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WAID’S WORLD: First Race At Sonoma Meant a Wine Country Invasion

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It was back in 1989 that Sonoma Raceway, then known as Sears Point International Raceway, held its first NASCAR Winston Cup – now known as Monster Energy NASCAR Cup – race.

That NASCAR had managed to keep a presence in California was a strategic maneuver. Its event on the huge, handsome Ontario superspeedway had been gone since 1980.

And it was in June of 1988 that the final race was run at Riverside International Raceway, a twisting road course that had been a part of NASCAR for decades.

 Ontario suffered final woes and Riverside, a prime piece of Southern California real estate, gave way to residential and corporate growth.

A year after Riverside’s demise along came Sears Point, located in Sonoma, near the Napa Valley wine country and only a short drive from San Francisco and Sausalito to the south and Vallejo to the north.

Like Riverside it was a road course and thus joined Watkins Glen to maintain NASCAR’s long-standing regimen of two multi-turn events per season.

At that time the Sears Point race was perhaps the most anticipated in years. It was new to NASCAR and it was located in an area – including San Francisco Bay and the Wine Country – that had not been seen by nearly all the competitors and members of the press corps.

Let’s face it, the excitement of visiting San Francisco and the Wine Country was significantly more intense than, say, going up the road to North Wilkesboro.

Notice I said, “Wine Country.”

Now, the lure of San Francisco, Sausalito and Marin County – one of the wealthiest locations in the United States (Robin Williams: “People who live there don’t get the crabs, they get the lobsters!”) – was indeed strong. But not as strong as the chance to try, and buy, fine California wine. And there was plenty of it.

Which is what everybody, and I mean everybody, wanted to do.

Wine wasn’t hard to find. It was available before you got to the track. A large winery stood on a hill as you drove from the hotel in Sausalito to Sears Point.

But the real goal was to go deep into Napa Valley and experience as much as possible – namely get to as many tastings as possible.

That wasn’t easy. Much of the daylight hours were spent at the track, which involved hours of practice, qualifying and more intense practice. After all, Sears Point was new to the competitors.

But it turned out that all Winston Cup activities ended early on a Saturday afternoon. As soon as they did crewmen, PR types and press guys alike packed up and scrambled to their cars.

In a short time a long, snaking caravan of cars could be seen heading toward Napa, on its way to tasting, and buying, as much wine as possible.

Two of the Napa adventurers hit upon a strategy. Find the wine they most liked, buy a case or two of it and never have to worry about getting it back to North Carolina.

The solution was simple. Take it to the track and arrange for a team to carry it back east in its hauler. As a reward the team members could consume a couple of bottles.

It wasn’t hard to find a team that would cooperate. But it cost a bit more than anticipated. When the wine was picked up what had been a couple of full cases were now half-cases.

It never occurred to the pair that they could spend a little more money and the wineries would have shipped the goods.

When the inaugural Banquet Frozen Foods 300 got the green flag on June 11, there was very little doubt as to who would be the top contenders.

Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd ad Terry Labonte had established themselves as NASCAR’s top road racers, a notch or two above others who were used to going in a circle.

The trio had finished one-two-three at Riverside a year earlier with Wallace the winner.

Sure enough, the Sears Point race evolved into a battle between Wallace and Rudd. Rudd dominated but was challenged by Wallace late in the race.

Rudd and Wallace made contact several times and when the last encounter took place, Wallace was knocked off the course and returned helplessly behind winner Rudd.

Many things have changed over the years at Sears Point, obviously. Among them are ownership and the presence of many NASCAR competitors who are accomplished road racers.

But I daresay one thing hasn’t changed. That’s the lure of the Wine Country.

I suspect some purchased goods are still shipped home in a hauler – and undoubtedly sampled along the way.



The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Steve Waid has been in motor sports journalism since 1972, the year he first started covering NASCAR, when he started his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. From there Waid spent time at the Roanoke Times & World as well as NASCAR Scene, where he was the executive editor for 10 years. After retiring in 2010 he became the Vice President of Unplugged Auto Group for its website, and has now joined POPULAR SPEED as an editor and columnist. Waid has won numerous writing awards and other such accolades. In January of 2014 he was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame.