Sonoma is Packed with History, Memories for Racers
Whether they're drag racers or road-course gladiators, Sonoma Raceway makes the world's greatest drivers salivate over the thought of competing there.
First and foremost, it's one of the premier facilities in the country and the drag strip has long been one of the quickest and fastest in the country. At last year's NHRA event, three track records were set, including a 3.743-second pass from Top Fuel winner Shawn Langdon.
Sonoma also features a remarkable 660-foot concrete launch pad, not to mention it's only 15 feet above sea level. Those attributes are just a few that make it an obvious selection among drivers when it comes to choosing their favorite racing venues.
There's also the fact that Sonoma Raceway, which hosts the 27th annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals, July 25-27, just happens to be situated in one of the most beautiful and picturesque settings in the country. Amazing scenery and climate aside, there are vineyards - and plenty of wine - everywhere you look.
Even in the Wine Country Winner's Circle you'll find something refreshing to drink that isn't part of any other NHRA celebration, something that Antron Brown is quick to mention.
"Everybody loves going to Sonoma," said the 2012 NHRA Top Fuel champ. "The racing is great… it's always enjoyable out there AND you get to sip a little wine if you get a win. And we definitely love winning there."
Brown, who has three Sonoma Nationals Top Fuel wins to his credit since 2009, says the surroundings put him in the right mindset to race.
"I always love going to Sonoma," he said. "It's always been a great track for us. You go up there and enjoy the sights that you see in wine country. It's some really beautiful scenery."
While Brown, who is from New Jersey, but now lives in Indianapolis, grew up on a long way from Sonoma, he looks forward to the trip to the West Coast ever year.
"What I enjoy most about going to Sonoma is when you get there and see everything that surrounds you," he said. "It's hilly and you're in wine country. You go there, take a deep breath and you can feel the energy it has and the aura of the racetrack.
"The cool thing about going there is you're able to unwind and get back to what you're used to doing. It's a really high level racetrack and the weather conditions usually are as good as we have anywhere all year."
The climate is also right up any drag racer's alley, according to Brown.
"The track is right at sea level," he said. "It could be the middle of summer, but in the evening it gets really cool with the breezes. We always get amped up as racers at Sonoma because we know it's going to be a good race. We can run some phenomenal ETs there and the track surface is one of the best out there. "
Brown, who swept NHRA's Western Swing (Denver, Seattle, Sonoma) in 2009, loves the vibe he gets from Sonoma's knowledgeable and passionate fans.
"The fans are incredible," he said. "On Friday we have bigger crowds than at most other racetracks, and they do an incredible job there. The fans are lined up from Friday through Sunday.
"When we won the Western Swing, we had as many fans in Winner's Circle as there were in the stands. The Northern California fans are incredible and you can tell they're drag racers at heart, and it's cool to come here. You can see why drag racing started on the West Coast, that's for sure."
Ron Capps, the defending Sonoma Nationals Funny Car champ and a four-time winner, is a California native who loves being able to race so close to where he grew up.
"It is a home track for me, personally, growing up just a few hours from there (San Luis Obispo)," Capps said. "For me as a kid going to the old Fremont Dragstrip, a legendary dragstrip, when that closed it left behind a lot of incredible race fans and racers in the area. When they opened up Sonoma (in 1988), it instantly was a hit.
"And when Bruton (Smith) came in and did what he did there... it was first-class all the way."
Smith, the CEO and owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased the facility in 1996. Four years later, in 2000, major improvements were made to both the drag strip and NASCAR track, costing in excess of $90 million.
"Bruton has done a great job there, building that track into one of the premier dragways in the country," said Capps, who has a total of four Sonoma wins to his credit, including three in the last four years.
"From the people that work at the track, the volunteers, everything there - it's first class and we love racing there."
For Capps, there truly is no place like home.
"It's a great racing surface," he said. "For the crew chiefs, it's a really exciting place to go. For the drivers, knowing your crew chief can throw everything at it and there's a chance of a national record falling on that Friday night session… Friday night, under the lights, flames. There's nothing like it and there's not one bad thing about going there.
"It's just a great place to go racing and the fact that we've gotten to win there a lot just makes it even more special. This place has a lot of great memories."
Just how much does Capps loves Sonoma? He has attended every NHRA national event at the track since NHRA's inaugural race there 26 years ago, either as a fan or a competitor.
"It meant so much to have all of my family here this weekend. This is where I grew up, met my wife and got married. There are so many great memories there for me."
For Capps, who lives in Carlsbad near San Diego, says racing at Sonoma also means there's a huge increase in the number of friendly faces in the crowd.
"We'll have a lot of friends and family with us at the track and there's nothing is better than to have all of us in the winner's circle," he said.