25 years later, patience has paid off for NASCAR in Sonoma

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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.

“I think it’s one of those tracks that you just can’t imagine it not being on the schedule,” two-time Sonoma winner Tony Stewart said in a recent statement. “And I think pretty much all the drivers and teams think of it that way.”

Theriault clinches ARCA title before finale at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) There is no long, convoluted story about how Austin Theriault came to Ken Schrader Racing, forging a team that so dominated the ARCA Series that it captured the title simply by showing up for the finale.

“We both wanted something to do,” the folksy Schrader said with a smile and shrug before Friday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. “He didn’t have a car to drive and I didn’t have a driver.”

So, they solved each other’s problem.

Theriault hopped into the seat and proceeded to win seven times over the first 19 races, building such a lead on his nearest challenger that he sewed up the title at Kentucky. And that made for a rather enjoyable weekend at Kansas, where all the pressure was off their team.

Along the way, Theriault became the first driver to win at a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road event in the same season, and he swept the superspeedway and short-track challenges.

If there was something to win, he won it.

“I hoped we’d have a shot at it and it’s proved out this year that we’ve really exceeded anybody’s expectations,” Theriault said. “We had some things to work on early. We kind of dusted off a bit, went back to work. We had some time between Daytona and the mile-and-a-halfs that came up later in the season, and we realized where we were strong and where we had to work.

“But in the end it came back to pure dedication, I think,” he explained. “The amount of time it took behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The 23-year-old driver from Fort Kent, Maine, knows something about dedication. He appeared to be on racing’s fast track, scoring a Truck Series ride a few years ago for Brad Keselowski, when a terrifying crash at Las Vegas left him with a broken back and sitting on the sidelines.

The best ride he could find last year was in the K&N Pro Series.

It was at a trade show in Indianapolis last December that Theriault ran into Schrader, who was busy putting together a team for this season. They had dinner a couple nights later and, Schrader said, it was his wife Ann who came away impressed by the yes-sir, no-sir driver.

“My wife doesn’t go to all the races,” Schrader said. “After we talked she said, `I like that guy. How good is he?’ She doesn’t know. I knew he was racing well in Keselowski’s truck, had an unfortunate wreck, had to sit out a bit. I told her, `That’s somebody who could make us very happy next year.”‘

Theriault delivered on that promise.

They weren’t the only ones happy Friday, either. Zane Smith earned his second pole of the season, beating teammate Sheldon Creed to earn the top spot for the Kansas ARCA 150, while 20-year-old Natalie Decker announced a full-time ride with Venturini Motorsports next season.

“This is obviously a big step in my career,” said Decker, who made six starts as a rookie this season. “I’m confident and ready for this next move. After tonight my focus shifts to next season. We’ll be ready to go at Daytona.”