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NASCAR cancels Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway for 2020 due to coronavirus concerns

NASCAR, Sonoma Raceway and the venue’s owner, Speedway Motorsports, jointly announced on Friday the cancellation of this year’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup Series weekend, which had been scheduled for June 12-14.

The loss of an event that accounts for 65-75% of Sonoma Raceway’s annual revenue (the largest sporting event in the county, with tens of thousands of paying fans over the three days) is a huge blow to the track, and another hit to the local economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We work all year for this event, so this is a huge disappointment for us, for our fans and our sponsors, but we realize it’s part of a larger challenge facing our nation and everyone in the live events business,” Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager, said in a press release. “We are excited that NASCAR is coming back to broadcast television and are ready to support the upcoming events at our Speedway Motorsports tracks. We look forward to NASCAR’s return to Sonoma in 2021.”

After a near-total two-month shutdown of American sports in response to a patchwork of stay-at-home orders, NASCAR will be the first major organization in the country to restart competition when it stages a race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17.

That event kicks off a revised schedule of five races, all of them in the Carolinas, that NASCAR had released in late April. The association presented the rest of its calendar Friday, and Sonoma was one of three raceways left out. The others are in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia.

Local race fans had wanted a postponement rather than cancellation of the 2020 Toyota/Save Mart 350, and Speedway Motorsports officials held out hope at least for a race without fans in attendance.

But the more stringent stay-at-home order applied in California, and especially in Sonoma County, made a reschedule too complicated. County health director Dr. Sundari Mase has repeatedly said she will not approve mass gatherings here, including sporting events, until at least Labor Day, and the path for offices is hazy.

“I think early on, it was clear to us a NASCAR race with fans in June in California was not going to happen,” Page said by phone. “So we started working on protocols for an event without fans. About a month ago, we had that in place and were looking at the possibility. But in our conversations with folks at the county, we got a pretty skeptical reply.”

There has been a NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway every year since 1989, when the association’s top-tier series, then known as the Winston Cup, debuted at the twisting road course with the Banquet Frozen Foods 300. The greatest drivers in the sport have visited Wine Country in the three decades since. Race winners have included Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

“We’re definitely going to miss it,” race loyalist Karen Gutierrez said. “We understand like everyone else. But it’s a yearly event for us.”

NASCAR is a family affair

Some Sonoma residents flee NASCAR weekend. The Gutierrez family does the opposite. They have been going to stock car races at Sonoma Raceway for at least 25 years. The 2020?NASCAR event was to be the 24th in a row for Karen’s son Benjamin. He was born in July 1997, and attended his first thundering competition a month later. He hasn’t missed a race since.

When the traffic started getting bad on race day, the Gutierrezes took to camping out at ?50 Acres Campground, just across Highway 121 from the raceway. They have made friends and traded recipes. This is a true community event for them, and for other local families.

Sonoma Raceway does not release attendance figures, but somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 were likely to show up for this year’s Cup race. With the show canceled, the raceway will lose not just ticket money but cuts from parking, concessions and the many activities surrounding the competition. Speedway Motorsports will retain its TV revenue, as the replacement race for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 will be held at one of the company’s other venues, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

At this point, Sonoma Raceway officials have no idea when their track will open again. They had already postponed their second-largest event, NHRA drag racing originally slated for July 24-26, indefinitely. Meanwhile, the raceway is missing out on the income generated by countless smaller events such as Sonoma Drift and Wednesday Night Drags.

“That’s a major part of our frustration,” Page said. “We normally have 340 days of active schedule when the calendar year starts. Most people think of us as a major-event facility, but we have smaller events going day after day. We have an industrial park with hundreds of clients putting cars on the track.”

Businesses feel ripple effect

Page said he and his staff have drawn up protocols for staging on-course driving that is compliant with current county health directives such as social distancing. The raceway has ordered protective masks for all staff. “But there is no one to go to, show them that plan and ask if it passes muster,” he added.

Page has channeled most of his requests through the raceway’s Sonoma County Supervisor, David Rabbitt. But he has received little feedback from the county health department.

“My inclination is to go out and do it and see what the response is,” Page said. “But we work for a large corporation, and when we present a plan our attorneys say, ‘Show us where the county says it’s permitted or you can’t do it.’?”

Page said the raceway had ?layoffs a little less than a month ago, part of a corporation-wide reorganization that eliminated a total of nearly 200 jobs. He doesn’t foresee additional cuts in the near future. He remains nervous about the open-ended timeline when he sees the empty garages up the hill from the road course.

“It’s mostly shops in the business of servicing the amateur race community and the vintage race community,” Page said. “For the most part, there’s weeds growing up in the racetrack right now.”

If Sonoma Raceway is absorbing the brunt of the situation, surrounding businesses will also feel a ripple effect. Many of the fans attending the Toyota/Save Mart 350 tend to make a longer trip of it, and they feed into to the local economy.

“For say 20 miles around, every hotel room is sold out that weekend,” said Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce. “People come into town early and do tours and tastings.”

Bodenhamer noted the value of a national TV broadcast that features panoramic shots of the vineyards and golden hills of Carneros, beating a million race fans over the head with the name “Sonoma.” “But even just looking at hotels, restaurants, wineries, even things like gas stations, I think you can safely say it’s sailing into the tens of millions of dollars (of local revenue),” he said. “So it’s a huge hit for us.”

Popular meet-up for many

This event, perhaps more than any other on NASCAR’s circuit, is also a popular meet-up point for corporate sponsors and partners, many of which rent out wineries and restaurants for private parties. That, too, will be missed.

Existing ticket holders for the 2020 race may choose between a full refund and a 120% credit they can apply to admissions at any of the NASCAR-sanctioned events at Speedway Motorsports’ eight tracks, which include Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, in 2020 or 2021. For some, looking to the future, and a return to normalcy in 2021, is a rare bit of comfort.

“We’ll go,” Gutierrez said. “We’ll go until we can’t go.”

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

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