I’d got my ski pants on but I was still cold. Shivering in the Silverstone pitlane, waiting for Force India’s new car to be unveiled, I got talking to a colleague about the year ahead.
“Anything fun on the agenda?” I asked.
“Yeah, actually,” he smiled. “I’m moving to the States. Indycar. I can’t wait.”
“Oh wow,” I replied. “Say hi to…” I ran through a list of everyone I knew racing in the championship in my mind… “well… say hi to everyone for me.”
Fast forward seven months and the two of us are standing by the side of a track once again. Only this time, it’s not a cold Silverstone. The sun is beating down on the track formerly known as Sears Point, Sonoma, California. There is not a cloud in the sky. Practice for the GoProGP of Sonoma is well underway, and I have a cold beer in my hand.
“Enjoying it, then?” I ask.
“Are you kidding?” he smiles. “It’s immense.”
This past weekend saw my very first attendance of an Indycar race and I’ve got to be honest, I was blown away. From my first impression to my last, there was very little I could find about the experience that I did not completely love.
My decision to attend the race had been fairly last minute. A free weekend without F1, an Indycar race in the heart of California’s wine region, and the potential of seeing my old friend Giorgio Pantano back behind the wheel had been the primary incentives of the trip away. As it turned out, Giorgio was only required to stand in for Charlie Kimball at Mid Ohio, but the Indycar grid is so populated with drivers I’ve worked with through the years, and the paddock so full of people I’ve known or worked with, I was sure I’d have a good time.
Ganassi’s PR guru Kelby Krauss was my first point of contact, and he put me in touch with Amy Konrath, who heads up PR for Indycar itself. The procedure for accreditation was simple enough and in the days before my departure for the race, I’d had emails including a full press conference and PR commitments timetable for all the teams and drivers, a garage and paddock diagram detailing where I could find everyone, a full list of contacts for the championship, the track and the teams, and even which twitter handles and hashtags I should use when talking about the weekend in order to properly promote the event online.
Colour me impressed.
Sonoma itself sits about an hour and a bit (with a clear run…) north of San Francisco. With that in mind, and considering this was to be a bit of a holiday for me, I thought I’d grab a little bit of style and hire a car befitting such a glorious part of the world. A Ford Mustang seemed to fit the bill, convertible of course. With the Bullitt soundtrack in my bag, I was all primed to spend the first few hours of my time in California driving around San Fran, top down, Lalo Schifrin’s music blaring out of my speakers, pretending I was Steve McQueen… or Frank Bullitt to be more precise. So imagine my giddy joy when I pulled out of SFO and found myself following, I kid you not, a Dodge Charger. I couldn’t stop smiling.
And then I hit San Francisco’s infamous traffic. But with the top down, some good tunes and absolutely glorious weather, I cared not one jot.
I was up early on Friday morning, a combination of jet lag and excitement and made my way into the track, a simple 20 minute drive from my hotel in American Canyon, at which the Ed Carpenter team were also staying. Credentials were picked up in 30 seconds from a very cheery lady, and I made my way down to the paddock and into the media centre. I was stood there for all of 30 seconds before I heard, “Will Buxton?”
“Yes,” I said, turning around.
“What are you doing here?”
It was to be a question I was asked hundreds of times over the weekend, and one I never got tired of answering.
“Long time fan, first time attendee,” I confirmed.
“Wow, well it’s a real pleasure to have you here.”
I stood and talked for half an hour, I think. Well, two mugs of coffee at least, chatting about F1, the summer break, and of course the Mustang / Charger situation from the day before.
It’s a funny thing, but I’d never been anywhere where anybody recognised me before. I’ve been on TV in America for the last three years, but at F1 races I’ve never really bumped into too many people who catch the SPEED broadcast. To be recognised was a slightly surreal but incredibly nice experience.
When I finally walked into the media centre, all the seats had the dreaded reserved stickers on them already. Rocking up on a Friday had been a mistake clearly. I should have got there on Thursday, and reserved my seat. Rookie mistake Buxton, rookie mistake. But hello, what’s this? A seat, reserved for me. Sat on the desk a notepad and pen from the track, a bound volume of results for the current season and an inch thick press kit for the IZOD Indycar Series. Sporting regulations, technical regulations, driver biographies, team histories, contact information, complete historical data, track guides. I was one of the first journalists there (thank you jetlag) and it appeared that pre-reserved seats are a matter of course in Indycar.
Colour me very impressed.
I popped down to Ganassi and found Kelby. He gave me a tour of the garage. One long garage. Housing all the teams. No dividing walls, nothing hidden apart from dampers… open. More open than I was expecting. Then into the trucks, through a few doors and into a briefing room at the back.
