I recently attended the 2011 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway and was immediately struck by how different the experience was to the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis that I attended in 2002. This post is a quick recap of what I saw at Sonoma and why F1 needs to change and become more fan accessible.
I am a massive F1 fan and have missed watching only a handful of races since I started watching it in 1995. When I moved to the US in 2002 and got funding for my Masters degree the very first thing I did was start planning a trip to the 2002 US Grand Prix at Indianapolis. While it was a good race and a decent experience I was not particularly blown away by the live experience and decided at that point that it made more sense to watch the races on TV where you are way more comfortable and can follow much more of the race. Saving over a thousand dollars on tickets, hotels and airfare made it much easier decision as well. I instead spent my $$$ on track days, Lemons racing and making my annual visit top the Monterey Motorsports Reunion. This year though I attended the 2011 Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway and was absolutely blown away by the fan friendliness of the event and have resolved to make this an annual event for me as well. The following is a quick recap of my experience at the event.
First off the tickets are significantly cheaper, since the race promoters don’t have to pay Bernie Ecclestones extortionist prices they are able to give the fans a much more reasonably priced experience. For just $109 I was able to purchase the Legends of Indycar package which included a reserved covered grand stand seat, garage pass, pit pass, Indycar legends Q & A session (Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Jr) and free parking. Compared to the ~$200 it cost for just weekend grandstand tickets to the USGP 10 years ago it was an unbelievable bargain.
When I actually arrived at the track, I was amazed to see the main grandstand literally overlooks the pits (the pic above is from row 1 of the stands). Since I had gotten there a bit early I walked over to the garage area (Infineon Garages are about 30m away from the actual pits themselves). to have a look. All of the cars were lined up in front of the garages and the mechanics were waiting for the track to open before pulling them into the pits. The garage pass allowed me to walk through the entire area and the mechanics were happy to let the fans take/pose for as many pictures as they wanted. In addition the teams trailers were across from the garages and you could see the mechanics and drivers leaving after their morning briefing (that’s me with Takuma Sato below).
After walking around the garages for a bit I decided to walk into the pits area to see what kind of access I had. Incredibly for just $109 my pit pass gave me full access to the pitlane for all of the morning events right up to 30 minutes before the actual race start. This meant I could watch the morning practice from the pit lane just 20 feet from the race cars and literally looking over the shoulders of the pit crew. Additionally the morning practice was delayed due to fog which meant that the drivers were also spending some time in the pits which led to a lot of photo and autograph opportunities. The drivers are very cool and were happily spending time talking to the fans that were in the pits. Taku had several Japanese fans following him around while Sebastien Bourdais was just wandering around the pits. While most of the drivers I saw were quite cool, I have to say that Dario Franchitti was being a bit of dick and intentionally avoided the fans who had queued up for his autograph after the session.
Eventually the practice did get underway and it way an amazing experience to be able to stand that close to the cars as they accelerate out of the puts and thunder through turn 1. You are close enough to feel the vibrations as they go past and see them bob over the bump at the exit of the turn. The pit lane experience by itself is enough to turn even the most casual of attendees into a hard core race fan.
Next was the Q&A session with the Indycar legends. Nothing particularly spectacular learned but it was great to see the friendships that still existed between the guys and also their memories of old races. I was able to get Marios autograph on the piston off his own Lotus 81.
After the Q&A I went back to my seat and watched the Historic Grand Prix race. Ex-Lotus IMSA driver Doc Bundy was on pole in Marios Lotus 79 and ended up finishing in second place after a race-long battle with a Williams. The historic cars sounded great and the drivers were pushing quite hard for someone driving irreplaceable million dollar machines 🙂 Click here to watch a quick video of the start of the race as well as the view from my grandstand seats.
After this there was about an hour long break which was filled in by an airshow by the Patriots Jet Team. Surprisingly this was the first airshow I was watching in the US and I have to say it was a lot of fun. It also fits in very well with the speed theme of the weekend and the hour in between just sped by. Special note of some of the crazy low passes that the pilots were making below the level of the grandstands.
At this point I suddenly remembered that I needed to buy some gloves from Wine Country Motorsports which ended up taking a little longer than expected and I ended up missing the start of the race. On the way back to the stands I took a shortcut through the garage and ended up watching the first few laps from the windows at the back of the actual team garages – the clip below is the hairpin at the end of lap 1.
While it was an awesome location to watch the race from, the clip does show the problem with the Indycar race in general – there was absolutely no attempt at passing especially through the Turn 11 hairpin section (admittedly a different hairpin that NASCAR but still). I ended up watching 50 laps of the 75 laps of the race and I think I saw only one pass for position during that entire time and even that was on the big screen. Its pretty sad that 30 year old F1 cars put on a better show than the premiere american open wheel series on the very same track.
All in all while the main race itself was boring I had an awesome time at the event and I will definitely be coming back next year. Being in the thick of the action was a real eye opener and really gets you excited about the sport – I will actually watch the Indycar races on TV this year rather than immediately change the channel. What F1 really needs to understand is that by bringing fans closer to the action and getting the interaction with the drivers is the best way that you can grow the sports – no DRS required.