Sonoma Raceway gearing up for 50th season

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Historic race cars, rumbling stock cars, nimble Indy open wheels, gravity-defying motorcycles, deafening dragsters. In its half-century of racing, Sonoma Raceway has hosted just about every kind of vehicle race imaginable.

In this, its 50th year of racing, the track will go without Indy racing, but has added a high-end wine, food and vintage race car festival that will showcase — and race — some of the sexiest vehicles ever produced.

“We’ve got a lot of fun stuff going on,” said raceway president Steve Page, not at all missing the IndyCar race that is gone after 14 years at the Sears Point track.

The IndyCar race, though not without its fans, was a six-figure financial loser for years, and it has since moved to Monterey County’s Laguna Seca.

Sonoma Raceway’s busy season got started with the interactive Eco-Marathon Americas, an event featuring student-built ultra-energy-efficient vehicles.

The competitions, including one to determine which car could go the farthest on the least amount of energy, celebrate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math and energy) technologies of the future.

The Classic Sports Racing Group holds a vintage car race Oct. 3-5 as part of its Charity Challenge, which has raised $970,000 for Sonoma County charities since 2004. This year’s event should push the total over $1 million in donations.

Racing really heats up in the summer, with several major events in June and July.

Page is enthusiastic about a first for the raceway: the Sonoma Speed Festival, May 31-June 2.

Neighbors from Ram’s Gate Winery have taken over the track to “put on an event unlike anything in the country,” Page said.

Two-hundred elite vintage race cars from the Brass Era (late 1800s-about 1915) to today’s machines, vintage dragsters, sleek concept cars and unique prototypes will be on display all weekend.

Confirmed entrants include several Ferrari 250 GTOs, Ferrari 250 Testarossas, 1957 Maserati 300S class and several Maserati Tipo 61 Birdcages.

And those speed demons won’t just be sitting pretty under tents getting polished by their caretakers — they will be racing.

“This will be the inaugural event, but I think in 2-3 years, this could be one of, if not the top historic car race in the country,” Page said. “I’m excited about what this could be.”

Another 20 rare vehicles are being shipped in from their museum homes to form an exhibit called “The Evolution of Speed.”

In addition, the festival will include a craft beer garden with local favorites on tap, curated wine and food tasting stations, and chef demonstrations. VIP packages offer even more food, wine and racing luxury.

The Toyota/SaveMart 350 NASCAR race, set for June 21-23, is the most popular race of the year at the track, with thousands of stock-car fans flooding Sonoma County for the weekend, packing the track’s campgrounds with RVs and travel trailers and loving every minute of the fender-banging action.

NASCAR’s first road course of the season will literally have a new twist this year.

Sonoma Raceway has reintroduced the signature “carousel,” a sweeping downhill turn in the curvy track. The route will return to its historic 12-turn, 2.52-mile layout, first unveiled when the track opened in 1968 but not used since 1997.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive from drivers and the fans,” Page said. “We’re one of the few tracks that has seen an increase in ticket sales this year. We’re seeing a nice bounce. Reintroducing the carousel has a lot to do with that.”

In 1998, the raceway paved a bypass between turns 4 and 7 that cut the course to 1.99 miles, which was controversial at the time and unpopular with drivers, Page said.

“We decided the anniversary year was the right year to bring it back,” he said.

The carousel plunges from Turn 4, down through Turns 5 and 6 and navigates a 200-degree-plus turn before dropping onto a long straightaway into the Turn 7 hairpin.

It is where Dale Earnhardt passed Mark Martin in 1995 to give Earnhardt his first NASCAR road-course victory.

Page said he hopes the new generation of drivers, none of whom have driven the stretch, also will make history as they battle through the challenging corner.

The reconfiguration also opens up a new peninsula, which raceway folks are calling The Point, where fans can view the race. There will be concessions, picnic spots and belly-up bars to view the action.

The following month, hot rods return for the 32nd annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals, July 26-28.

Track records were set in 2018 and stars John Force, Antron Brown and Ron Capps will return this year to push the limits again.

As part of the raceway’s anniversary celebrations, officials are asking drivers and fans to submit photos and memories of the track.

Page said track employees are busy archiving memorabilia from the raceway’s early years.

“We’re finding ways to weave it into all the things we do all year long,” he said.

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