Why does IndyCar love Sonoma?

Since 2015 Sonoma Raceway has hosted the Verizon IndyCar season finale. The venue for that has crowned the last 3 IndyCar champions is however as far removed from the ideal venue as one can imagine.

Carlos Munoz IndyCar Sonoma
Carlos Munoz sweeps out of turn 2 at Sonoma Raceway. (Image: IndyCar/Skibinski)

Prior to the 2017 season finale, AP’s Jenna Fryer was effusive in her praise of IndyCar’s ability to create an exciting season climax organically. No NASCAR stage racing, no playoffs, no gimmicks (double points aside).

All true and all very positive for the series. Except of course that hosting it at Sonoma pretty much undermines all the good work. Here’s a quick rundown of the main reasons – in my opinion – why.

Processional races

Sonoma Raceway does not lend itself to anything other than a processional IndyCar race. The two hairpin turns that should offer scope for excitement tend to be sources of accidents rather than breath-taking overtakes. The rest of the circuit features sweeping turns that are best taken in single-file.

Josef Newgarden Helio Castroneves IndyCar Sonoma 2017
2017 IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden leads Helio Castroneves at Sonoma Raceway. (Image: IndyCar/Owens)

The quality of overtaking across the balance of the IndyCar season is extremely high. In practice that makes simple ‘who can brake the latest’ passes at Sonoma’s hairpins rather tame. Especially for the winner-takes-all final race of the season.

A few fans and some tumbleweed

IndyCar should be embarrassed by the attendance at Sonoma. Perhaps 5 or so years ago a typical Sonoma crowd would have been considered par for the course during IndyCar’s recovery period.

Sonoma Raceway IndyCar 2017 season finale
The 2017 IndyCar season finale played out in front of a typically poor attendance at Sonoma Raceway. (Image: IndyCar)

Fast forward to 2017 and bumper crowds at Long Beach, Road America, Detroit, St Petersburg and even Gateway (in context) mean it should be an even greater source of embarrassment.

Sonoma has been on the series schedule since 2005 and the season finale since 2015. During that time attendances seen to have remained pretty stagnant. The championship is strong enough now to be able to dump venues – especially road courses – that are not delivering on promotion and attendances. Sonoma feels a lot like a prime candidate in this regard.

What time is it?

Sonoma’s west-coast location and Pacific time-zone is a real headache for IndyCar.

The 2017 race started at 6.30pm ET meaning Josef Newgarden was not out of his Penske Chevrolet and crowned champion until around 8.45pm ET.

The net result was a race that ran during Sunday evening meal times from New York to Indianapolis and a limited window of opportunity to garner media coverage post-race across the rest of the country.

Josef Newgarden IndyCar 2017 champion
2017 IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. (Image: IndyCar)

Arguably this is better than the 4.30pm ET start for Long Beach. But Long Beach is Long Beach.

It offers bumper crowds and a heritage and prestige Sonoma simply cannot touch. That goes a long way to offsetting the late start and finish across the rest of the US. And more importantly it is not the season finale.

Media coverage

Having your champion crowned on the west coast on a Sunday evening presents a massive challenge to IndyCar in terms of media exposure.

By the time the champion is decided, half the country is winding down for the start of the working week or glued to the NFL’s Sunday fixtures.

Even if Josef Newgarden had been dropped in front of as many media outlets as possible post-race, he would still have been on-air no earlier than 9pm ET and potentially later.

There are good reasons why NASCAR hosts its season finale in south Florida with a 2.30pm ET start. Hint: balmy November weather is not the main one.

The bottom line

It is hard to determine the reasons why the series would choose to host its season finale at Sonoma. Conversely there are plenty of reasons why it makes little sense for the series to choose it for the championship climax.

Leading in to the 2018 season IndyCar has much to be excited about. A new car of sorts, the expectation of even better racing, an American champion and as stable a calendar as the championship has had in decades.

Yes there are still problems – oval attendances remain stubbornly low, a new TV deal remains undecided and Verizon is about to walk away from its title sponsorship. Sonoma as the final race of the season can be included in that list of significant issues.

Ultimately there is little point in celebrating IndyCar’s ability to create a cliff-hanger of a season finale if it continues to host it at such an unsuitable venue.

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