At Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud won the battle but Tennessee driver Josef Newgarden won the season-long war, claiming his first Indy Car championship.
Minutes after the champagne sprayed and the confetti flew on the victory stage, Newgarden not only carried the championship trophy, but wore the Stars and Stripes as well, as a rare American driver to win the Indy Car title.
With its prestigious Indianapolis 500 and a history dating back to the days when Indy drivers also drove roadsters and sprint cars on fairgrounds dirt tracks, the series has roots as All-American as baseball and hot dogs. To be sure, the IndyCar series has its share of American drivers, such as Marco Andretti of Pennsylvania, Graham Rahal of Ohio and Alexander Rossi of Nevada City.
But in recent years, the upper levels of the sport have been more international, with drivers from Japan, Australia, England and Canada on the tour this year. When the IndyCar series got to Sonoma to end its season, the 26-year-old Newgarden, in his first season with Penske Racing, was the points leader and had won four races in 2017, leading a team that included drivers from France, Brazil and Australia.
Newgarden is only the third American driver to win the IndyCar title in the last 11 years, capping a career that began in karting and included racing in Europe before landing his first IndyCar ride four years ago.
“This started a long time ago with my parents taking me to the karting track,” said an emotional Newgarden Sunday night.
He believes that the competition in the IndyCar series, which saw seven different winners in the first seven races this year, is as strong as it has ever been and that it’s important for the series to include American drivers.
“I’ve always preached that it’s great that we have the best of the best in the IndyCar series,” said Newgarden. “We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of American drivers in it.
“We have to have the best from Europe and anywhere overseas because if it’s just Americans running in it, it wouldn’t mean anything. Certainly having successful Americans is a big deal, too. I think there’s more guys coming up to help fly the flag in this series.”
Team owner Roger Penske noted that he signed Newgarden to a contract “because we knew if he wasn’t racing with us he was going to be racing against us.” and added “he’s going to be a long-term player with us.”
At the other end of the spectrum, driver Helio Castroneves, one of IndyCar’s most successful drivers, may have ended his full time IndyCar career at Sonoma without a series championship. After 20 full-time seasons and 344 races, the winner of three Indianapolis 500s and four runner-up finishes in the title standings is rumored to be moving to another series in a Penske-owned car.
“I feel I’m in my prime,” said Castroneves after the race Sunday. “Whatever happens in the future, sometimes you can use that in different ways. Sometimes you have go dance according to the music,” he said.
“I feel whatever it’s going to be, if it’s moving on or not, I’m going to continue to motivate and keep working hard to achieve my goals, which is winning races.”
But, he said, “I’m going to have some wine tonight. I think I’ve earned it.”
Strong finishes for TRG, Flying Lizard
After 186 races in the Pirelli World Challenge Series, driver Tony Gaples claimed his first win in the GTS Am division Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, even as pieces of his Camaro littered turn eight on the twisty road course and he was on his way to the medical center to be checked over by doctors.
Gaples, of Libertyville, Ill., came out on the wrong end of a duel with Derek Deboer, driving The Racers Group Aston Martin as the pair raced side by side from turn seven at the top of the hill and through the downhill esses. The two cars touched and Gaples’ Camaro slid backwards off the asphalt, went airborne and crashed heavily on top of a concrete barrier.
“That was a big impact, probably the hardest I’ve ever had in racing,” said Gaples, who joined his team for the season-ending awards banquet after being released from Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa later that day. “Fortunately, none of my injuries were serious – just a lot of soreness and bruises. It could have been worse but you see how strong of a car the Camaro GT4.R is. It was a lot to go through for my first win. Hopefully the second comes a little easier.”
With only one lap remaining, officials red-flagged the race and declared Gaples the winner in the GTS Am division because he was in front of DeBoer by a nose when the accident occurred.
“I had a good run on him coming through the esses and I had nowhere to go,” said DeBoer. “I thought about turning into the dirt, but I didn’t think the car would handle it.”
For DeBoer of Ashland, Ore, a fourth-place overall finish and second in the division was the result of a strong drive through the field after a penalty for avoidable contact forced him to the rear of the field.
“This is our home track being with TRG,” said DeBoer, whose team, The Racers Group, is based in Petaluma. “Kevin Buckler’s (team owner) first pro win came here so it’s very important to him. We pulled out at all the stops here with all the testing and we had all of our sponsors on the trip. It was a full team effort.”
Finishing fifth overall behind DeBoer was four-time race winner Rodrigo Baptista of Brazil, driving the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport MR, which is based at Sonoma Raceway.
Successful return for Gidley
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma marked the successful return to racing of Sausalito driver Memo Gidley, who drove his first races since a devastating crash in the 24 Hours of Daytona and a couple of years of physical rehab.
“It’s a first step for me and for the team,” said Gidley, who drove a Porsche GTS.R in the Pirelli World Challenge.
“Our goal is to just drive every lap,” he added as the team broke in a new car they will race next season.
Over the weekend, Gidley came up only one lap short of his goal. Gidley moved up from 16th to 13th in the field on Saturday. On Sunday, Gidley was the last car on the lead lap and, with one lap to go, politely moved over to allow the leaders to race to the checkered flag on Sunday.
Pruett seeks strong race at Laguna Seca
Scott Pruett, one of the country’s most accomplished sports car racers, admits that the 2017 season has had as many ups and downs as the twisty Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca road course in Monterey. He’s hoping for a strong showing this weekend at the WeatherTech Sports Car Championships in a Lexus Prototype that he is playing a major role in developing.
The versatile racer, who lives in Auburn, is most well-known for his seven IMSA championships, three SCCA road racing titles and enough wristwatches from his wins in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona (5) to open his own jewelry store. It is that experience—-and a resume that includes over 60 race victories—that Pruett is putting to use helping neophyte Lexus compete against veteran car makers in a series that uses advanced technology in a crowded and competitive series.
The Lexus RCF GT3 “has the same silhouette as the street model, but under the skin it’s a full purpose race car as complex as they get,” said Pruett, who earlier this summer was inducted into the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa during NASCAR weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
Often overlooked because of his race wins, Pruett has been involved in developing and refining both GT and Prototype race cars most of his career. He also was instrumental in helping Firestone refine its tire designs when they first were involved with IndyCars.
“We’re going up against Ferrari, BMW and Audi who have years of experience,” said Pruett. “But there are numerous changes we are planning for 2018,” he added, to catch up. So far this year, the team has earned one pole position but is lagging on most tracks and is still looking for its first win.
“It’s the kind of year I expected, given my years in the industry,” said Pruett. “All race drivers want to win,” he said, “but bringing my wealth of knowledge to a group of thirsty engineers is exciting. Not many manufacturers are in this situation and I see a freshness and excitement there.”
After driving exotic prototypes for the last dozen years, “I can see myself here in GT cars for many years to come,” he said, “and I hope we do well at Laguna.”