAR. I’ve met people from around the world at tracks, and in general race fans are friendly, intelligent, generous people. There are some lame fans, but that’s typical of any sports fanbase.

And people like NASCAR for a variety of reasons. Some fans get into the sport cos they love competition, which NASCAR has plenty of–between drivers, teammates, man and machine. And some people were just born into families that have a lot of car-related hobbies. That’s what happened to me.

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The Sundays of my childhood were spent watching the weekly NASCAR and NHRA races with my dad on stolen cable. My dad liked to come up with plans for our own race team. Dad would be my crew chief, obviously. He would also help the sponsors make my commercials, since he came up with awesome ideas like “Just as you cross the finish line the camera cuts to inside the car, and you lift your visor and say ‘Maybe it’s Maybelline!’ with a wink to the camera. Then it cuts to you doing a burnout! You can get free mascara or whatever!”. Free mascara! My dad was a genius.

Our stock car racing dreams still haven’t come to fruition, but those Sundays watching stock cars and drag racing made me a huge race fan. I follow NASCAR, NHRA and Formula 1 closely, and I’m starting to get into Formula E and MOTOGP too. But if it has wheels and a motor and is on television, I will watch it. I don’t discriminate.

Of all the races in the season, the Sonoma NASCAR race is the one I look forward to the most, since it’s close enough to attend and is one of the rare road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule. A road course! Right turns!

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much right turn very DogeCar WOW

For the last two years I’ve gone to the race with my boyfriend and a group of his pals. They’re mostly in it for the tailgating experience and don’t really follow racing. I’m so into this stupid sport I’ve had a fantasy NASCAR team called Dick’s Trickles. Did you even know there was fantasy NASCAR? Or a driver called Dick Trickle? This is not my first rodeo.

It’s actually kind of hard for me to be at a race, since watching at home affords constant delivery of statistics and updates from crews, and I’m nerdy so I like to hear about telemetry and fuel strategies while I watch. You can rent scanners to hear the crews, but for some reason I never do so. Sitting down the whole time (three whole hours, maybe more!) is completely out of the question for me. So instead of spending my day getting super drunk with everyone else in the sun, I spent it walking around the track taking in the NASCAR at Sonoma experience while just a little bit drunk.

The Flyover

Every NASCAR race starts with the same pre-race festivities including an invocation, which is a prayer that is usually delivered by a track chaplain but could really be anyone. Sometimes they mention sponsors. I dare you to keep a straight face while a ‘man of God’ names race sponsors like Cheez-it and Quicken Loans.

There’s also  the national anthem, and timed to coincide with the last few words of the song, the flyover.

I love planes. They are like race cars that are too cool for the ground. NASCAR must know this, because they get planes to come fly over the racetrack. The flyover is one of the highlights of the race to me. While nothing will beat the two Stealth bombers I saw at the Vegas race one year, every flyover is super rad. Big loud planes make me feel like a little kid again.

Weeee! I dare you not to think about racing jets. 

California Love

NASCAR is based out of North Carolina, and the sport has roots in illegal alcohol trading during the Prohibition period. Most of the races, teams and drivers live on the East Coast of the US, but the sport is growing nationwide. Twelve drivers from California qualified for this race, including the pole sitter AJ Allmendinger of Los Gatos, Kyle Larson of Elk Grove, and Jeff Gordon of Vallejo. Larson grew up a huge fan of Jeff Gordon, even attending races at Sonoma in a Jeff Gordon costume as kid.

Fast forward a few years and Larson just broke the track record at Sonoma during qualifying, breaking the one held by his idol Jeff Gordon. At one point all three of the NorCal drivers were in the top five, a fact I proudly proclaimed like I was the Pierre McGuire of stock car racing.

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Kurt Busch, pole-sitter AJ Allmendinger from Leigh High School in Los Gatos, CA, Kyle Larson from Elk Grove High School in Elk Grove, CA, and Jeff Gordon round Turn 7…Doc.

