In the Driver's Seat With Tommy Kendall: Racing Around Infineon Raceway
For the past 15 races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup gang has attacked the ovals of America, going full throttle around some of the fastest circuits in the country to go at it in three to four-wide formations.
As far as race no. 16 is concerned, fans and competitors will be in for a treat this Sunday, as stock car's finest racers will be going at it in the California wine valley with a bit of a twist, so to speak, where Infineon Raceway will play host with the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
The 1.99-mile, 10 turn course is one of two road course races on the Cup circuit, having been on the season schedule since 1989 when it replaced another Golden State track in the form of Riverside International Raceway.
Annually a summer stop on the tour, Sunday's race will breed new elements that will seldom be heard from now until August, when the series hits up New York State's Watkins Glen Raceway for their second and last sampling of real life racing.
To say the least, the track has produced some memorable moments in the past 21 years, including the '91 controversial finish between winner Davey Allison and runner-up Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt's sole course win in '95, Jeff Gordon's three straight victories ('98-2000), Tony Stewart's triumph in '05, and Juan Pablo Montoya's first career checkers in '07.
It tests the patience, abilities, and will of any driver who dares to understand and conquer this winding venue, with chutes so short yet fast, speeds are relatively blinding for these stock cars. Despite its docile settings, with lush hills of greens and sands, the warm California sun, and the vineyards within vicinity of the track, don't be fooled: Infineon Raceway will often get the best of you at any time.
One of those drivers who's tried their best to outwit and beat the famed course is SCCA champion and NASCAR road ringer Tommy Kendall. In 1991, he was in position for an upset victory before late race contact with Mark Martin cost the young La Canada, Calif. native relegated from the checkers to an 18th place result.
Still, the showing proved to the stock car aces that the likes of Kendall could succeed, given the right opportunity in terms of the car and team. Kendall went on to have a tremendously successful sports car career, making his name across the world as a winner and champion.
This week, I corresponded with TK about getting around the challenging Infineon Raceway, as far as getting around the track, his memories about it, and what's on the minds of all the racers when they fire up their cars to start up the 350 km race.
Knowing more than a thing or two about this track and motorsports, at The Podium Finish, we're going to put you in the driver's seat...with Tommy Kendall!
Rob Tiongson: The Sprint Cup gang's heading to Sonoma for some road course action at Infineon Raceway...what's their mindset about going to a challenging course like in Wine Valley after 15 races in a row on the ovals?
Tommy Kendall: Well, their mindset depends on their comfort level at the most challenging road course that they face. Some are focused on just getting through the weekend with some points. Well, they are all focused on points, but the racers who like Infineon, will be looking to capitalize on that and try to get some momentum going for the long summer stretch.
RT: On paper, it's a 10-turn, 1.99 mile long track which may not sound so difficult to a new fan, but describe to the fans out there what kind of track Infineon Raceway is like to drive on.
TK: Infineon cannot be appreciated on paper unless it is a topographic map as the elevation changes are what make it so special and difficult. They have made it progressively easier over the years with the new configuration, improved sight-lines and improved runoff areas.
Runoff areas don't change the racing surface, so you might be asking how that can make the track easier, but by changing the risk profile of a turn, you give more and more drivers the confidence to push harder as the consequences aren't so dire. The other way does a better job of separating the men from the boys.
To explain why the elevation changes are such a big deal, as it has to do with perception and physics.
Perception in that the elevation changes mean that you cannot see the exit of three of the corners until you are literally at the edge of the road. Needless to say, when you are driving a car with nine hundred horsepower that is fighting for traction, this can be a little unsettling. It is also why the drivers who have never seen Infineon before, including road racing masters like Mattias Ekstrom, will need some laps to get comfortable.
The physics has to do with the road falling away from you on the exit of the blind corners. When the road falls away, it is like taking away downforce. With as little downforce and grip as these cars have relative to the amount of power, that is a recipe for a real handful. When you string all of this together, there is nothing like a fast lap at Infineon to get your heart beating quickly!
RT: Let's talk about key areas of the track for the competitors, as far as passing is concerned. Which parts of the course are absolutely crucial as far as setting up for a pass, in terms of setting the car up as well as driving on the course?
TK: There are only two real passing areas and even those are tough for two top cars running together as you have seen in past years where a quicker car cannot get around.
But, in the pack, you will see a good bit of passing into Turns 5 and 10 as these are the two hard braking areas. Getting a better run through the previous corner is the key.
In turn 4, this means having a car that has good mid-corner grip and puts the power down well, which are two things that are often at odds with each other.
In turn 9, this means being able to carry good speed through the fastest turn on the track and again being able to put the power down well on the exit. The second half of the move is stopping. If you can get a run through the previous corner, you will still likely have to outbrake them to some degree. This means having brakes that are consistent and have good feel.
RT: Now, having driven the Infineon course before the reconfiguration of 1998, which version of the track was more enjoyable to drive?
TK: The previous layout was better in every way I think. It was much more challenging, but more importantly, it was much better for passing.