“Bloody hell mate, what are you doing here?”
“Long time fan, first time attendee,” I grinned.
“Great place for your first race. Hey, have you heard from Tremayne? Has the crazy bastard done his jet car run yet? How did it go?”
“It went well I think. He’s still in one piece. He sends his best.”
Dario Franchitti is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in motorsport. A proper racer and a real gentleman, we sat down and had a good catch up.
Ten minutes go by and in walks Scott Dixon. He sits down and looks over.
“Oh hi,” he smiles as he holds out his hand to shake. “I know you from the TV!”
“I know YOU from the TV!” I laugh.
Much banter is swapped, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome. We say our goodbyes, I wish the boys luck, and Kelby shows me back to the paddock.
“Anything you need, just ask,” he says.
“I will,” I lie. I don’t want to be a burden. Target, Ganassi’s title sponsor, are bringing 400 guests to the race. It’s Kelby’s busiest event of the year. Having me bending his ear is the last thing he needs. And yet, minutes before practice is due to start, a text lands with my phone… from Kelby.
“If you want to put some headphones on and join us in the pits, come down.”
By this point though, I’m already trackside with Mark Glendenning, he of that chilly Silverstone morning at the Force India launch. I’ve known Mark for many years. He’s worked at Autosport for as long as I can remember, covering GP2 for a number of years. We both used to write for Australasian Motorsport News a few years back. The move to America has been good to him.
He looks fresh faced, happy, spirited. There are only two races left in his season after Sonoma and he looks like it has only just started. He and his wife have picked up everything from the UK and moved out to America, soon to be moving once again to be close to Sonoma.
“You’d like it here,” he attests over a beer at the top of Turn 2, sort of a compressed version of Eau Rouge with less run off and no fences. “It’s a bit like GP2, but with even more fan access.”
Speaking of GP2, I bump into EJ Viso after practice. The Venezuelan, who will always be “Ernie” or “The Furry Wombat” to me, never “E.J.”, has become an integral piece in the Indycar puzzle in recent years. A talented racer who has won in every category he’s ever contested, we go back a good eight years. We hang out for a bit, and then shoot off for dinner. He can’t give me an address, so I just follow his car for 40 minutes, deep into the Californian countryside, until we come across a tiny town and a fabulous Italian restaurant.
Ernie, me, and Team VI5O talk and laugh long into the evening, recounting Formula 3 and P1 motorsport, pool parties in F3000, and the day he nearly bought it in GP2 at Magny Cours. I can sense the frustration in him that he’s not regularly challenging at the front in Indycar, but I can see the desire that still burns and the intelligence to know how and what to change.
Saturday is another sweltering day. It starts off cold however, and over a coffee and a Danish I am invited for an audience with Randy Bernard, the Bernie Ecclestone of Indycar. Quiet, understated, I like him immediately. We talk, we laugh, we discuss F1, Indycar, GP2, GP3, Indy Lights, TV, the past, the future, life, love, loss…
And then the wail of cars. I return to the media centre and find Marshall Pruett of SPEED.com, who takes me trackside.
“We can’t stand here, surely?” I scream at him over the noise of the cars.
“Sure we can,” he laughs. “This isn’t Formula 1. But don’t stand too close to the wall. If something hits it, it’ll move back. Give it a foot.”
I give it about 20ft, and walk up a hill.
Imagine, if you will, a sequence of corners similar to Maggotts and Becketts at Silverstone. Then imagine that there is about 4 metres of runoff at either side and that this run off is fairly dry grass. Then imagine a concrete wall at about knee height. Then a small hill, and a fence up to about head height. The photographers stand behind the knee high wall, shooting cars flying straight at them at over 150mph. No catch fencing. Only a certain part of the wall is covered by a tyre wall. This, I think to myself, must be what F1 was like 25 years ago.
It’s completely insane. It’s ludicrously unsafe. Stupid. Absolutely stupid.
But it is incredible. I feel a rush every time a car flies past my face. I think of how much my photographer friends in F1 would love this. No complaining about the placement of holes in catch fencing for them here. There isn’t any bloody catch fencing.
I jump the fence back to the grandstands and start to walk back to the paddock.
“Will Buxton? What are you…”
“Long time fan, first time attendee…”
A few photos, a nice chat, Lotus’ new rear wing device, can Schumacher win a race, will Alonso take the title, who is my money on for the Indycar race?
It’s lovely to chat to so many fans, something which is repeated as I walk around the main grandstand, through the fanzone, just soaking it all in.
