NASCAR’s return to Sonoma Raceway poised to be Bay Area’s biggest event in over a year
The traveling, deafening spectacle known as NASCAR hasn’t barreled into California since before the coronavirus pandemic turned life sideways. That changes the weekend of June 5-6, when America’s most prominent and profitable racing circuit returns to Sonoma Raceway.
The people who manage the track have precious little time to rearrange the facility to post-COVID standards, sell tickets, get thousands of fans up to speed and generally remember how to stage a big event that actually includes paying customers.
“You would like a few dry runs,” Sonoma Raceway president Jill Gregory said.
She and her staff will have no such luxury. As it happens, the speedway’s first chance to host fans in nearly 15 months — and the first major event there in close to two years — will be its marquee race. Virus rates and public health orders permitting.
This week, as NASCAR teams assembled for a 400-mile race in Dover, Delaware, workers at Sonoma Raceway were painting numbers on seats, hanging signs and repairing fences. Meanwhile, organizers wait for Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase to bestow final approval on their detailed event plan.
After what Gregory calls a “miscommunication” with county staff, Mase and her team officially received the proposal Tuesday. Friday, the health officer asked the raceway for some adjustments.
“Our concerns focused on strengthening masking and social distancing requirements in the plan,” Mase said in an email. “Sonoma County health officials also identified the need for a specific plan related to operation of the RV park and campground to ensure adherence to those requirements. We are as eager as everyone to see life transition back to normal. But we need to do so in a manner that doesn’t cause our cases to go up among those who have not been vaccinated as yet.”
Mase, following CDC and California Department of Public Health guidance, must verify a wide range of safety measures. The central question — how many fans are allowed to attend — will be determined by her, the state, Gregory and the geometry of the 6-foot rule.
Current regulations for the orange tier in California’s reopening blueprint say that “Outdoor Live Events with Assigned Seats and Controlled Mixing (e.g., sports and live performances)” are limited to 33% of capacity. At Sonoma Raceway, that officially translates to 15,667 people.
As it stands now, that figure would make the upcoming NASCAR race the most-attended sporting event in California since March of 2020, when the jarring halt of high-profile American sports became a weather vane of the ominous changes that would soon hit every sector of society.
The leaderboard could change. The city/county of San Francisco recently bumped up its allowance for Giants games at Oracle Park to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000. But fans have been slow to respond. On the five-day homestand that concluded Tuesday, the Giants averaged 8,742 people.
The largest Bay Area sporting event since the start of the pandemic was the A’s 2021 opener at the Oakland Coliseum, with a crowd of 10,436.
Gregory would like to eclipse that, but Sonoma Raceway is unlikely to hit its allowable maximum of 15,667, she said, because of social distancing requirements. The track will seat pods of 2-10 people, with buffers between groups.
“You’ve got a whole row of folks on this side of the building here that are looking at this giant jigsaw puzzle and trying to put fans in households, separate and socially distanced,” Gregory said, sitting in a conference room with a view that includes a sliver of the road course and a great sweep of rolling Carneros hills and wetlands.
A spokesman for Speedway Motorsports, which owns Sonoma Raceway, said the track is hopeful it will seat between 12,000 and 15,000 people for NASCAR.
That would be a small fraction of the crowd the raceway is accustomed to welcoming for the big race, which typically draws in larger crowds than any other event on the calendar in Sonoma County. Raceway officials do not release gate figures, but media estimates of attendance generally fall in the range of 70,000-95,000 on race day. Many of those guests wind up sitting on grassy banks or otherwise strewed around the property.
Most attendees are from out of the area, and the revenue they bring to local restaurants, motels, wineries and gas stations is significant. Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, put the annual dollar figure in the “tens of millions.” The NASCAR pie will be much smaller this year, but an improvement over 2020, when there was no pie at all.
Raceway officials could have increased 2021 capacity to 67%, or more than 33,000 spectators, by requiring everyone in attendance to take a COVID test or show proof of vaccination. They decided not to pursue that option. Because of the 6-foot requirement, Gregory said, the track couldn’t take advantage of that higher percentage.