Team Penske Looking For Sucessful Run at Sonoma
Helio likes the hills. Will likes the technicality. Juan Pablo likes the surprises.
But if you ask Team Penske's three drivers - Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya - why the team has been so successful at Sonoma Raceway over the years, they'll struggle to answer. The guys responsible for much of the team's success here have a specific response to that question.
They don't know.
The record is remarkable. Since the Verizon IndyCar Series began racing at the 12-turn, 2.385-mile road course, Team Penske has won five of the nine races, including the last four in a row. Power, who has won three of those, can't put his finger on it.
"I'm not really sure why that has happened," Power said. "Sometimes one team just has an edge at a certain racetrack, and there's not really an explanation for it. For some reason on recent years we've been very good here, but I'm not sure there's any one thing you can point to to explain it."
Castroneves started the run by beating Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan to the finish line in 2008. Two years later, Power edged Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti for the win. The following year, Power repeated the feat in a 1-2-3 Team Penske sweep with Castroneves and Briscoe. In 2012, Briscoe beat Power and Franchitti to the line for a Penske 1-2. Last year, Power outlasted Justin Wilson and Franchitti.
The totals? Four in a row, five of the last six. The reasons? Nobody knows.
"There are probably hundreds of reasons why we've been so strong at Sonoma, but I think sometimes it's hard to explain," Castroneves said. "It starts with a good baseline setup and goes from there, but I also think the track fits our driving styles. It's one of those places that doesn't let you get into a rhythm. It's constantly putting you in a different situation, and I think we as a team adapt well to that."
This time, Montoya will be part of the Team Penske assault on Sonoma, bringing years of NASCAR experience to the fore.
"It's not exactly the same because of all the differences between the two races," Montoya said. "I'm hoping I can bring something to what they're doing here, but it's obvious that they've already got this place figured out."
In some way, Penske's success at Sonoma can be narrowed down to some weird magic. Other teams have their tracks that seem to reward them - look no further than Penske's archrival, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Ganassi has won an unprecedented seven consecutive races.
"Our success at Sonoma is like Ganassi at Mid-Ohio," Power said. "Even when the cars aren't that good, things work out for us at Sonoma. Ganassi in general is good at Mid-Ohio for reasons nobody can really explain. They always seem to run strong at that racetrack - not that we don't, but they seem to come out ahead there. At Sonoma it's the same thing, only reversed. They're not bad or slow at Sonoma, it's just that we somehow seem to win here."
Sometimes it's nothing more flashy or profound than an accumulation of knowledge. Lap after lap, teams learn about - and record - track tendencies and characteristics. They come to understand what works and what doesn't. And they store that knowledge. Wing angles, shock absorbers, ride heights - in a massive database for future reference. So what might appear to be dumb luck is actually a carefully crafted and accumulated pile of knowledge.
Beyond that, though, is what teams do with that breadth of knowledge.
"I feel that some teams are a little bit better able to adjust to circumstances," Castroneves said. "And I feel like Sonoma was a track that we were very good at to start with, but we managed to make it even better. We had an advantage before, but we've taken all of the knowledge we've gained there and improved on it.
"There's not really an explanation for it. You start with a basic setup - gears and ride height and things like that - and you come back year after year with all of that information and use it to get even better at the track and in certain conditions. I think this is one of those tracks where we started with a good base and just kept improving it."
One of the most diverse drivers of his era, Montoya has a chance to do something nobody else has - win a NASCAR and IndyCar race at Sonoma. Having won the Toyota Save/Mart 350 in 2007 for Chip Ganassi's NASCAR Sprint Cup team, Montoya - whose credits include the Indianapolis 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco - has his sights set on another win in Wine Country.
"There's an element of difficulty at Sonoma that isn't easy to get past," Montoya said. "It has so many different pieces. It has elevation changes, grip changes, high-speed turns and some good braking zones. It's very challenging from a driving perspective. It's hard to get it all right."
"It's awesome because it's so difficult," Castroneves said. "Your vision is almost always challenged, and the track is very challenging as well. It has some wild, high-speed corners that are fun but difficult, as well. I've always liked it. It's a track that's similar to some of the tracks in Europe. A lap around here is like creating a work of art. Every lap is different, and it's yours. You can never replicate it exactly as you did before."
Power discovered the difficulty of Sonoma early on. In 2009, he came over one of the track's blind corners - Turn 3A, a downhill right-hander - to find Nelson Phillippe's stranded car. Power crashed, breaking bones in his back, and was airlifted out. He missed the remainder of the season, and returned more determined than ever to conquer the course.
He did, winning the race in three of the next four years. Five years after a terrible crash here, Power has fallen in love with Sonoma.
"I just love the whole setting of it -- on the side of a big hill, very scenic and majestic," Power said. "It's not just flat and boring. And it's not easy to drive. It's actually really hard to get it just right. It's not just that the car has to be right. You've got to drive it right, too. You never seem to get in a rhythm."
Considering the team's success at Sonoma, it's hard to believe it has overcome adversity. Power's crash in 2009 isn't the only notable moment. In 2008, a Penske transporter, packed full of race cars, was en route to Sonoma when the trailer caught fire in Wyoming, destroying the equipment.
Last year, shortly before the Sonoma IndyCar race, Castroneves crashed hard in a stock car race in his native Brazil. He sustained a cut on his shin and a some bruised ribs, but was able to carry his lead in the drivers' championship standings into the Sonoma race - although he did have to tell team owner Roger Penske about his extracurricular racing activities.
"That was an interesting call from Roger," Castroneves said at the time.
That's part of the wonder of Team Penske. It's not just the record 15 Indianapolis 500 victories, or the championships and wins. It's the ability to recover from the setbacks that separates The Captain's team from others.
"This team does recover quickly -- that's one thing I've learned since coming on board," Power said. "Every team goes through difficult times, but these guys get past the bad times very quickly. You always know it will get better, because it always does."
Castroneves knows that concept well. In 15 years with the team, he's seen it time and again.
"No matter what happens with these guys, it seems to work out," he said. "All of that comes from the hard work in the background. It's all the things that people don't see that make this team what it is. We get the glory, but they're the ones who make it happen."
Perhaps that is the answer to the question of success at Sonoma Raceway. It's more than just inexplicable magic. It's a function of teamwork.