Sonoma Raceway, formerly Sears Point Raceway and Infineon Raceway is a 2.52-mile road course and drag strip located on the landform known as Sears Point in the southern Sonoma Mountains in Sonoma, California. The road course features 12 turns on a hilly course with 160 feet of total elevation change. It is host to one of only two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races each year that are run on road courses (including Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York)
Sears Point was not named for the popular department store, Sears and Roebuck, but rather for the owner of that point of land, Franklin Sears, who settled on 600 acres south of Sonoma in 1851. Later, he partnered with his father-in-law to purchase some 15,000 acres, part of which is the present day racetrack, Sonoma Raceway.
The 2.52-mile road racing course was constructed on 720 acres by Marin County owners Robert Marshall Jr., an attorney from Point Reyes, and land developer Jim Coleman of Kentfield. The two conceived of the idea of a race track while on a hunting trip. Ground was broken in August 1968 and paving of the race surface was completed in November. The first official event at Sears Point was an SCCA Enduro, held on December 1, 1968.
In 1969 the track was sold to Filmways Corp., a Los Angeles-based entertainment company for $4.5 million. In May 1970 the track was closed and became a tax shelter for Filmways after losses of $300,000 were reported. Hugh Harn of Belvedere and Parker Archer of Napa arranged to lease the track from Filmways in 1973. Bob Bondurant, owner and operator of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, and partner Bill Benck took over management and control of the leased raceway from Parker Archer and Hugh Harn in 1974. A few years later a group calling itself Black Mountain Inc., which included Bondurant, William J. Kolb of Del Mar and Howard Meister of Newport Beach, purchased the track from Filmways for a reported $1.5 million.
American Motorcycle Association national motocross races in the hills north of Turn 7 became popular with Bay Area fans, but were phased out by the end of the decade because of rising insurance costs.
In 1981 Filmways regained ownership of the track after a financial dispute with Black Mountain group. Jack Williams, the 1964 NHRA top-fuel drag racing champion, Rick Betts and John Andersen purchased the track from Filmways at an auction for $800,000. The track was renamed Sears Point International Raceway. In 1985 the track was completely repaved, in part with funds donated from the “Pave the Point” fund raising campaign. The first shop spaces (buildings A, B, C, and D in the main paddock area) were built.
In 1986 Harvey “Skip” Berg of Tiburon, CA took control of the track and became a major stockholder in Brenda Raceway Corp., which controlled the track until 1996. Additional buildings constructed on the property brought shop space to more than 700,000 square feet during 1987. In addition, a five-year contract was signed with the National Hot Rod Association for the California Nationals. The NASCAR Winston Cup Series debuted at the raceway in 1989.
In 1994 more than $1 million was spent on a beautification project and construction of a 62-foot high, four-sided electronic lap leader board in the center of the road course. In the following years a major $3 million renovation plan included VIP suites and a two-story driver’s lounge/emergency medical facility. In 1995 Trans-Am and SportsCar races returned to Sears Point and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series was added to the major-events schedule. Owner “Skip” Berg sold the track to O. Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. in November 1996.
Major renovations began at Sears Point Raceway in 1998 with the creation of “The Chute”, an 890-foot high-speed stretch. The first-ever running of the American Le Mans Series took place at Sears Point in July 1999. In 2000 Sears Point Raceway gained unanimous approval from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors by a 5–0 vote to begin work on a $35 million Modernization Plan that included 64,000 Hillside Terrace seats, repaving of both the road course and drag strip and increased run-off around the entire track.
The standard, full length road course at Sonoma Raceway is a 2.52 miles 12-turn course. This course was utilized by all competition through 1997. Most races, including the Grand Prix of Sonoma, use the full course. The course is noted for turns two and three, which are negative-camber or “off-camber” turns, with the inside of the turn higher than the outside. This provides a challenge for the driver, as turn two would normally have the drivers moving to the left side of the track.
The raceway also has a quarter mile dragstrip used for NHRA drag racing events. The drag strip was originally located on part of the front straightaway of the course. Track changes completed in 2002 separated the road course from the drag strip.
The Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, an annual classic car racing event, uses the full circuit.
The track was modified in 1998, adding the Chute, which bypassed turns 5 and 6 (the Carousel), shortening the course to 1.95 miles. The Chute is only used for NASCAR events such as the Toyota/Save Mart 350, and was criticized by many drivers, who prefer the full layout. In 2001, it was replaced with the 70° turn, 4A bringing the track to its current dimensions of 1.99 miles.
The Chute was built primarily for spectator visibility, to increase speeds, and improve competition for the stock cars, which are not necessarily groomed well for road course racing. However, it has been criticized for taking away a primary passing point, and some INDYCAR drivers believe eliminating The Chute and replacing it with a new hairpin at Turn 4A, then rejoining the track at Turn 5, would create a circuit with three passing zones (Turn 4, Turn 7, and Turn 11). Furthermore, the speeds of the current layout with The Chute have been slower than if the full configuration was used.
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