Sonoma Raceway Track Guide
One of the jewels of West Coast motorsports, Sonoma Raceway has 50 years of storied tradition. The Californian icon formerly known as Sears Point and Infineon Raceway welcomes NASCAR, IndyCar, Pirelli World-Challenge and the NHRA every year.
It has welcomed prototype SportsCars, open-wheel legends and just about every major series in North America on two wheels and four.
The calendar is packed with professional and club racing events. The SimRaceway Performance Driving Center is based at the circuit and provides some of the most advanced driver training packages in the fastest cars on the West Coast. Sonoma Raceway, though, is best known for the year-round action just a stone’s throw from Napa Valley, Navato, Petaluma and San Francisco.
A visit to Sonoma Raceway can be the highlight of a trip to one of America's best high-end destination resorts. Enjoy the wine, the food and breathtaking scenery in a truly unique location that is a favorite for Americans and the European jet-set.
Famous Moments in Motorsport History at Sonoma Raceway
1. Jeff Gordon’s Fifth Win - 2006 NASCAR Winston Cup
Legends of the sport don’t come much bigger than Jeff Gordon. The four-time Winston Cup Champion developed a mutual love affair with the road course at Sonoma Raceway, winning an epic five races.
The 2006 win was far from the most spectacular victory in Gordon’s star-studded career. It is a moment that is forever etched in Sonoma Raceway’s history, though, and a day that makes the highlight reel time and again. You can even buy models celebrating that day.
Other great moments come close, including Dale Earnhardt’s only road course win. Gordon, though, created a dynasty at Sonoma that has become a part of NASCAR folklore.
2. Ernie Irvan Wins From Last Place - 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Ernie ‘Swervin’ Irvan started last in the 1992 Save Mart 300K and nobody expected him to trouble the winners’ circle. Nobody told Irvan, who put in a simply heroic performance to blast through the pack.
Through sheer force of will, the Kodak-sponsored driver produced a picture perfect race and muscled his way through to take the lead in the dying laps. The Chevrolet stormed to the checkered flag, to the delight of the crowd that knew it may never see that kind of turnaround again.
Irvan cemented his status as a legend and a fighter after coming back from a potentially fatal accident in 1994. That was an even greater comeback and he returned to Victory Lane as a hero, but he still rates that Sonoma win as one of his greatest drives.
Check out Irvan’s win and the top 10 greatest NASCAR moments at Sonoma Raceway.
3. First IndyCar Race at Sonoma - 1970
When IndyCar racing came to wine country for the first time, superstars Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti put on one of the greatest open wheel duels in Sonoma Raceway’s history.
Gurney took the laurels in a thrilling battle that announced IndyCar’s arrival with an almighty fanfare. Since then, the IndyCar greats have put on a series of masterclasses in open-wheel racing.
IndyCar won’t return in 2019, but it has left a legacy at Sonoma Raceway and signed off with an epic battle between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon. Dixon lost the battle, but won the war when he wrapped up his fifth series title and forged another legend at this iconic track.
Check out some of the best moments in Sonoma Raceway’s IndyCar dynasty.
50 Years of Vintage Racing
Sonoma Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary of competitive motorsport in 2019. The #Race50noma social media hashtag will take you on a trip down memory lane. Revisit some of the great moments at Sonoma Raceway at your leisure, and keep up with the celebrations over the course of the racing season.
The 2.52-mile Sears Point opened its doors for competitive action in 1968 after attorney Robert Marshall Jr and land developer Jim Coleman teamed up to create a track that would become a legend.
The initial site was just 720 acres. Now 47,000 people can fit through the gates on race day and the circuit finally has a garage for all the teams after constant renovations and expansion, but the track went through dark times in the early days.
The track changed hands for $4.5 million in 1969 and then promptly closed for three years after racking up heavy losses. It looked like the end, but a motorsport legend came to the rescue. Bob Bondurant, the man behind the iconic racing schools that operate to this day around the country, took over the operational side in 1974.
A consortium headed by Bondurant bought the track the following year for just $1.5 million, but the original owners seized the circuit back in 1980 after a legal dispute and sold it at auction for $800,000.
Harvey ‘Skip’ Berg took the reins in 1986 and the circuit that was renamed Sears Point International Raceway turned the corner. It was a golden era in the circuit’s history. A $3 million renovation, a five-year contract with the NASCAR Winston Cup and a deal to host the National Hot Rod Association followed and the track slowly found its footing as one of the premier venues on the West Coast.
IndyCar, Rolex Sportscars, AMA Superbikes and a whole host of international racing championships have visited this hallowed asphalt over the decades and it remains one of California’s great sporting venues. The circuit changed its name to Infineon Raceway in 2002 after the owners struck a 10-year deal with Infineon Technologies. When that came to an end in 2012, the new name of Sonoma Raceway went up over the door and it remains to this day.
What is Different About Sonoma Raceway?
Sonoma Raceway is swathed in natural beauty on all sides. This is wine country and the surrounding hills are laden with grapes for the local producers and the circuit overlooks San Pablo Bay.
San Francisco is 30 miles away and there’s a lot more than the race track to keep you entertained in this exclusive Californian enclave.
The track itself makes full use of the dramatic topography and the dramatic elevation changes are legendary. Turn 3 is a heady 174 feet above sea level, while Turn 10 is just 10 feet high. The seating areas are open to the elements, which normally means a sunny day at the races with a glass or two from the local wineries.
NASCAR history is intertwined with Sonoma Raceway and it remains one of only three road courses that the oval racers take on during the course of the racing season. NASCAR will move to the full track in 2019, after using the shorter 1.99-mile Chute layout to this point. This circuit was designed to save the heavy NASCAR racers from several dangerous corners, but changes to the layout mean that the star stock car drivers will take on all 12 turns from 2019.
