Padecky: Sonoma Raceway president Steve Page a humble hero

SONOMA - It's not every day I can predict a reaction about something I write. This time I can. Steve Page is really going to hate this column. It's about him. I had no choice. Just like it was a year ago, when Page had no choice.

For Page, a couple handshakes, a bear hug and maybe a free pumpkin spice latte would have been enough recognition for what he did for people a year ago. Page opened up his Sonoma Raceway - oops, sorry, Steve, I know you don't own it, you just run it - for all those who needed a place to stay while the October wildfires tore through wine country like a blowtorch.

The word spread as fast as the fires. Go to Sonoma Raceway. You can stay there on the field they own east of the racetrack. They will take care of you. They will feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner. They will let you sleep in the drivers' lounge. They somehow will even find a RV for you if you don't want to sleep on the ground. Bring your pets. Bring your Kleenex. Bring whatever you want. Even if it's two parrots, 11 dogs and 14 chickens that the family and relatives of Jennifer Gray Thompson brought.

It was around a thousand people the first day, the Tuesday after the horror broke on that Sunday night. A lot of people found shelter here, including Page, his wife Judy and Grover, the gooby-gooby basset-beagle. They were evacuated from their Sonoma home that Sunday.

Fast-forward now to June of this year. Diana Rose, the racetrack's vice president of marketing and communications, got wind of this NASCAR award. It would be given to someone who exhibited exemplary philanthropy within the industry. She and her most capable assistant, Jennifer Imbimbo, submitted Page's name.

“Of course I didn't tell Steve,” Rose said. “He wouldn't have allowed it.”

If every NASCAR fan who came to the raceway in June didn't know Steve Page from a bag of beans, the president and general manager would rest quite comfortably in his anonymity. Sure, Taylor Swift runs the place. Whatever.

A couple months passed. Rose was notified Page was a finalist along with NASCAR drivers Joey Logano and Ryan Newman. Now came the tough part. Rose had to tell Page he was a finalist.

“You're not going to be happy about this,” Rose began.

That was followed quickly by a response that revealed as much.

“Steve growled at me,” Rose said. “A glare, too.”

Page shifted nervously in his chair. It was as if Rose just told him the IRS was asking for his tax returns.

“What I did was nice, but it didn't rise to the level of heroism that we saw from so many people in this county,” Page said. “It makes me a little uncomfortable.”

Rose then made it palatable. Page would get $30,000 if he didn't win and $60,000 if he did.

“I'm all over it, when I heard that!” Page said. “GO ME!!!!”

The money, you see, would go to Speedway Children's Charities, the nonprofit arm of the racetrack that has distributed more than $6 million to Sonoma County youth groups since 2001.

Yes, for Page, and maybe this can be said about him for the first and only time, it was about the money. Everything else, every other time, for him, it's about someone else. Page points fingers at everyone except himself. Everyone has a stake here.

For example, when you first walk into the racetrack's main building, you are greeted by Deanna Chase. In most offices, Chase would be considered the receptionist. The nameplate on her desk reads: Director Of First Impressions.

“We served 4,000 meals that first week,” Page said. “The people in the dining room did it without complaint. Everyone at this racetrack pitched in. Worked long hours. They were willing to step it up and do difficult things. That was the best part for me. That's what I'll remember most.”

Of course Page made this happen. Right? Well, no. Not so fast, Page said. Tennis Wick, Sonoma County's permit director, called him to ask if evacuated people could stay at the track. Of course, Page said yes.

But, um, wait a minute. It's Steve Page who is a finalist for the NASCAR humanitarian award. Not Tennis Wick. I confessed I was confused. Bureaucracy gives me a headache. Help me, Steve.

“Well, it was a two-pronged process,” Page said. “I first called Tennis to ask him about the land-use permit we have with the county. Could I use the property for a non-racing event and not violate the conditions of the permit?”

Meaning, could Sonoma Raceway be a relocation camp?

Then, musta been coincidence, Wick called back later and asked if the track would accept evacuees.

“Steve always does the right thing,” said Thompson, executive director of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation, “because it's the right thing to do. That night, when I first saw the lights of the raceway, I started to cry. To see it as a place of refuge was incredibly emotional. Not knowing if our house was going to survive (it did), I felt safe. The staff of the raceway came by every hour to check on how we were doing. They gave us whatever we needed. Food. Clothing. Blankets. Dog food. I was relieved but I also was sad. So many people suffered.”

So many people were casting about, looking for safe haven. Steve Page was among them, finding home at the office of all places. His place of business became a place of comfort.

And on Nov. 15, NASCAR will announce the winner of the humanitarian award. To the people who sheltered there a year ago, they don't need a trophy to know who won. They know the name of the person who gave them comfort and it wasn't Taylor Swift.

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