Rusty Wallace's Pontiac
Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac

Sonoma Raceway is celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of NASCAR Cup racing at the Northern California Wine Country road course. Marking NASCAR’s top tier Silver occasion will be the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday 23 June 2013.

RICKY RUDD won the first (Winston Cup) race on 11 June 1989, beating RUSTY WALLACE by 0.05 seconds, still the closest-ever Margin of Victory in the 25-year NASCAR Cup history in Sonoma. There was no baseball game in the area which drew a bigger crowd in those days than the inaugural Cup race – 50,000, a considerable number at the time.

Wallace came back to win the next year. Rudd won again in 2002, his last Cup victory.

Since 1978 NASCAR has sanctioned 79 races at the Sonoma track, in four touring series, with 25 of them being the Cup Series – first Winston Cup and now Sprint Cup.

Sonoma Raceway has had several evolutions since it was first built in 1968. It started out as Sears Point Raceway, a geographical designation for the area. Subsequent ownership changes resulted in name changes, to Golden State Raceway, Sears Point again, Infineon Raceway and now Sonoma Raceway.

Ken Clapp
Ken Clapp

KEN CLAPP of Danville CA, who claims to be retired from NASCAR, but still consults full time, is a walking-talking historian of the 45-year old road course. He was instrumental in getting the track built, and has been involved with it in one manner or another all these years, including facilitating the NASCAR Cup Series to run at Sears Point after the closure of Riverside Raceway in Southern California.

RIR held two Cup races each year, so replacement venues were needed. Sears Point was an unlikely candidate in the eyes of BILL FRANCE, who didn’t think NASCAR and the wine country was a good match.

Other Northern California venues were considered, including Laguna Seca, which wasn’t interested, and the San Jose Fair Grounds, which didn’t happen due to local politics.

Once NASCAR focused on the venue, it became a business decision as the Sonoma-Sacramento-San Francisco-Stockton area is the sixth biggest market in the United States. And after the first Cup race, companies and sponsors came calling.

Clapp, longtime NASCAR Vice President of Western Operations, said he got great personal satisfaction in how the NASCAR-Sonoma partnership turned out, but said it was a team effort. It needed everyone’s blessing to move forward, but that wasn’t hard to get.

When asked, Clapp said that TV has been the biggest change in NASCAR racing. When the 1979 Daytona 500 race was held – the ‘snow race’ – it got a 10.1 rating and the phones were ringing off the hook the next day from corporates, wanting to get involved with NASCAR.

Two years after the first NASCAR Cup race, Clapp facilitated again – the hiring of STEVE PAGE as the track’s General Manager. Now, after 22, years Page is the President/General Manager and considered one of the most outstanding track managers in the country. Page came from eleven years of marketing and special events with the Oakland A’s, and before that on Capitol Hill as Press Secretary for Congressman LEON PANETTA. Page’s staff repeatedly vote the track as one of the “best Places to work in Sonoma County.

BRUTON SMITH, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., added Sears Point to his family of race circuits in 1996, and in 2001, Page was the principal advocate for the nearly $100 million Modernization Plan.

Now Sonoma Raceway is one of the premiere race tracks in the country, and wouldn’t be that way without NASCAR, said Clapp. It has brought in businesses to the property, testing, commercials, other series, etc. Page said the NASCAR attraction is “the unconventional nature that the drivers have to turn right and the natural terrain venue has been opened up so the race cars can be seen all around the track.”

Forty-three drivers are entered for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race, which will run 110 laps/350k for 218.9 miles. Saturday the NASCAR K & N Pro Series-West will hold its 64 lap/200K race for 127.36 miles.

During the three-day weekend historic stock cars will be displayed in the infield fan area by Turn Ten, and they will have a lap prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Bill Elliott's Ford
Bill Elliott’s Ford
Neil Bonnett's Ford
Neil Bonnett’s Ford