This circuit is a rare challenge for the drivers and is a real equalizer in terms of equipment. True driving skill comes to the fore and drivers slide through left and right turns that are a world away from the high-speed oval races. Inevitably, it has produced vintage stock car battles.
General Concepts for Safety and Success
The elevation changes combine with substantial camber changes in the corners and there isn’t a huge amount of run-off if you get it wrong on the high-speed, sharp bends. Much of the NASCAR course is lined with unforgiving concrete blocks and there really is only one line.
Sonoma Raceway is a fast circuit, with high-speed turns that test even the greatest drivers to the limit.
In 1994, Derrick Cope and John Krebs cartwheeled off the circuit in dramatic fashion when they ran out of track and finished in the car-park. In 1999, Steve Park and Ken Schrader both flipped their cars in heavy crashes at Turn 1 and that corner has sucked many an unsuspecting driver into the wall.
Turns two and three are both off-camber and even more treacherous as the car falls away through the bend. Precision is essential and a fast lap is a balancing act between aggression and control, because a single slip can cost much more than just time.
Driving Tips from the Pros
As mentioned, turn 1 can be very tricky for new drivers. After passing the start finish line you’ll want to gently sweep from drivers right back to the left side of the track. Be aware of cars leaving pit lane as you climb the hill. There is a walkway bridge that crosses the track and you should be on the left side of the road as you pass under the bridge.
Turn 2 also packs a punch if you did not set up properly in turn 1. Turn 2 is completely blind on turn in and lures you into carrying to much speed on entry. To avoid this begin braking as you approach the walk way bridge in turn 1 while your still climbing the hill. If you wait till the crest of the hill to brake for turn 2 you won’t make it! When done correctly turn 2 can feel dreadfully slow but the topography of the track simply won’t allow to much speed.
Other keys to a fast lap lie in the technical Turn 4 and the fast Turn 10 and the nearly flat-out S section. It’s here that winners mark themselves apart.
A downhill entry and more off camber issues make Turn 4 a real challenge and it’s easy to lose a lot of time if you hit the brakes too late. Then it’s hard on the gas for the flat-out Turn 5 and sweeping Turn 6.
Turn 6 is most often times referred to by it’s nickname “the Carousel” for obvious reasons. This corner is critical to a good lap time as it leads onto the longest straight away of the track. The entry is very fast and blind. It’s easy to jump on the binders to hard on approach and ruin all your momentum from turn 5. This turn will test any driver’s mettle as the car skips ominously to the outside of the track. To bring even more excitement to the table, Turn 6 falls away in elevation, downhill onto the straight leading you into Turn 7. Patience is a virtue and big exit speed a must.
Turn 7A, 8 and 8A are an exciting run of flowing, accelerating esses leading you down a straightaway and into the very tightest corner at Sonoma, Turn 9A. Be sure to brake adequately for Turn 9A as it is slower than you think and again a clean exit is a must as you gain momentum into Turn 10.
Turn 10 is the most intense high-speed bend on the circuit and the run-off is notable only by its absence. This is a fast right-hand bend and you’ll need to hit the apex just right or lose time by the handful as you wait to get on the gas. Because of the combination of speed and lack of run off this is the most common turn for accidents. Take your time getting up to speed here.
Turn 11 requires patience and precision. Essentially a paperclip, Turn 11 rewards a clean exit for maximum speed down the winding front stretch. Use as much inside curbing as you see fit, there are usually painted yellow and blue tires on the right marking boundaries. Again, plenty of braking required for the very slow corner. Be mindful of the fact that there is minimal run off area at Turn 11, where the outside is lined with a tire wall.
The last piece of advice, the pit lane entry at Sonoma is as tight as Turn 11 itself. Be careful on the way in, it’s bumpy and narrow with little room for error if you’re coming in too fast.
Set-Up Tips For Sonoma Raceway
The most important factor at Sonoma Raceway is confidence in the car, because you will come close to the walls and you need to know it’s not going to step out. A neutral set-up, or even slight understeer, can provide a much more predictable car that is safer in the off-camber sections and fast turns.
If your car has any adjustable downforce features max them out in the beginning. Since Sonoma almost all corners and no straights a little extra wing or splitter angle can help immensely. If your car has adjustable ride height avoid running to low. Sonoma has several corners with heavy compression uphills that can bottom out the car and send you skipping along the track on your frame rails.
Where to Stay at Sonoma Raceway
With Marin County and Napa Valley on the doorstep and San Francisco just down the road, there’s a wealth of top class hotels to choose from. Sonoma Raceway has listed a number of options, ranging from camping at the circuit through to waterfront 5-star hotels.
Expedia has a selection of top-class hotels in the region as well. Included on the list is The Gaige House + Ryokan. This boutique rural inn in Glen Ellen is less than a mile from the highly-rated local wineries- and you can choose the best in the region over dinner. If you prefer a little more grandeur, The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort and Hotel has got you covered.
Best Place for a Beer After Your Track Day
Ernies Tin Bar
5100 Lakeville Hwy, Petaluma, CA 94954
Hands down the coolest bar near the track. They have a no cell phone rule while you're in the bar. If you pull out your iPhone and start texting away they make you buy a round of drinks for the whole bar!
Where to Eat at Sonoma Raceway
Great wine and food are a natural marriage, so rest assured connoisseurs are well catered for in Sonoma County. Head to the St Francis Winery & Vineyard for fine dining or the Baci Cafe and Restaurant for a quick bite.