Photo: Mike Finnegan/INDYCAR

Event Preview: The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

This coming weekend the Verizon Indycar Series will race at Sonoma Raceway for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. The event is slated for September 16-18, 2016.

About the Race

The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma is the sixteenth and final round for the Verizon Indycar Series in 2016. The event is held on a natural terrain road course, one of six such races on the schedule. The race will decide the 2016 Indycar Series Championship, and pay double points.

This will be the thirteenth race for Indy cars at Sonoma. The 2015 event was won by Target Chip Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, who also won the 2015 Championship.

The race will consist of 85 laps for a total race distance of 195.80 miles. Standard road course qualifying procedures will apply. Support races include action from the Pirelli World Challenge cars.

About the Track

Sonoma Raceway is a natural terrain road course that features twelve turns and 160 feet of elevation change over 2.385 miles. The racing circuit also offers a short-course variation that is utilized by NASCAR, as well as a slightly modified long course used for motorcycle events, and a full-length drag strip. The facility is used year-round with a combination of professional events, club races, and driving schools.

Sonoma Raceway opened in 1968 under the name Sears Point Raceway, named for the nearby Sears Point Ranch that was established in 1850 during the California Gold Rush. Original owners Robert Marshall and Jim Coleman sold the track to Filmways Inc. in 1969. The Los Angeles entertainment company then closed the track in 1970, ostensibly because they wished to use the facility as a tax shelter after reporting profit losses of $300,000.

The facility lie dormant until 1973 when Parker Archer and Hugh Harn reached an agreement to lease the track from Filmways. Bob Bondurant was named as the track’s manager, and racing resumed.

When Riverside International Raceway closed in 1988, NASCAR was looking for a West-coast road course to replace the race, and began racing at Sears Point in 1989, becoming one of the facility’s most poplar events.

Ownership of the raceway was acquired by Speedway Motorsports Inc. in 1996. SMI sunk nearly $40 million into the property to renovate and modernize the track and its surrounding areas. In 2002 Sears Point was renamed Infineon Raceway after a corporate-naming agreement was signed with. That agreement expired in 2012, and the facility has been known simply as Sonoma Raceway ever since.

Located in Sonoma County, in the heart of California wine country, the Raceway is less than two hours north of the major population center of San Francisco. The grounds feature 47,000 permanent grandstand seats, and general admission seating area for thousands more.

Event History

The USAC series first ran an Indycar event at Sears Point in 1970 dubbed the Golden Gate 150. Dan Gurney took the win in his Eagle-Ford ahead of Mario Andretti. The even turned out to be a one-off as the track was closed later that year.

Indycars did not return to the Sonoma Valley until 2005, when the Indy Racing League was looking to add road racing to the formerly all-oval series. Tony Kanaan was the winner in the inaugural event for the Indy Racing League, and in 2006, Sonoma was the site of the first series win for Marco Andretti.

In 2015, Sonoma replaced Fontana as the season ending race for the Verizon Indycar Series, and the event was announced as a double-points race. This season Sonoma once again holds this distinction, and is slated as the season-ender for 2017 as well.

About the Field

The 2016 Verizon Indycar field represents one of the strongest, talent-packed, top-to-bottom lineups we have seen in years.

22 drivers will take the green flag at Sonoma. Of those, five are former winners in wine country. Scott Dixon and Will Power each have three wins while Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves have one victory apiece.

The current season points leader is Simon Pagenaud, who drives the No. 22 Chevrolet for Team Penske. Pagenaud holds a 43 point lead over teammate Will Power coming out of Watkins Glen. No other drivers are mathematically eligible for the title and it should be an exciting show between the two drivers who have combined for eight wins in 2016.

Sixteen of the entered drivers are Indycar race winners, six have won championships in IndyCar or CART/Champ Car, and six are Indy 500 winners. Three of the drivers will be contending for rookie of the year honors: Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly, and Max Chilton. Rossi currently leads that group by a decisive margin after taking a win in the Indianapolis 500, an event that paid double-points.

Drivers in the series represent eleven different countries around the globe, making it a truly international field.

About the Series

The current Verizon Indycar Series was born out of the Indy Racing League, which absorbed the rival ChampCar World Series in 2008. In the years since the reunification, the series has seen slow, but steady growth.

Over the past several seasons the racing produced by the series has been second to none, and the Championship battle has gone down to the final race.

Without the benefit of a gimmick like the Chase, the Verizon Indycar Series has produced enough close racing and drama to satisfy the racing fan.

The positive growth in recent years bodes well for the Series that is owned by Hulman and Company. The centerpiece of the series is the Indianapolis 500, which celebrated its historic 100th running this season.

Teams in the series use a common chassis, the Dallara DW-12, named in honor of the late Dan Wheldon, who did much of the development testing of the car. The chassis has aerodynamic components that differ according to the engine manufacturer.

Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners for the Series with each supplying a 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engine to the teams that are capable of producing over 700 hp at 12200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.

Where and When to Watch

Tickets for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma can be purchased here. Pricing ranges from $39.00 for a general admission ticket up to $99.00 for an all-access package that includes reserved seating and pit and paddock passes. Children 12 and under are free.

Television coverage will be provided by NBC-SN.  Race coverage will begin at 6:30 pm EST on Sunday September 18. Practice and qualifying will also be televised on NBC-SN Friday at 4:30 pm EST and Saturday at 6:00 pm EST.

Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212). Timing and scoring can be found at www.indycar.com and fans can keep up with all of the action on the Indycar Mobile app provided by Verizon Communications.

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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