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Official Review by Ryan Norris, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Sonoma Raceway opened in California's wine country in 1968 and has been the premier racing destination in Northern California since. NASCAR has hosted a top-flight race, now sponsored by Toyota/Save Mart, since 1989 when Ricky Rudd won the inaugural race.
Sonoma Raceway is one of two road courses used by NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, the other being Watkins Glen. The full course measures at 2.52 miles but is modified to be just 2 miles for the NASCAR race. This was accomplished by adding "the chute" which bypasses turns 5 & 6. The chute is easily viewed by most spectators and is the fastest portion of the track.
Sonoma Raceway hosts four major racing circuits, though they are open for over 300 total events every year. The main circuits are NASCAR, AMA Superbike, IndyCar Series and NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing.
Jeff Gordon leads all NASCAR drivers with 5 career victories at the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Ernie Irvin, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd all have multiple wins at the course.
Until 2001, Pit Row could only accommodate 34 cars. Therefore there was an annex row near the drag strip to accommodate the other cars. This landlocked area, not adjacent to the garage, prevented pit members from leaving the pits during the race. This further clouded the positions of the cars at any given time.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The great thing about food at Sonoma Raceway is that it is everywhere. The drawback is that it is all heavily greasy and a bit redundant.
The main concession area is behind the main grandstand. Fair-style stands are set up selling fried everything: chicken, fries, pickles, etc. All the stuff you'd see at the county fair you'll find here as well, including Kettle Korn, soft served lemonade and foot-long corn dogs. These stands repeated around each viewing terrace.
The Sears Point (former name of the raceway) Grill serves Niman Ranch burgers ($10), beer bacon BBQ bratwurst ($8) and lamb & fennel sausage ($8), all served with potato chips.
Stands are the main food source but there are permanent stands under the main grandstand including pizza and deli stands.
The whole variety of sodas , water, sports and energy drinks are available. Sonoma Raceway is a Coca-Cola facility.
Sonoma Raceway tries to tie itself closely to the wine country and because of this they have places around the track to sample local wines. Though they have popular macro beers like Budweiser, Coors and Corona, they also have a craft beer garden. Each beer in the beer garden is from Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties. Offerings in the beer garden include Moylan's (Novato), 101 North (Petaluma), Bear Republic (Healdsburg) and North Coast (Fort Bragg).
NASCAR and the Sonoma Raceway do everything to create a great fan experience. Walking through the merchandise booths offer fans to buy t-shorts, hats, etc as well as get free swag from sponsors that include clothing and stickers. Many fans take advantage of photo ops offered by having current and past stock cars on display around the track. Drivers are also made available for pictures and autographs throughout the weekend.
Fans can bring picnic lunches into the race in coolers up to 15x15x15, though I saw many much larger. Ice is available at the Raceway Café.
Because of the unique to NASCAR track, there are unique seating options. The six main options are main grandstand, turns 2, 3, 7 & 9 terraces, and Save Mart family area at turn 11. Turn 9 has views of most of the course and the main grandstand offers the best view of the pits and is the only one that is shaded.
Camping is also an option at Sonoma Raceway. Many fans make a whole weekend out of a trip to Sonoma by camping and entering the raceway for the different events over the weekend. The campgrounds have portable toilets for use and showers for sale. Dogs are allowed in camping areas but not at the track.
The downfall in terms of atmosphere is the practicality of watching a road course race. There is not a place you can sit and see the entire track and monitors are not big nor sophisticated enough to make up for the missing action. Another practical issue is that with a road course race comes a lot of caution flags. These caution laps take a long time to complete because of the length of track, creating long periods of down time.
The only immediate neighborhood to speak of is the campgrounds surrounding race track. This is a fun-filled area but not a destination if you're not already heading to the race. Otherwise, there are no restaurants or bars.
However, you are at the gateway to the world-renowned California wine country. The two main regions are Napa and Sonoma Valleys. There are literally hundreds of wineries within 30 miles of the race track. If you are staying for the whole weekend and are even a moderate wine drinker, I recommend exploring the nearby wineries for great wines and even better landscape. Do keep in mind that none of these wineries are walkable; do designate a driver.
Though not part of the immediate neighborhood, any out of town visitor will want to visit San Francisco, 35 miles to the south.
The nearest hotels are in the nearby cities of Novato and Sonoma.
A NASCAR race is a party.
The experience at a race is somewhat like a music festival; people sharing food, swapping stories and cheering their favorites. I enjoyed that it seemed that fans of all walks of life were participating in the weekend event.
Nearly every person is wearing a shirt with their favorite driver's car strewn on the front or a hat with a numeral. They are there to root their favorite and high-five complete strangers who feel the same way.
When a lead change takes place it seems that the crowd rises and cheers regardless who the two cars swapping positions are. This keeps the energy level quite high.
There is only one road that leads to the race track and it is one way in each direction.
From Oakland and San Francisco you will take 101 North to 37 East. On race day, this is where the back up starts. It will take an hour to reach highway 121. Once you reach 121, you're about a mile away from the parking lots.
Parking lots are a long trek away from the track. Dress comfortably. There is a shuttle service but I didn't bother to learn which shuttles go where. It is more than walkable.
Access within the track is pretty unique and exceptional compared to getting to the facility. There are pedestrian over and underpasses that help fans get from one area of the track to others. I enjoyed walking around and catching different parts of the race track.
Concessions and restrooms are plentiful and easily accessible.
A NASCAR event is fun for hardcore fans and casual fans alike. Through the raceway website you can buy tickets in a variety of ways; from one-day general admission tickets to family four packs and all-accessa lot passes, to all-weekend passes. One of the great deals I found was a four pack that included four turn 3 terrace tickets at $50 apiece. The important thing is to remember all the things that go along with making a trip to Sonoma Raceway, it's about so much more than the few hours Sunday afternoon.
Another option is camping for the whole weekend. There are additional campground charges but general day parking is free!
There are activities constantly throughout the weekend for adults and children. Meet and greets are some of the most popular extras. Fans spend a lot of money and energy cheering on their favorite drivers and many times get the chance to meet them.
There is a Raceway Wall of Fame that honors racers from several different circuits and types of race cars (stock, open wheel, funny car). Winner's Circle is located near pit row and is available for photo ops prior to the conclusion of the race.
The Sprint Cup Series championship trophy is on display for fans to check out as well.
Finally, you're in wine country!
A NASCAR event is a fun event. For Northern California it's a unique event too. The road course suffers a bit from the lack of visibility but makes up for it in its uniqueness and overall region. Overall, a great experience.
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