I’ve been welcomed into the Indycar media centre with open arms by fellow journalists and photographers, but when qualifying comes around, I want to be in the stands. I bump into my friend Ashley, and she and I sit in the main grandstand watching qualifying unfold in front of us. I buy myself another cold beer because… well because I can. I’m on holiday and for the first time in ten years I’m at a race track as a fan and not in a professional capacity.
The Penske’s are fast. Unstoppably fast. At least three tenths to half a second over everyone else. There’s no way they’re not going to have this whole weekend sewn up with pace like that.
Back in the paddock I have a catch up with Achim Hofstadter, Rubens Barrichello’s physio, and Rubens himself as he leaves his truck.
“We miss you in F1,” I tell him.
“I miss it too,” he smiles… “sometimes.”
I guess it’s tough for anyone to settle into new surroundings after 20 years in one environment. And although Rubens has made noises about missing racing in F1, the impression he gives is that he is genuinely enjoying his first season in America. He just wants to be more competitive.
Saturday night comes and goes in a blur of an early evening nap, room service and another 4am wake-up. No point in trying to beat jet-lag when I’ve got to have my game face on for Spa in a few days.
And so to Sunday.
I’d been very lucky over the weekend to have been offered two laps of the track. The first was with Johnny O’Connell in the frankly bonkers Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, and the second had come on Saturday in the Honda Civic pace car. It was while waiting for that very ride that I’d had a poke in the ribs and turned around to see a small tanned person with curly grey hair and funky white sunglasses.
“Hey, I heard a rumour you were here. Good to see you. We should get you a lap in the back of my car. How about tomorrow?”
“Well I… yeah… sure… I mean… if it wouldn’t be too much trouble… Um…Wow…”
“Great, it’s done. You’ll love it. It’s the standard engine. They put a turbo in yesterday but I blew it up. The brakes are too small so you can’t get it slowed down enough, but that’s half the fun, right?”
And that’s how I got to have a lap of Sonoma, this incredible undulating, flowing circuit with elements of Spa, the Nordschlieffe, Istanbul Park and Silverstone, with Mario Andretti in the two seater Honda powered IZOD Indycar.
Let me say that again… Mario. Andretti. One of the greatest drivers of all time. A legend. A proper bona fide legend. This was going to be like getting in the ring with Ali, playing five a side with Pele… jamming on stage with Jimi Hendrix. This sort of thing doesn’t happen everyday.
Jamey Price, a hugely talented young American motorsport photographer who flew himself out to Barcelona for pre-season F1 testing was on hand as I got suited up and he graciously shot some lovely images as I prepared to get into the car with the 1978 Formula 1 World Champion.
One of the organisers took me to the side. You’ll be the fourth person in today. Mario’s told me to keep you until then so that the tyres are up to temperature. He wants to give you a proper run.
Now I’ve had a two seater run in the past, with Alan van der Merwe and Bruno Senna in the F1 two seater and those rides were out of this world. But if there’s one downside to the experience it’s that you can see so little. It’s the nature of the beast. However the indycar two seater was different.
In the Indycar, the passenger sits a little higher, and as is the nature of an Indycar, has a hollow roll hoop to look through. As such, I had a fantastic view of the track, and as I looked straight ahead and angled down just a touch, there was an even better view. That silver helmet resplendent with red stripe going front to back.
Chills. Absolute chills.
Mario gave it full beans, through Turns 1 and 2, the Eau Rouge of Sonoma. Falling away down hill, I turned in with him for the left hander at 3, over the blind crest at 4, leaving our stomachs behind as we turned in for the right at 5. Back on the power you rise up to the entry of 6, a smooth long left falling away downhill before blasting up the straight and getting hard on the brakes at the end. We take way too much speed into the re-profiled Turn 7, running high over the exit curbs and run-off, throwing it into the esses and taking to the old track so we didn’t have to slow at the new chicane, before taking Turn 10 flat out. We slow into 11 and the lap is over.
I am in raptures.
My legs are a little wobbly, but I am buzzing. What an experience. What an honour. I’ll say it again… Mario. Andretti. Wow.
I make my way back into the fanzone and buy myself an Indycar cap as a souvenir. I buy a cold beer and walk around watching the world go by.
“Excuse me, but are you Richard Hammond?”
“No,” I reply. “But I have seen him here this weekend. I think he’s around the paddock.”
“Thanks, I love him!”
I make my way to the NBC stage where Kelby has invited me to join him. We wait for Scott to finish his TV spot, and I meet his lovely wife Emma. We all rush together to the grid, as Scott is late for his intro. Emma’s got a dodgy leg. My offer of a piggy back is graciously turned down, so we slow down and let Scott and Kelby run off.
