Sonoma: Hartman-Smith races toward sponsor's event

SONOMA, Calif.- Within the Sonoma, Calif. hills rests several wineries and quiet destination spots. The area has a history of producing some of the best wines in the country - and some of the best racing too. Yes, racing. Formerly known as Sears...

SONOMA, Calif.- Within the Sonoma, Calif. hills rests several wineries and quiet destination spots. The area has a history of producing some of the best wines in the country - and some of the best racing too. Yes, racing. Formerly known as Sears Point Raceway, the newly renamed Infineon Raceway has been in operation since the 1960s, hosting racing events of all kind.

Rhonda Hartman-Smith would like nothing more than to make history at the famous track. The Anderson, S.C., resident is the pilot of the Fram Top Fuel dragster. She is the only female driver running a full schedule this season and is in her second full season of competition.

Winless so far, Hartman-Smith wouldn't mind chalking up her first victory at her sponsor's race, the 15th annual FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals, Aug. 2-4. Kenny Bernstein, Del Worsham and Tom Martino are the defending winners of the $1.8 million event. It is the 15th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Hartman-Smith and husband John Smith make up the only two-car Top Fuel team in the NHRA. John Smith runs the Prestone Dragster. Both drivers would like to shine in front of the sponsors.

"We always look forward to this event, but we haven't done as well as we would like. Not yet anyway," Hartman-Smith said. "We think this is our season. We struggled a little in St. Louis, but we weren't the only ones who had problems on that hot track. Not too many teams are performing at the top of their games right now.

"I think that is why we are looking forward to racing in Sonoma. We can get our sponsor's product names out there and hopefully have a good showing for all of the people out there."

The track has undergone a two-year, $50 million renovation process that concluded during the offseason. One of the biggest projects was separating the drag strip from the road course, which is used by several racing series, including NASCAR Winston Cup and the American Le Mans Series. The road course cars weren't always kind to the drag strip.

"I think the changes are going to be great," Hartman-Smith said. "We had a couple of bumps in the lanes to deal with in the past and I think the new track surface is going to be pretty cool."

One thing Hartman-Smith and the rest of the Fram team are hoping to avoid is the fatigue factor of three consecutive races. The NHRA visited Denver and Seattle in the two weeks prior to the Sonoma event.

"The hardest thing for us is going into that race is dealing with everything that comes from a three-week swing," Hartman-Smith said. "Sonoma is our sponsor's race, so we want to do the best we can, but three races on back-to-back weekends can be tough on the cars. Denver is a tough race because the altitude takes its toll on the parts and then we go to Seattle the next week. We don't necessarily go through a lot of parts because we are blowing things up, but with a two-car team there is just a natural wear and tear.

"The main focus for us is to make sure that we have fresh parts going into Sonoma. We want to throw whatever we can at that track in order to do well."

One of the team goals is for both drivers to finish in the top 10. If that happens, it will be the first time in NHRA history that a husband-wife duo has finished in the top 10. While Hartman-Smith has been as high as No. 7 in the Top Fuel standings this season, she is currently in the No. 9 position. That, she said, has got to change.

"We are getting better but I think there have been a couple of missed opportunities this season, whether it was a stupid mistake or something breaking that shouldn't," Hartman-Smith said. "We want both cars to finish in the top 10, and I think that is a realistic goal. We are constantly taking baby steps towards goals that we know we can achieve.

"We're hoping my car can finish in the top five. All of the points are pretty close right now and I think we can make that happen. I can tell you that I am not satisfied with being No. 9. I want to move up."

Sonoma may be at the tail end of the West Coast swing, but there is one driver who is looking forward to the hectic pace of racing in her sponsor's event.

"Fram is going to bring everyone out and they make a weekend out it," Hartman-Smith said. "It's always fun racing in front of them and showing them where their dollars are going. There is a lot going on and there is always a ton of things happening in our pit area besides servicing the two cars. But it all goes by too quickly.

"It's like a wedding. You plan and plan and you anticipate everything for a long time. Then it happens so quickly, and the event is over before you know it. We've done well so far this season, hopefully we can keep that up, especially in Sonoma."


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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Del Worsham , Rhonda Hartman-Smith , Tom Martino