Also making the start in this race were my girl Danica Patrick, my longtime favorite driver Dale Earnhardt Jr, Josh Wise in the Reddit-funded/designed DogeCoin car, and Landon Cassill. I’ve been a Landon fan since I found out we have the same birthday and he is also vegan. Landon tweeted a very helpful map of the course before the race and I replied that I had vegan snacks in Turn 7 and squealed like a little fangirl when he fav’d it. When Landon passed Turn 7, I raised my carrots and hummus to salute him. I also found the spot he marked as “named after Dale”. I am pretty sure every track on the Cup circuit has something–a grandstand, garage, terrace–named for Dale Earnhardt.

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Hometown Hero 24

This race was also a celebration of Jeff Gordon. Gordon owns this track: most top 5’s, top 10’s, wins, starts, finishes, laps and laps led of any driver.

I’m not a huge Gordon fan myself. When I was in high school, my dad and I would go to NASCAR Breakfast at the bar and grill in Campbell. They put the race on all the televisions and you could order off a special menu. I always ordered the #24 Jeff Gordon plate which had no meat. Such a dumb joke. That is the extent of my affinity for Jeff Gordon.

This is Gordon’s last year racing full time in the Sprint Cup series; after 2015, he’ll be working as a broadcaster for Fox Sports. For his final tour of the full Cup circuit, every track has done to celebrate Gordon’s success in the sport. Sonoma was no exception.

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Rally towels with Gordon’s number and the date were passed out to fans before the race, with instructions to wave them as Gordon makes his 24th lap around the track. The crowd obediently stood and waved, some without towels removing and waving their hats in tribute, as Gordon passed by on his 24th lap.

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This little guy's mom told me
This little guy’s mom told me “He’s a HUGE Gordon fan!”

This was *the* race for Gordon fan to show their pride. I met another little Jeff Gordon (just like Kyle Larson!) whose dad made him this sweet replica car made to look like one of Gordon’s old DuPont schemes.

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And I met a couple who has matching Jeff Gordon shirts!

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I promise you that girl is wearing white shorts

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The most popular flags of the weekend were also for Jeff Gordon. Don’t have one? Make one! At this week’s Daytona race, you can exchange a racist secessionist flag for a less offensive American one. No word yet on if you can exchange Kyle Busch flags for less offensive Kyle Larson ones.

PEople Watching

Walking through the tunnel to where the souvenir haulers were parked, I overheard a man say, “I liked the other wine we tried…the uh, Petite Sarong?”. Welcome to NASCAR at Sonoma, a place to try new things.

There is so much great people watching to be had at races of any time. Race fans, like I said, are very diverse. But they are insanely passionate. They don’t just have t-shirts and hats, they get tattoos. And they drink Petite Sarong.

BAD KARMA PILEUP

I stopped in front of the hauler selling Danica Patrick souvenirs to send my dad a photo of myself captioned “hanging out with Danica!”. He thinks these are cute, I promise.

Hanging out wit Danica
Hanging out with Danica

Next to me were two middle-aged men who also wanted to “take pictures with” Danica. But their idea was to pose with Danica with one hand grabbing her chest while making a honking noise…right next to the families in line to buy Danica gear.

I was incensed, but also inebriated, so I resisted my urge to rage and decided to just mess with them a little. I pretended to have no clue the grabby man’s friend was trying to take his picture, intentionally walking and standing in between the camera and the subject. I took great pains to appear oblivious and somehow always in the way.

They then moved positions, carefully placing their metal bottles of Coors Light on the ground. I moved too, and now stood next to the man with the camera. I propped up my sunglasses, and shook my head while reaching deep into the darkest, gothest parts my soul to power the scariest disapproving stare I could produce, directed right at Grabby.

I wasn’t sure how far to take this: should I go full Amy Schumer and just fall down in front of them wherever they went? Should I try to talk to them about how to show respect to women and the girls who look up to them? I desperately wanted to order up some justice for their public display of sexist behaviour but I didn’t have to–justice served itself!

When the cameraman of the pair stepped towards his friend to show him their masterpiece, he exposed their semi-open beers and another fan accidentally kicked them over. The cap to the beers loosened and a huge shower of beer erupted, covering the only people stupid enough to run towards an exploding bottle of Coors Light, Grabby and his photographer. Instant. Karma. Thank you, universe!

