Alexander Rossi credits Sonoma Raceway as his “entry into motor sports.”
It’s where the Nevada City native first put pedal to metal in a kart race when he was 11 years old, and it’s where he watched his father race. On Sunday, he will help usher out an era at the 12-turn, 2.52-mile road course.
The IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma not only marks the conclusion of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, but the end of IndyCar racing at the track for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very cool to go back there at this point in my career and have things almost come full circle,” said Rossi, who is in his third IndyCar season. “It will always have a pretty special place in my life, no doubt.”
Next year the series will run its finale at Laguna Seca. It will be the first time in 15 years IndyCar will race at the track in Salinas.
Meanwhile, the series’ run at the road course 70 miles southwest of Sacramento comes to an end after 14 years — which could make clinching the championship even sweeter for Rossi.
“You want to win regardless of where it is, but the fact that I will have so many people there because of its location would make it even more special,” said Rossi, who in 2016 became the first American rookie since 1928 to win the Indianapolis 500, known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. “There’s something to be said for athletes having a ‘home crowd’ kind of advantage. That energy will be all positive going into the weekend and hopefully we can capitalize on it, because it will go down in history as potentially being the last person to win a championship there.”
Rossi trails series leader Scott Dixon by 29 points heading into Sunday’s finale, where points are doubled. Also in the hunt are Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who are each 87 points off the lead.
Mixed signals on a possible return
The decision by IndyCar to move their Northern California race from Sonoma to Laguna Seca was first announced in July.
Steve Page, raceway president and general manager, said in a statement a “sustainable business model” would be needed for the track to stay on the IndyCar lineup.
There are no current talks to bring the series back to Sonoma, according to Diana Brennan, the raceway’s vice president of communications and marketing, but if it happens, it would most likely be in “at least three years,” the length of IndyCar’s recent contract with Laguna Seca.
“We don’t envision a scenario where two races in Northern California would be economically viable,” Brennan wrote via email.
However, IndyCar says it would be interested in racing at both venues in the same year. The series remains interested in running at Sonoma Raceway in the future, even with adding Laguna Seca to the schedule, said IndyCar spokesperson Kate Guerra in an email.
“The series pursued an event at Laguna Seca because IndyCar fans, competitors and partners have long viewed it as a destination event and were eager to return,” she wrote.
IndyCar ran at the track for 22 consecutive years until 2004, then shifted to Sonoma in 2005.
“We don’t subscribe to the theory that two events in the same general region doesn’t work,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., IndyCar’s parent company, told the website Autosport in mid-July. “Our agreement with Laguna Seca came about not because we’d set off down the path of trying to find a new venue for our season finale, and not because we wanted to replace Sonoma Raceway, but because we wanted Laguna Seca on our schedule.”
A meaningful race
Rossi estimates he’ll have up to 100 family members and friends in attendance.
“It’s crazy, it’s always the most attended race for me personally,” said Rossi, who has three victories and seven other top-five finishes this year. “It’s great, but it’s also very chaotic and makes for a very busy weekend, but it’s very cool to have the support there and hopefully we can have a great weekend and make it special for everyone.”
His week leading up to the race has included appearances at K1 Speed in Sacramento and a cable car tour in San Francisco.
Still, there’s one big advantage to being so close to home.
“Not needing a GPS to get everywhere,” Rossi said. “It’s great to land in Sacramento and know your way around, where to eat — the simple things in life.”
While Sonoma Raceway isn’t exactly in his hometown’s backyard, it’s still a very familiar location for Rossi.
“A lot of people say (Sonoma) is my home track — and that’s true from a geographic standpoint, but, as we all know, Sonoma is very different” than Nevada City, he said.
He added that he’s not doing anything extravagant during the offseason, title or not.
“Last offseason I was busy doing a television show (“The Amazing Race” on CBS), so I don’t have that this year, which is great,” he said.
Rossi has only one thing planned: “I’ll definitely be skiing at some point.”