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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.

Anything close to 15,000 people will be a relief to Gregory, who was assured of no such thing when she succeeded Steve Page as Sonoma Raceway president Feb. 1. The county remained stuck in the most-restrictive purple tier at that point.

“Even probably the full month of February, we were looking at the potential of we may not be able to have the event,” Gregory said. “Certainly that we may not be able to have it with fans.”

That month, Gregory held meetings with NASCAR (her former employer) and the heads of Speedway Motorsports on where the race might be relocated if it couldn’t take place in Northern California.

Since then, the county has moved to red, and then to orange, though it failed to advance to the least-restrictive yellow tier this week as hoped.

In the early weeks of Gregory’s tenure, she and her advisers were looking at multiple race-day contingencies. As the scheduled race date got closer and virus rates remained stable, they had a tightrope to walk. The longer they waited to put a plan into action, the better the chance Sonoma County would go yellow. But NASCAR weekend is a huge event that requires weeks of planning.

By the time May rolled around, Gregory had decided the raceway would stick to its orange tier concept.

Any current plan must necessarily include attempts to encourage COVID safety. At the raceway’s biggest event of 2020 — a slate of NHRA Series 7 drag races staged July 17-19, during a brief period of reopening for the county — announcers used the track’s PA system for frequent reminders to mask up and maintain 6 feet of distance. That event drew close to 1,000 people, all of them drivers, support teams and their families.

The biggest brain teaser for raceway staff right now is circulation: How to safely move 10,000-plus people through a controlled area? Fortunately for organizers, Sonoma Raceway has much more latitude than most venues. “That’s the beauty of 1,600 acres,” Gregory said.

Outreach to fans has been another big part of the equation this year, and will only accelerate in the next three weeks. Ticket holders must be alerted that the state requires them to be California residents to attend, and that food concessions will be outdoor walk-up only. On the raceway’s Facebook page, several people have posted messages wondering why their tickets haven’t arrived in the mail. Race staff must remind them all tickets are electronic this year.

Fans are in a holding pattern on seating, as the raceway can’t assign spots until it determines the final configuration. Some loyal customers are accustomed to watching every NASCAR race from the same seat. That might not be possible this time.

Lindsey Allen understands the restrictions.

“I figure that’s how it is in 2021,” said Allen, 36, a NASCAR fan who lives in Santa Rosa. “I’ve been wearing this mask for what, about a year? If I have to wear my mask the entire time in that heat, that’s what I’ll do.”

NASCAR is a family tradition For Allen. Her father drew her into the sport as a child, and when the stock car circuit came to Sonoma, they began attending in person.

When Allen’s son was 3 or 4, he started to come, too. Allen said William is a little “hyperactive,” but when the boy attended his first race — lanyard around his neck, muffs over his ears and a Dale Earnhardt Jr. hat on his tiny head — he sat transfixed. The Allens make it a long weekend now, pulling a trailer into 50 Acres Campground just across Hwy. 121 from Sonoma Raceway.

Or at least they did until 2020, when the race was canceled.

“I felt a big hole,” Lindsey Allen said. “My dad’s like, ‘It is what it is.’ I said, ‘It is NOT what it is!’ I was devastated. It was like, ‘There goes my summer.’”

In Allen’s mind, summer is about to return. It will sound like a 750-horsepower engine and smell of burned rubber and 98-octane fuel, and she can’t wait.

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

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