There’s no place I’d rather spend a weekend afternoon than at a racetrack. The excitement of watching skilled drivers pilot their vehicles inches apart from one another at breathtaking speeds is indescribable.
Ever since I discovered auto racing, I’ve wanted to be part of it. But I’m not cut out to be a driver. I’m not interested in working at the races selling peanuts and beer to spectators for the rest of my life either. For a long time I didn’t know how I could get involved.
Until I discovered journalism.
On the weekend of September 16 and 17, I got a glimpse of what a career in auto racing might look like through journalism. I had contacted the track and received media credentials to attend and cover the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the championship-deciding race of the Verizon IndyCar Series held at Sonoma Raceway north of San Francisco.
The Grand Prix of Sonoma is one of the most important races of the year. Being the last event of the season, the race determines which driver will be crowned the overall points champion for the year. I couldn’t have imagined a better event to attend for my first race as a member of the media.
After a long drive down to the bay area from Salem the previous day and a good night’s rest, I drove from my hotel to the track on Saturday morning. The first stop of the day was to the credentials trailer, where I picked up my media credentials for the event. Then I drove to the media parking lot. Walking down the hill from the parking lot to the track itself, I could hear and see cars navigating the massive 2.385 mile 12 turn road course.
I headed towards the track media center, which was conveniently located next to the garages. I took a peek inside and saw rows of tables occupied by reporters typing away on their laptops, trying to get their next big story ready for publication. I was impressed that the track offered a special building for members of the media. I continued on towards the garage area.
There are few places in sports busier than an IndyCar garage on a race weekend. Walking around, I had to always be aware of my surroundings at all times. There were people and objects in motion everywhere. It was like a symphony of team members, tool carts, car parts, fuel tanks, and tires all simultaneously coming and going as needed.
Drivers, of course, were also found in the garage area interacting with crew members and team managers in preparation for the day’s events. I felt uncomfortable walking up to the drivers and disturbing them though. The life of an IndyCar driver is a busy one. But a good journalist can’t be afraid to walk up to anyone and ask them for a moment of their time. You won’t get many interviews otherwise.
Not all drivers were too busy preparing for practice to be bothered. One driver who I met wasn’t even competing in the race: Zach Veach. Although he may have been watching all the action from the same side of the catchfence as I did that weekend, starting next March he’ll be behind the wheel for Andretti Autosport.
Veach, who raced in his first Indianapolis 500 for A.J. Foyt Racing earlier in the season, just announced he had signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport full-time in 2018. I introduced myself and asked him if I could ask him a few questions, and he happily agreed.
I felt as if a large weight had been lifted off my shoulders after interviewing Veach. It was great to finally get to interview a driver on the spot. After interviewing Veach I began to look for a good spot to watch the practice session that was about to start. I walked across a pedestrian bridge over the track to a spectator area that provided great views of the cars rushing through turn six. For a moment, I stopped and took in the view.
After the practice session ended, I headed to the pit area to try to interview another driver. As I slowly walked behind all the massive pit boxes I saw several drivers who had just gotten out of their cars and were debriefing with their crews. Several fans also managed to enter the pit area, and eagerly formed small crowds hoping to collect signatures from some of their favorite drivers. I also saw two men who were quickly walking up and down the pit area, one with a microphone in hand, the other carrying a camera. I recognized both men immediately. The men were Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller from RACER, the leading motorsports publication in the United States. Pruett was carrying the camera and Miller the microphone. They approached four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, who was speaking with another four-time champion, Scott Dixon of New Zealand.
After Miller interviewed Bourdais, I approached him and told him that I was interested in pursuing a career in motorsports journalism, which intrigued him. However, I didn’t get to speak with Miller very long, as he apologized and said he was eagerly looking for a specific driver to interview. He then gave me a pat on the shoulder and said “Good luck, kid” as he began to move on. Within seconds, I lost any sight of him as he was probably already interviewing another driver. One thing I learned quickly was that a good racing journalist has to be ready to interview any driver at a moment’s notice.
Once Miller left I took his place asking Bourdais a few questions about his practice session. He was about to leave on a motorized scooter, so I caught him off guard. Nonetheless, he took time out of his day for me to ask him a few questions.
Time passed quickly at the track. After spending a good portion of the day at the races, I called it a day headed back to my hotel room to prepare for the main event the next day.
When I arrived at the track Sunday afternoon, I was expecting to witness an exciting race. There were five drivers who still had a realistic shot of winning the championship. Josef Newgarden, a 26-year-old driver from Tennessee, entered the weekend with a three-point lead over Dixon.
The race itself would become a duel between Newgarden and one of his teammates, Simon Pagenaud, who coincidentally was the defending series champion and Sonoma race winner. Both drivers would exchange the lead multiple times over the course of the race, but Pagenaud would eventually take the lead for one final time and lead the final 24 laps to win the race for the second straight year. That would not matter to Newgarden though. He had compiled enough points during the race to clinch his first championship.
Following the race, I navigated my way down to the victory celebrations. I saw cameras flash as Pagenaud was presented with an impressive trophy that incorporated a large bottle of wine, a nod to nearby Napa Valley.
Finally, it was time to present our champion. Newgarden walked down the stairs to the stage draped in an American flag like a boxer who had just won a major tournament. He was interviewed live on national television and made sure to thank his team, all of his sponsors and the many friends, family members and fans who helped him along the way. He was presented the Astor Cup, a historic trophy that dates back to the origins of the sport of auto racing. His name would be permanently engraved on the trophy alongside the names of the winners who came before him. Confetti flew and bottles of champagne were dispersed and sprayed. It was finally time for Newgarden and his Team Penske crew to celebrate a racing season they will surely never forget.
As the sun began to set and the fans began to exit the facility, the track had become quiet and I had some time to think to myself. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to travel to the race and be able witness all of it up close. The experience was thought-provoking. It made me think more about whether I want to pursue a career in journalism. It seems like journalism may provide the path for me to live my dream.
Through journalism, not only can you create a career around something you’re passionate about, you can also inform and teach others about it. And if you have a dream, chase it.