The fan who caused the accident tried to hand over a $20 bill to cover the beer he kicked, but the Grabby one saw me still giving him the evilest of eyes and sheepishly said “No…it’s my fault” to the offer and walked away red in the face. Then I took my picture, sent it to my dad, and proceeded to enjoy the race because I had neither egg on my face nor beer on my pants, unlike Grabby and his friend.

AROUND THE TRACK

Pit road is usually in the middle of the track, but since Sonoma’s course isn’t an ovalish shape, pit road runs along the front of the grandstand. You can walk right up to the fence and stand a few meters from the pit box of a driver. NASCAR in general is incredibly accessible to fans; you can get passes that allow you entry to the pit boxes and garage area. Imagine getting a ticket to stand in the tunnel or in the locker room at a hockey game–HOT passes are kinda like that.

'Can we hurry up and finish this race so I can go wine tasting with the girls?'
‘Can we hurry up and finish this race so I can go wine tasting with the girls?’

I didn’t have one, but for several laps I stood behind the pits for Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, waiting at first to see if they’d pit so I could see some sweet, fast pit crew action. There was also a TV, so I watched the race broadcast from the race.

One of Bayne’s front tire chargers has a super rad rainbow mirrored visor on his matte black helmet, and I was just drunk enough to think it was the coolest thing ever. His gas man’s silver safety apron was also really pretty in the sun, reflecting rainbows in my sunglasses. Then I saw a photographer walk by with glittery pink lens hoods on her sexy Canon lenses. What the heck did I drink? Everything is so shiny and pretty on pit road!

In total I spent over 20 laps standing and staring at the 6 team, waiting for them to spring into action. It turns out being on a pit crew is really boring except for the parts where you’re prepping or pitting.

Continuing my mission to experience all of the track, I walked to the bridge that runs over part of the track and watched from there for a few laps. As the cars pass below, their massive 700+ horsepower engines cause the metal bridge to vibrate. Later I walked to the top of the chute and watched in awe as cars flew past me into a hard right turn, then over/around a rumble strip as wide as the car and directly towards a wall, only to steer away at the last moment to avoid colliding with it and then further down the hill towards the next turn.

I don’t think I have the balls to do that. It depends on how good that free mascara is though.

Later in our seats, at the very end of the race, Danica clipped a car and spun out into the dirt. The crowd groaned, expecting a caution, but Danica pulled it back together and got back onto the track without a yellow flag being called! Way to go road racing, Danica! That’s why she can get free mascara and not me.

WRONG KYLE

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In the end, Kyle Busch won. His brother Kurt took second, making this the first Sprint Cup race the Busch brothers have placed first and second. While a Polish victory lap (one taken counterclockwise around the track) is traditional after wins at speedways, at it’s safer to do a regular lap at Sonoma. When Kyle did his celebratory burn out (winner always does a burnout too, I told you this sport rules) right in front of us in Turn 7, I joined the rest of the crowd in raising middle fingers and said to myself “You’re the wrong Kyle! I wanted the other one!”. I’m all about sportsmanship, and I think it’s really important to show good sportsmanship as a fan, but I still boo the Busch brothers. I dislike them that much.

Sonoma is a notoriously bad track for Dale Jr, but this year he placed 7th for his second consecutive top 10 at this track. Kyle Larson finished 15th, just ahead of Jeff Gordon. Danica took 24th position, which has to be good luck considering it was a race celebrating #24. Allmendinger’s team had issues with their fuel cell, so his day ended in the back of the field, several laps down.

I fared surprisingly well given I had made three terrible decisions to start my day: having no breakfast but slamming a Rockstar energy drink in the car, wearing a black t-shirt, and start drinking as soon as I got to the track and before eating. At no point did I feel too drunk or too hot–can’t say the same for the rest of our party. I also walked the entire perimeter of the track, something I’d never done before. A large hat and three applications of very strong sunscreen saved me from getting burned, and a friend remarked today that I looked “maybe like a tiny bit darker”, so my summer tan has officially arrived! I was pretty worried about finding food I could eat but I was provided with a PB&J by the leader of our group, and they were handing out free snacks near the concessions that happened to be vegan. And of course, I brought hummus.

Congrats on your win, Kyle Busch. I hope you enjoy your Sonoma County Petite Sarong!

What do you think about NASCAR? Have you ever been to a race, or are you a fan of another kind of racing? Share your stories in the comments!

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