These days, the annual visit by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to Sonoma Raceway is eagerly anticipated as one of the bigger events on the Northern California sports scene. But it hasn’t always been smooth for the stock car crowd in wine country. One could argue that the race’s ability to survive has been a testament to patience and persistence.
A Friday story in the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press-Democrat, penned by Bob Padecky, details the trials and tribulations that the former Sears Point Raceway has gone through since NASCAR came calling: Environmental protests, a sum of $1.5 million used to protect red-legged tree frogs on the property (a species that promptly lost its endangered status after the money was spent), and hard-won upgrades that came with hundreds of conditions the track had to follow.
But even through all of that, the event has endured and is now one of two road-course races on the Cup calendar alongside the race at Watkins Glen in New York state. Its winner’s list features plenty of star power, including California native Jeff Gordon (who has five wins at Sonoma) and past legends such as Rusty Wallace and the late Dale Earnhardt, who earned his lone road course victory there in 1995.
And even though the road-course IQ has improved tremendously inside the NASCAR paddock over the years, the event has always had an irresistible sense of incongruity: The oval-driven series with Southern roots barreling around a technical road course surrounded by lush vineyards. It’s an appealing change of pace and there’s always a chance for a surprise, especially with the various road-racing “ringers” that annually emerge to challenge the Cup regulars.
It may not be every NASCAR fan’s cup of tea, and while the setting is still lovely, you kind of wish there was a bit more green grass and a bit less brown (a byproduct of summer conditions there). But racing at Sonoma is always an intriguing event to watch, and it’s become a stalwart on the NASCAR landscape.