When they raced on the old layout, it was almost non-stop passing and now the race is largely a track position contest. The old turn 7 was a freak of nature that led to some of the best racing you could imagine and a faster car could almost always get by.
It was the only road racing corner I have ever seen in the entire world that allowed consistent passing on the outside. It was the perfect storm of the layout of the corner, the types of paving and the characteristics of a Cup car. A person could take the defensive inside line, which at every other corner in the world, meant there would be no passing, if they didn't make a mistake.
At turn 7, even if they defended, you could start a move on the outside, inch up next to them mid-corner with the wider radius and better paving and complete it with a better drive off the outside and have the inside (advantage) approaching the esses.
The good news is most of the old paving is still there and it would be worth looking at going back to that layout for better racing.
RT: Some fans will be hearing terms like short pitting, gear ratio and road course ringers. While there may be some who know what those words mean, briefly tell the new readers out there what those terms talk about.
TK: Short pitting is a strategy that hopes to leapfrog you past the front runners by approaching the race from the end backwards rather than from the front.
You would calculate when you need to stop working backwards, with the idea that you want to be the first person to make your last stop. That way, if a yellow comes between when you stop and the leaders do, you will basically be awarded the lead on a platter.
This is largely how Kasey Kahne won (and Robby G lost) last year and it's also how Montoya got his win.
Road course ringers is the practice of putting non-NASCAR guys that are great road racers in for just this race in hope of stealing a win from the regulars.
Gear ratios are the individual ratios that the teams choose inside their transmissions. At Infineon, some teams will choose a first gear that is so tall that they can use it off the final hairpin. It might allow the car to go 60 mph in first gear.
As is always the case, there is no free lunch. Having that tall a gear makes it hard to get out of your pit box quickly and this could hurt you, especially during a yellow flag stop where inches at the end of the pits means track positions.
RT: You've raced at Infineon's Cup race mainly as a substitute driver, driving in place notably for Kyle Petty in 1991 and Bill Elliott in 1996. That had to be quite the situation, filling in for star racers and probably being told certain team orders. Did their teams ask you to drive the car home in one piece or to go for the win?
TK: If they were calling me, it meant they wanted to win, so I never had to deal with that scenario. It was always tough getting the call because someone else got injured, but the situation was ideal for good results mainly because you were stepping into a team with a top crew.
The biggest challenge that Jan Magnusson (who will attempt to qualify the No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevy) will face is a team that doesn't do stops every week like a regular Hendrick car. If the last pit stop is under yellow that will likely doom him.
RT: Who are some of your favorites heading into Sunday's race, from the usual contenders to dark horses?
TK: The favorites have to be Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. They are like the bubbles in some fine Napa sparkling wine...always rising to the top! Tony was the quickest car last year, but the way the yellows fell meant Kasey K got the W.
Allmendinger and Ambrose were really quick last year too and if they can stay out of trouble, they could figure.
For a dark horse, I am picking Jimmie J. Dark horse because he has never won on a road course. I know how badly he wants to win there for that reason, and no one has made much money betting against Jimmie and Chad Knaus when they are trying to check things off their list.
There are a lot of guys that will be fast like Robby G, Montoya, Hamlin, the Busches, etc and if they can stay out of trouble and get the right breaks, they could easily win too.
RT: What are other factors at Infineon that separate the winner from his peers? Is it truly man over machine or a bit of both when it comes to racing in the Napa Valley?
TK: The driver is a bigger part of the equation here than anywhere. I have heard drivers say, "Usually, we only have four chances to crash a lap, but at Infineon, we have an almost infinite number."
That is why the driver makes such a difference and why guys like Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart have had such records of success. They understand the risk/reward decisions that result in speed without the big mistakes.
Of course, the crews will play a big role as will the machines, but more often in not, it is the guy pushing the pedals that makes the difference. As it should be!
RT: Do you think that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series should have more road courses on the schedule? How about in the Chase?
TK: I would love to see a road course in the Chase. They are almost as unpredictable as the plate races though, so that is a consideration. I would love to see a couple more road races on the schedule too, but no more than 4. Elkhart Lake is going to be an instant classic for Nationwide and Sprint Cup needs to run there; it is truly one of the world's great tracks!
RT: Lastly, let's say you're a team owner, with your team just hanging on to a spot in the top-35. You've hired a road course winger...how confident are you in their ability to bring home a good finish, possibly a win and what would you tell them before the weekend starts up?
TK: That is definitely a good call for an owner in that situation. The ringers don't have an edge over the top guys when you factor everything in and the stats bear that out, but I think they substantially boost your chances of a better finish for teams near the top 35 cutoff.
I think you would have to tell them that a top 10 is what you are shooting for and that any unnecessary risk beyond that is unacceptable. That goes against their nature to try to win, but if solidifying the top 35 is really your objective, then the extra risks necessary to win would be......well, risky!
Author's Note: Big time thanks to Tommy Kendall of SPEED TV for taking the time to sit down for this race, track, and drivers' analysis of Sunday's race. You can catch him on SPEED TV, talking about topics like test driving America's intricate street cars to all things motorsports, all the time! Thanks TK!