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SONOMA — The hook always has been here, even when traffic was locked up, it seemed, all the way to Sacramento, when some fans would arrive 50 minutes after the race started. The hook kept NASCAR here even when fans were sitting on hillsides, portable toilets created something that didn't smell like springtime in the Rockies and splinters popped up at the most inappropriate of places — on the backsides of people sitting in rickety, rotten bleachers.

The hook compelled NASCAR to be patient, even when the mechanics worked on cars in the sun, at the back of their haulers. NASCAR took a deep breath when it heard that a small but vocal local activist group called The Yellow Flag Coalition kept screaming that if stock car racing came here, the air would turn brown, the wine grapes would go to seed and pastoral Sonoma County would turn into an Alabama truck stop and oh how that would kill land values.

And NASCAR sighed. The hook — got to keep remembering the hook, they told themselves — was what made Shantytown worth it: because this place is just 30 miles from San Francisco. As odd as this may read, San Francisco saved this racetrack, saved NASCAR in this area. Because if this racetrack was located somewhere else, in the middle of nowhere, and I mean no vilification of Turlock...

"It would have died a quiet death," said Ken Clapp, a motorsports veteran of 62 years, once in charge of NASCAR's Western operations, now a NASCAR consultant who was here when the first shovelful of dirt was turned in 1967.

Location, location, location does not apply just to real estate. As NASCAR's Cup series celebrates its 25th year at Sears Point, Infineon, Raceway at Sonoma, Sonoma Raceway, that history cannot be told without first describing what happened around this undulating strip of asphalt all these years. Because the compelling moments of Sonoma Raceway's history, truthfully, are not Robby Gordon acting like an idiot in the 2001 race or Ricky Rudd winning the first one or even the familiar and constant drone saying that no one can pass here.

"What do you think we should do?" Rob Lopez, then-director of media relations, asked me in 1990.

"Start with a bulldozer there," I pointed to the southernmost end of the property, "and don't stop until you get there."

That would be the north end.

It almost happened. Only the track and three buildings remain, three buildings with no aesthetic value, three buildings with their modest architecture. It would be easy to forget the past, given these leftovers. But as the historians will tell you, those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and no one wants a repeat of this.

It cost owner O. Bruton Smith, for example, $1.5 million to protect the red-legged tree frog found on the property.

"I've never seen one," Smith told me in 2008. "After we wasted the money, about a month or two later the federal government took the frogs off the endangered species list. I thought, 'Geez, I already spent the money.' It was ridiculous. Maybe I could start a breeding farm for red-legged frogs. And then everyone could have one."

When the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors finally signed off on the request for track upgrades in 2000, 250 operating conditions were attached.

"We had it all to deal with," said Steve Page, track president and general manager. "We had traffic. We had noise. We had unstable soil. We had earthquakes. We had Indian burial grounds. The place is lousy with wildlife. And a handful thought if this was going to happen, we were going to shut down Sonoma County."

Nowhere but in Northern California would the concept of free speech be so generously and adamantly applied. It seemed at times that the purpose of the protestors was simply to protest, like a remnant from the '60s. It confused, amazed and frustrated Smith, a North Carolina billionaire who found the politics here quite different from any other place he established a motorsports footprint.

"This was an unfamiliar experience to Bruton," Page said. "Everywhere else he went, he was treated like a conquering hero. Here, and these are his words, he was treated 'like a criminal.' My most difficult job was to manage (Smith's) expectations from the other side of the country. I never despaired, but I probably ground some enamel off my teeth, usually between 1 and 3 in the morning."

A half million tires were removed from one hillside alone. Dump trucks hauled away 9? million cubic yards of dirt, a little more than three times the amount of debris taken from Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site. The Indian burial grounds were protected. California horned larks, tricolored blackbirds, deer, owls, northern harriers, tiger salamanders, the frogs, the hawks, probably the earthworms for all we know, are all safely in their ponds, trees and holes in the ground.

"I was thinking it would take $15 million to $17 million to improve the place," Clapp said in 1997. "Now I'm thinking it might take $20 million to $21 million."

In 2003, the final upgrade was completed. It cost Bruton Smith $100 million to effectively leave the past behind. The hook has been deep in Smith, as it was in NASCAR. He could have seen it as a risk. After all, Northern California has a NASCAR following and there was San Francisco nearby, but 25 years ago it would have stretched the imagination of the late Jerry Garcia and the patience of Jimmie Johnson to see what we see today.

Vineyards climb over the hillsides while 3,000 sheep graze and mow the grass. The track has recycled 349 tons of materials while installing 1,652 solar power panels, reducing its energy usage by 41 percent.

"This place once had the appeal of a junkyard," Page said. "Now it has lifestyle villages."

It's almost as if they built these lifestyle villages and cafes and wine-sipping venues — and then they decided to build a racetrack. That's how dramatic the remake, how much they made Shantytown a ghost in the rearview mirror.

"I arrived last Tuesday," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "This is a destination for me. I love coming here."

No one from NASCAR said that 25 years ago.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.