Sonoma is still an acquired taste for race fans and race-car drivers alike.
The twisting, up-and-down track that meanders 2.5 miles through wine country, is a quirky vacation weekend for the drivers, some of whom go more for the wine than the race.
In 1989, when NASCAR first announced it would add the road course to the schedule, there was the usual outcry from the drivers and race teams suddenly forced to build more cars and learn new tricks.
Jack Roush, then a new car owner and something of a outcast, found himself holding teaching sessions with drivers and crew chiefs and racing writers curious about things like negative camber and heel-toe shifting.
Some of the drivers visited the Bondurant Racing School to learn how to race on road courses. It was the most revolutionary thing NASCAR had ever thrown at the drivers, who quickly found out it was nothing like Watkins Glen or even old Riverside, where Buddy Baker once remarked “I drove there for 20 years before I realized it was paved.”
This year, NASCAR will throw another curve, or rather an entire carousel, at the drivers. The old inside loop at the track then known as Sears Point, has been opened again after years and years of avoiding the high-speed switchback deemed too dangerous after nightmares of tragedy gave the sanctioning body pause.
Apparently, the pause is over.
The “carousel” is a three-turn loop that drops from 153 feet in elevation to 33 feet at the bottom corner, a harrowing blind lefthander that loads hard on the shocks, springs and tires, not to mention the driver, who must then accelerate onto the drag strip and climb a 75-foot rise back onto the old circuit.
The irony of all this is that NASCAR took away the carousel just as the drivers got used to it, even came to like it because it was another passing zone on a track that really only has a few to start with.
No driver on the Cup series today has ever driven old Sears Point with the carousel inner loop.
So this could be an interesting weekend. Or it could be NASCAR’s worst nightmare come true.
Over time, this became a driver’s track. In the early years, only the fearless drivers won. Then after they took away the carousel, Jeff Gordon and young road-course specialists like Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya dominated. Since 2007, nine drivers have won the 12 events, only Kyle Busch and Martin Truex winning more than once.
So this is something NASCAR is doing to shake things up. To hell with safety concerns and low-budget teams.
This isn’t even for the fan experience since no one can sit in the carousel area or anywhere near it.
This will be a weekend where both the drivers and NASCAR holds it breath.
New things and NASCAR rarely go right.
Here’s hoping the old thing does.