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Branden Weins A whiff of popcorn, a roar of engines and a scribbled prize on back of a receipt

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Branden Weins

Posted: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 5:04 pm, Mon Mar 12, 2012.

As I awoke on Saturday, Feb. 26, I instinctively grasped my iPhone to check my Twitter page as I did every morning. "This Saturday's test at Infineon Raceway is FREE and open to the public! Rubens Barrichello will be testing!" said the Tweet.

My heart raced as I called my father to tell him that a handful of IndyCar teams would be testing in nearby Sonoma. The same fire-breathing, open-wheel missiles that dominate the yearly Indianapolis 500 would be right in my own backyard, and I wouldn't have to pay an entry fee to get in.

For a lover of racing, this was a dream come true.

My love of cars can be traced to when my late Uncle Butch took me out in his Chrysler 300C, and gave the famous "Watch this!" to a rather impressionable 16-year-old kid. As he floored it, the car reared up, the engine roared, and the tires screamed as the 5.7-liter V8 pulled us at incomprehensible speeds. The noise was both addicting and life-changing.

My father and I arrived at the raceway just as the teams were rolling the cars out.

I felt like a kid on Christmas morning as I rattled off fact after fact about the Dallara DW12 race car that was new to the IndyCar series this year. My father, much to his credit, was more than willing to listen to his all-too-excited son. The weather was biting cold, with a swift breeze, and even in my jacket, I was freezing. My father, wearing only a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, groaned that I should have checked the weather on "that fancy iPhone I'm paying for."

As the lime-green, dart-looking DW12 was being pushed out towards the pits, I caught a glimpse of something off to my left. There, wearing a jacket, stocking cap and white overalls, was Rubens Barrichello. One of the most famed Formula 1 drivers, with 19 years of experience in that series, was standing only 20 feet from me. He began to walk away, and I followed at a distance. Too nervous to get any closer. This was as close to the man affectionately called "Rubinho" as I would get for a while.

The cars fired up around 9 in the morning, and soon the sleepy Saturday calm was shattered by the shriek of a 2.2 liter twin-turbocharged V6. Estimated at around 850 horsepower, these new machines are anything but silent.

My father and I spent the afternoon working our way around the track to get a different vantage point of the action. Being in hilly Sonoma, Infineon Raceway offers great viewing from most anywhere, and as Barrichello fired off a "bang bang bang!" series of downshifts, a smell not unlike that of popcorn filled the air. IndyCars run E85 ethanol rather than straight gasoline, and this had the interesting effect of making me rather hungry.

Not long afterward, Penske Racing driver Will Power was involved in an accident, and his car was being towed into the pits. Like sharks to a piece of meat, the crowd gathered as the tow truck made its way to the Penske garage. Now was the chance.

Now was the time see the DW12 in all its glory.

I whipped out my phone and started taking pictures like an obsessed shutterbug. As the new car was lowered, I got a truly intimate look at it, and eagerly showed my father the pictures, much like how a cat shows its owner a mouse it killed with beaming pride.

Following Power's accident, the teams broke for lunch, and as the engineers went over the data gathered by their drivers, the drivers themselves answered some questions for the fans.

It was here that I got to get close to Barrichello again. As he walked offstage, the crowd swarmed, and I had to weasel my way to get behind a reporter interviewing him for a TV station. As I waited, I frantically searched my pockets for something, anything, that Barrichello could sign. Suddenly, I found a blank Rubio's receipt. "You're about to become the world's most valuable Rubio's receipt," I vowed quietly as I handed the scrap to Barrichello. He took my pen and signed it, and I started doing internal backflips. For those two seconds, I held his attention. He shook my hand, and I struggled to utter some form of thanks as he walked away.

For the rest of the day, nothing could bring me down. I had done it. I had gotten one of the most famous racing drivers in the world to sign a humble piece of paper for me. I went back to my father walking on clouds. As we watched the rest of testing, I held my head a little higher. As I saw Barrichello continue to turn laps, I felt like a different person. I had a reason to look forward to the upcoming season.

Branden Wiens is a student at Cosumnes River College and a newsroom intern at the News-Sentinel.

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