Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – Bubba Wallace finally got a close-hand look at the carousel—the section of Sonoma Raceway that restores the road course to 2.52 miles—but the experience didn’t come as soon as Wallace had anticipated.
On his first lap in practice on Friday, Wallace spun off the track in Turn 3 and returned to the racing surface red-faced.
“I didn’t even get a chance to look at it before I spun out,” Wallace said between practice sessions for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race (3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I got out and went up Turn 3 and thought, ‘Man, these tires are cold,’ and I spun out.
“So now that’s now the top of the board for the most embarrassing moment, because we were just cruising around. (Corey) LaJoie was in front of me, and he hadn’t even fired off yet. (Michael) McDowell was behind me. We were just kind of cruising, putting stuff together, and the next thing you know, I was looking at the dirt. I was like, ‘All right. Here we go. We got it out of the way.’”
Wallace finally got through the entire course, but he was 31st fastest of 38 drivers in the first practice session.
He had a better time during the NASCAR off week when he and team owner Richard Petty saw the St. Louis Blues hockey team during the recent run to the Stanley Cup. David Steward, chairman and founder of World Wide Technology, Inc. (one of Wallace’s primary sponsors), is part of the Blues ownership group.
“Whenever I was watching, it was a good time,” Wallace said of his hockey experience. “It’s way too fast for me, but, yeah, a good time… The crowd was involved from start to finish, and that was pretty cool, the atmosphere there.
“Although the two games I went to were two losses, so I don’t know if I’m allowed back at a Blues game, but they ended up pulling it off.”
THE CAROUSEL WASN’T WHAT PAUL MENARD EXPECTED
Most drivers prepared for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 by running laps in a simulator that incorporated the carousel into the program.
But the reality of the new stretch of track connecting Turns 4 and 7 wasn’t what Paul Menard expected.
“It was cool,” said Menard, who was 11th fastest in Friday’s opening practice. “I’ve watched it a bunch on TV with IndyCar and sportscars. It’s smaller than what I thought. I thought it would be wider, a more opened-up corner than it is.
“It’s really pretty narrow and kind of a short corner. I was thinking it would be more like the carousel at Road America. This is a lot shorter and some pretty big elevation changes.”
The new configuration that incorporates Turns 5 and 6 also transforms Turn 7 into a second hairpin on a course that already features tight Turn 11.
“Yeah, we aren’t even on the same race track as we used to be,” Menard said. “We used to run long and do a 160-degree corner and now we bypass that and do that double right a little tighter. It’s a totally different corner now.”
WHY WASN’T THE CAROUSEL INCORPORATED EARLIER?
Like father, unlike son.
In 1998, Speedway Motorsports Inc. founder Bruton Smith opted to shorten Sonoma Raceway to 1.99 miles so that fans could see the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars pass by at shorter intervals.
But his son, SMI CEO Marcus Smith, was all in when consensus favored restoring the track to its 2.52-mile length with the return of the carousel between Turns 4 and 7.
The change could have happened earlier, but for one main factor.
“To tell the truth, part of the reason we hadn’t up till now was laziness,” said track president Steve Page. “The amount of equipment that shows up for a Cup race these days—compared to when I first got here in the ‘90s—it’s incredible. I just sit and watch all this stuff roll in from my office up on the hill.
“The carousel was a really convenient place to stash it all. We used to put all the trucks we used for driver intros and all this other equipment there. We’d talk about the carousel and say, ‘It really would be great to bring it back, but what are we going to do with all that stuff?’”
But the sentiment favoring the return of the carousel finally prevailed in the track’s 50th anniversary year.
“I think everybody today enjoys a throwback,” Marcus Smith said. “And particularly with the 50th year, it makes a lot of sense to embrace the past. I love celebrating history in motorsports and NASCAR. When you think about Sonoma Raceway, one of the most storied spots on the track, the section of the carousel, is unique to Sonoma Raceway.
“We haven’t run it for a long time in NASCAR, and after talking to a few drivers over the last week or so, the simulator only takes you so far, and I think that’s going to make it super exciting… Kevin Harvick and I were having breakfast one morning, and he said, ‘Hey, have you thought about running the carousel?’
“I think it was just after the Roval race (at Charlotte Motor Speedway), posing the idea that, ‘You already did something crazy—how about something else?’”
Smith then called Page, and the first response was, “I don’t know where we’re going to put the stuff,” but serious conversations followed, and the change was implemented.