People have been racing automobiles for almost as long as they have been driving them.

Shortly after the invention of a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine in the 1880s, consumers were eager to test the speed of their vehicles. The earliest organized race in the United States was said to be an 1895 road race from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois and back on Thanksgiving Day.

Sonoma County became an early hot spot for street racing. In 1909, the first California Grand Prize Race began in Santa Rosa. The 52-mile route led drivers up to Healdsburg, around its plaza and up the Dry Creek Valley to Geyserville and back.

Of the 14 drivers who started the race, only six completed it. Santa Rosa’s Ben Noonan came in first, driving his big Stoddard-Dayton car across the finish line an hour and five minutes after starting the race.

Races eventually were moved to speedways for the safety of spectators, due to the many crashes that happened in the early days.

In Sonoma County, fans could watch their favorite drivers in Stoddard-Dayton, hot rod, midget car and stock car races at the Petaluma Speedway, Sonoma County Fairgrounds, and Di Grazia Motordrome in Santa Rosa.

The Sonoma Raceway this year celebrated its 50th anniversary. The 2.52-mile road course was the brainchild of Robert Marshall Jr., an attorney from Point Reyes, and Kentfield land developer Jim Coleman, who conceived the idea on a hunting trip. Ground was broken on Aug. 14, 1968, and the course was named Sears Point after Frank Sears, who settled the area in 1851.

Over the years, the raceway has changed owners and names several times. It’s now owned by Speedway Motorsports and serves as one of the premiere racing destinations in the country.

Click through our gallery above to learn more about Sonoma County’s racing history.