“What happens now?” I ask.
“Just watch,” Emma, who it turns out is from not too far away from where I grew up in England, smiles.
Out of a huge truck, Scott emerges from the roof, like a boyband member dressed in overalls. Fireworks, BOOM. Flames. Tickertape. It’s like McCartney encoring Live and Let Die!
“That’s mental!” I shout.
“You should have seen it at the start of the season. The flames were too low and it was burning their eyebrows!” Emma giggles.
The pre race is now in full swing. I can’t figure out what part of the track we are on, but it turns out we are not on the grid, but in the pitlane, standing by the cars, surrounded not just by VIPS and celebs, drivers, mechanics and engineers… but mostly by fans.
I stand by the green Go Daddy car of James Hinchcliffe. I get an arm around my back.
“Having a good time mate?”
“This is amazing Hinch. Amazing.”
“Knew you’d like it,” he smiles.
Silence falls across the track. A lone female solider sings the anthem.
Chills. For the second time that day.
Then applause, cheering, fans dispersing the grid, sudden movement.
“WHAT THE FU…”
“HOLY SHIT WHAT THE…”
I turn around to run, covering my head. Hinch’s mechanics are in hysterics as the US Army lets off a canon salute on the grid and I jump with every bang.
“I wasn’t expecting that!” I shout.
“You’d never know!” comes the sarcastic reply.
“Good luck guys!”
I make my way off the grid and back to the grandstand. Once again, I want to watch a race from the stands with the fans. I can sit in a media centre anytime. And besides, I’m already sunburnt. My nose can’t get any redder.
The race goes almost the entire duration without a caution period, and then there are two in the final laps, one of which including Sebastian Bourdais and Josef Newgarden which sees the former GP3 star and Indy Lights champion hit the very wall Marshall and I had stood behind in practice a few days before. Everyone is OK.
The race finishes with a surprise win for Ryan Briscoe ahead of Will Power and Dario Franchitti. A Penske 1-2. I stand to the side of the podium, with fans behind me, the team in front and photographers to the right. Wine is drunk. Champagne is sprayed. Interviews are conducted.
And then it’s all over. The cars are packed away, the drivers give their quotes, and everyone leaves.
It’s been an amazing weekend and I have had an incredible time. I’ve been bowled over by Indycar and the way the championship is run. The staff at Sonoma have been amazing and so friendly, Indycar’s staff, from its CEO down, have been welcoming, personable, kind and helpful. The teams have been amazing, none more than Ganassi and Kelby. The paddock is an open community for fans to meet their heroes, a hub of excitement mixed with the smell of grease and carbon fibre. The Indycar media has been so accommodating of me, that I can’t tell if it’s the fuel or dust in the air or a bit of emotion that as I leave the media centre my right eye won’t stop streaming. The drivers are amazing. I must have stopped and spoken with at least two thirds of the grid at some point of the weekend.
As I leave the track in the Mustang, I have time sat in the inevitable traffic to contemplate and reflect on my weekend. And it’s been an amazing weekend. Did I enjoy myself so much because I wasn’t working and could just let my hair down? Or was it something more, something special about the championship?
Ultimately, I think it’s the latter. Indycar, it seems to me, gets an awful lot right. The way it treats its fans, the set-up, the paddock, the fan zone… it’s like a GP2 paddock but more open, more fan friendly, more… just more! It really feels like a community, not just between the teams, drivers and media, but among the fans too.
Would I change anything? Sure. I’d change the pitch of the engine note to make it scream. An Indycar is doing the same speed as an F1 car, but it looks slower because it sounds slower. Such is the problem with running a turbo, but that’s the first thing I’d rectify. I’d probably take up Will Power’s suggestion of a mandated smaller rear wing, if and when teams are allowed to modify the rest of the aero kit. And on that topic, Randy’s going to have to keep costs from Dallara in check as regards the cars. I’d love to see a few European teams, and a few more international races outside America. And I’d either drop the delay on push to pass or just get rid of the gimmick altogether, just as I’d drop DRS and KERS from F1 in a heartbeat.
But these are details.
The simple fact is, Indycar works. It works because it is fun. It works because it understands how racing should be and what the fans should get for the price of their ticket.
I have come away a convert. Many were the times I spoke with lifers in the Indycar paddock who were thrilled with the way the season was going. To many of them, Indycar is headed along a path that will see it return to the golden age of the early 90s. And I believe them.
Just like the first time I saw an F1 car in the flesh, like the first GP2 test I attended, like the first time I stood trackside at Monaco, my weekend in Sonoma made my heart sing.
I’ll be honest, my weekend in California saw me fall a little bit in love… all over again.