s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

NASCAR gains unlikely foothold in Sonoma County


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.

"They set the standard, in many ways, for taking care of guests," Page said. "Win or lose, fans left having had a great experience. (At Sears Point) we used to offer fans a pretty crappy experience."

Things began to change in earnest in 1996 when O. Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports group purchased the raceway from Skip Berg. Speedway Motorsports is the second-largest owner of stock-car tracks, and Smith soon began making capital investments in Sears Point.

The largest of those began in the fall of 2000 with the additions of garages, restrooms, run-off, entrances and exits, hillside terrace seats and an enlarged grandstand and other improvements.

"To be able to come to a 1.99-mile road course and to be able to sit in the grandstands and see anywhere from half to three-fourths of the racetrack? That's pretty unbelievable," said long-time NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, now a race analyst for TNT. "You know, Watkins Glen (the Sprint Cup's other road course in New York) is about the same size, but there's nowhere you can sit and see more than about two straightaways."

The project took 18 months and required rearranging five million cubic yards of dirt. Speedway Motorsports literally moved a mountain to create a better facility. Page has a framed, 2-by-3-foot overhead photograph of the old configuration in his office to remind him of how drastically things have changed.

The Banquet 300 came along at precisely the right time, as NASCAR entered a period of massive growth and image rehabilitation. Since 1989, the sport has become more national in scope, more mainstream, more profitable and more pervasive in the media. Sonoma Raceway has been both a beneficiary of this evolution and a contributor.

Sunday's race is likely to attract more than 90,000 spectators. That's not as impressive as some of the more traditional superspeedways like Charlotte and Daytona, which can pull in 140,000 people. Still, Sonoma is a fixture in the nation's sixth-largest media market, and it has become a powerful draw to corporate executives.

Case in point: Dan Hesse, CEO of Sprint Nextel Corporation, brings his CEO-level clients to one racing event a year for a gathering of American corporate royalty. That event is in Sonoma.

That's a reason why the venue is now known as Sonoma Raceway. When the site lost Infineon as its naming sponsor last year, there was a strong push by traditionalists to restore the name to Sears Point. After a lengthy internal debate, track officials decided there was simply too much brand value in the name Sonoma.

"When people turn on the broadcast of the race, it always starts with these dramatic shots of hills and vineyards," Page said. "We provide that footage. We love to wrap the mantle of Sonoma around us. And it also promotes all the wonderful things this area offers."

A gas-guzzling, ear-splitting, dust-roiling race in the heart of bucolic Sonoma County. The genius of the NASCAR race is that, 25 years later, it doesn't even seem like a contradiction.

(You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.)