Forget driving or flying to Sonoma NASCAR race: take the train

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You’ve heard of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the Orange Blossom Special and the Wabash Cannonball.

Now you can add the NASCAR Express to the list, as fans attending this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/SaveMart 350 race and activities at Sonoma Raceway will have a rather unique way to say they’ve arrived — at the racetrack, that is.

Instead of flying or driving to the race, for the first time fans can hop aboard an actual train that will take them literally right to the main entrance.

How cool is that?

The train will depart on race morning from Sacramento with additional stops in Davis and Suisun City before ending up right in front of the track.

“We couldn’t be more excited to finally offer fans this unique and hassle-free enhancement to their race-day experience,” Steve Page, president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway, said in a statement.  “We have worked for nearly two decades to make this happen and we are very grateful for the support and cooperation of all the agencies who’ve come together to make it happen.”

One of the biggest complaints by race fans over the years has been the ingress and egress to the track, with essentially only two main roads into and out of the track. The train option gives an added — and likely much easier and nerve-settling — way to get to and away from the track. If the experiment works out, perhaps we may soon see trains from other venues, including San Francisco (we can only hope, right?).

One other lure: there’s two cars on the train that offer food and drinks!

But this isn’t a $10 roundtrip, unfortunately. The cost is somewhat steep at $199, but there are perks in addition to your roundtrip train fare, including a reserved-seat ticket in the main grandstand, VIP entry to the track, on-track access to driver introductions and pre-race ceremonies (worth much of the price right there) and a commemorative T-shirt.

For more information, call 1-800-870-RACE (7223) or click here.

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”