SONOMA — Ken Clapp remembers the moment it dawned on him that NASCAR might be in Sonoma County to stay. It was the morning of the inaugural Winston Cup race — it's the Sprint Cup now — at Sears Point International Raceway, in June 1989, and Clapp was driving to the track from San Francisco with NASCAR heir Bill France Jr. and president of competition Les Richter.
The trio got up at 5 a.m., stopped for breakfast and encountered something wholly unexpected somewhere around Novato: stop-and-go traffic. More than 60,000 people would show up to watch the racing that day — far fewer than expected for Sunday's race at rechristened Sonoma Raceway, but a wildly impressive turnout at the time.
"Bill Jr. was the kind of guy who absolutely could not wait. He wouldn't stand in lines," said Clapp, who at the time was NASCAR's vice president of Western operations. "So we dipped off to the right side and away he went."
France's car got as far as Lakeville Road before a CHP officer pulled him over. He not only talked himself out of a ticket, but into a police escort to the front gate of the raceway. The execs were off and running, and so was NASCAR.
Stock car racing's top circuit hasn't abandoned Sonoma. Sunday, the Sprint Cup will celebrate its 25th anniversary at the twisting road course in the breezy hills of Carneros.
"Back in the eighties and nineties, they said we were going to Wine Country, and I didn't really even know what that meant," said current NASCAR team owner Michael Waltrip, who drove in the inaugural Banquet Frozen Foods 300 in 1989 and 18 subsequent permutations of the race, which is now dubbed the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Everyone who follows NASCAR knows about Wine Country these days. What started as an outlier in a circuit dominated by good old boys at Southeast ovals has become part of the Sprint Cup's fabric. Some drivers love racing here. Others hate making those right turns. All of them have come to accept Sonoma as an annual stop on the tour.
Sears Point, which begat Infineon, which begat Sonoma Raceway, wasn't NASCAR's first Northern California venue. Dating back to 1951 there had been races in cities such as Oakland, Eureka, Fremont and Sacramento. This wasn't the first Cup road race, either. In fact, Sears Point replaced another road course, Riverside, on the circuit in '89.
And it didn't exactly arrive in a blaze of glory.
When Steve Page came aboard as Sears Point general manager in 1991, he found a healthy event hosted at a crumbling facility.
"The sightlines were bad," Page said. "The facilities, for drivers and for spectators, were just above Neanderthal. Ask some of your colleagues what the old media center was like. There was one (road) in and out. It was a dirt road, impassable in the wintertime."
Stock-car crews hated Sears Point in those days. There was no garage area; mechanics had to work out of team trucks. There were no permanent restrooms, and no run-off area (the safety cushion between the roadway and the walls) on the track. It was something of a shock for Page, who had previously worked for the Oakland A's when the team was owned by the Haas family.