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Drag races bring up to 1,000 people to Sonoma Raceway in largest local event of pandemic era

SEARS POINT ‒ In normal circumstances, the event at Sonoma Raceway this week would rate as a minor disappointment for speedway officials. The entry list is a bit smaller than usual and, because of state and county restrictions related to the coronavirus, no spectators are allowed at the road course south of Sonoma.

By pandemic standards, though, the NHRA Division 7 Drag Races are a bona fide blockbuster, drawing the largest group of people ‒ hailing from a far flung swath of Northern California and the western U.S. ‒ that any local venue has welcomed since mid-March, when health authorities first banned gatherings of 12 or more.

Between now and Sunday afternoon at Sonoma Raceway, close to 500 drivers will be practicing, qualifying and racing, president Steve Page said Thursday. Add pit crews and support staff ― limited to a maximum of four per car ― and the total itinerant population is likely to approach 1,000.

With the NASCAR and NHRA Mello Yello Series races previously canceled, this second-tier NHRA competition is the largest gathering at the raceway so far this year ― and looks to be the biggest here in 2020.

And while it’s hard to get an accurate head count at a downtown Santa Rosa protest or an uncomfortably dense Memorial Day at Sonoma Coast beaches, it’s difficult to conceive of any single event in the county has drawn significantly more people to one place since the first stay-at-home order landed in mid-March.

Sonoma Raceway President Steve Page understands how that may look to a region reeling from the pandemic and its related shutdowns, but he’s confident his team is making the right decision in staging the event.

“We’re operators of a business with employees, with clients, with lots of people who rely on what we do to support themselves,” Page said. “So we are always going to try to find ways to make that activity happen. But we’re also going to balance that necessity with our responsibility toward the people who work for us, who participate in our events and the community at large. I’m comfortable that having weighed all of those interests, that we are acting in a very responsible fashion.”

Still, some may be vexed by the reopening at a time when the coronavirus is resurgent and other sectors of the local economy are forced into suspension. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration recently added Sonoma County to the state’s watch virus list, meaning businesses such as bars, hair salons and restaurant dining rooms are once again shuttered.

Newsom’s most recent health order makes no specific mention of spectator sports or recreational activities. But in Section 16 of the most recent order issued by Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, dated June 18, there is a passage that reads, “Tournaments, competitions, or other sporting events, including live audience activities, are also prohibited.”

That order carves out an exception for “outdoor activities, recreation, or sports permitted by the State Stay at Home Order as long as the group size does not exceed 12 persons.”

Clearly, NHRA drag racing involves more than 12 people. And as Page followed Mase’s directives, he figured he’d remain shut down.

“Six weeks ago, I was pretty convinced this wouldn’t happen,” he said.

Page said Speedway Motorsports attorneys pored over the recent health orders and concluded the raceway falls not under Section 16, but under Section 17, which governs businesses. That portion directs commercial enterprises to use distancing as the standard, rather than a total number of attendees.

As Page noted, Appendix C of that county order says that, “Racetracks are currently allowed to operate without spectators.”

“Unless otherwise stated, I assume I come to work every day at a racetrack,” he said.

Mase did not respond to a request for comment.

To those who make their living at the raceway, the return of roaring engines is a soothing sound. The facility went through a round of layoffs in April, part of larger restructuring that eliminated some 200 jobs at Speedway Motorsports, Sonoma’s parent company. And there was little activity at the track for most of the three months.

The downshift has been unnerving for Page and his staff, who each year host Sonoma County’s largest single public event. The Toyota/Save Mart 350 draws up to 90,000 fans on race day, and many more than that over several days of practice and qualifying. With California deep into its shelter-in-place stage this spring, Speedway Motorsports moved the 350 to its track in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Beyond mainstream race fans, the shutdown has been hard on the approximately 100 tenants who rent garage space on the property, most of whom cater to amateur car enthusiasts.

“These guys were dying for three months,” Page said. “If there’s nothing on the track, they’re not doing any business.”

The raceway began to revive in early June, starting with road tests and performance driving. Sonoma staged a smaller drag racing event two weeks ago, and last weekend hosted a series of vintage car races. The track’s weekly drift and amateur drag series are set to resume next week. The NHRA Division 7 competition signaled a major return to action.

So a strange yet familiar scene played out at the raceway Thursday. All of the interior garage areas were closed. But columns of dragsters and other souped-up racecars lined up before the starting lights, while teams tinkered on their machines in other areas of the property. Many traveling teams camp onsite, as demonstrated by the many RVs doubling as race headquarters.

They came from all over. Kyle Seipel, Sonoma Raceway’s drag strip manager, estimates a quarter of this year’s lineup hails from a two-hour radius in Northern California. Others make the trip from Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Hawaii, the other states that comprise Division 7. And probably farther than that.

Last year’s top-10 finishers in the various categories at the NHRA Division 7 races here included drivers from Alberta and British Columbia, Florida, New York, Ohio and Indiana. There are no Canadian entries this year, another result of the pandemic, but many of the far-flung Americans are likely here this week. Seipel said the group probably includes drivers from the Pacific Northwest, Division 6, which has had a number of race cancellations.

That leaves potential for mixing of germ pools in Sonoma. But there didn’t appear to be much high-risk behavior visible Thursday. The main usable portion of the raceway, after all, is about 730 acres, and nearly every one of the 200 or so people within sight were masked.

Some did gather to watch near the start line, and a few tight hallways and bathrooms necessitated close passage. But it wasn’t what you’d call packed.

“I think the track is doing an incredible job,” said George Garbiso, a driver who is based in Las Vegas. “I don’t think a facility could do any better.”

That suits Garbiso, who is 67 and had heart bypass surgery four years ago. “It worries us immensely,” he said of racing in the age of COVID-19, standing next to his son Joe (both are racing here this week). “Me and my wife are very concerned.”

The Garbisos competed two weeks ago at Sacramento Raceway Park. That venue, Joe said, wasn’t enforcing the mask rule, and as many as 20 people at a time were gathering to eat together. Not so in Sonoma, where security staff walked through the pit area every half hour, reminding teams over a loudspeaker to mask up.

With such a heightened level of uncertainty, though, why race at all? George Garbiso said it’s the friendships he has forged in racing that brings him back.

Marko Perivolaris agreed. The 25-year-old son of a dirt track driver, born and raised in Petaluma, said there is nothing he enjoys more than drag racing. “It’s all the people we race with, we hang out with and spend time with at the track,” Perivolaris said. “It’s really a second family.”

And a big one, by current social standards.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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