This weekend, NASCAR renews its yearly visit to Sonoma Raceway, located in the Napa Valley region of the San Francisco Bay Area,C for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. This is NASCAR’s sole visit to California this year, as Auto Club Speedway in Southern California opted out of hosting a race.
NASCAR and road courses used to be an uneasy mix, with many drivers feeling utterly lost at the prospect of turning right as well as left. It was not uncommon to see mid- and lower tier teams employ ‘road course ringers‘ whenever a road course appeared on the schedule, the term applied to road course specialists albeit in other racing series who in theory would turn in a better result than the team’s regular driver. This has gone by the wayside in recent years even as the on-track aggression levels have increased to the point where now one sees as much old fashioned beatin’ and bangin’ as is the case at a short track. Sonoma may be in the heart of wine country, but the racing action is pure moonshine.
Sonoma used to be one of the more dilapidated tracks on the circuit. How well I remember the first time visiting the facility and how, uh, thrilled i was to discover the walkway crossing over the track was an old — and i do mean old — truck trailer with about the only thing keeping the flooring from disintegrating was the termites holding hands. Some years ago the track owners poured some serious coin into all areas, the end result being a beautiful facility with equally beautiful facilities for teams to work on their cars. The only regret about Sonoma is that by the time NASCAR visits in June the grass surrounding the track has died, for if the race were run in the spring it would be amid lush green gently rolling hills.
Due to the course layout and size, there is no one single vantage point where a fan can view the entire course. Most congregate in view of Turn Eleven, the final turn before the start/finish line, as it is the location where the most action takes place. Drivers can and do try every trick at their disposal when approaching this 180? trickster, be it cutting to the inside of a competitor, taking the outside line and attempting to force the other driver to pull up in order to avoid a collision, or taking the corner on two wheels. Okay, maybe not the latter, although if you’ve watched a few races at Sonoma you’d swear you’ve seen it happen.
Presently, the NASCAR king of the road courses is defending series champion Chase Elliott, having won five of the last six road course races in the series. However, he has never won at Sonoma. Martin Truex Jr. has won the last two Cup series races at the track in 2018 and 2019 (last year’s race was canceled due to COVID-mandated rescheduling). Elliott will start on the outside of the front row this weekend, with teammate Kyle Larson owning the pole position.
The maximum number of available seats — well, spots to sit anyway, as aside from the main grandstand at the start/finish line the seating areas are cinder block and dirt terraces — have been sold for the event, which is no surprise. Rumors to the contrary, there is life in the San Francisco Bay Area outside of the Big Three cities (San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose), much of it consisting of surprisingly normal folk who do love their auto racing. The race also attracts fans from the Pacific Northwest, as it is the closest race to their home all year, said fans having made their annual trek down south in their RVs with race flags a-flyin’.
Garage shenanigans involving Bubba Wallace notwithstanding, NASCAR remains the most unashamedly pro-American sport going, with pre-race invocations, military flyovers, and guaranteed 100% participation in standing for the national anthem. This race is the perfect time, if you’re not already a NASCAR fan, to tune in and see what you’ve been missing. Namely, a lot.