Sonoma Raceway to host NASCAR Sprint Cup race

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NASCAR and thousands of racing fans are returning to Sonoma for one of the biggest events of the year.

Preliminary events got underway at Sonoma Raceway Friday ahead of this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.

It always attracts quite a crowd and creates a traffic nightmare on Highway 37 between Novato and Vallejo. Also, Highway 121 if you come in from the north.

An estimated 10,000 cars are expected to converge in Sonoma on Sunday for a race that is unique among all other NASCAR races.

The 110-lap car race around the 1.99-mile track, located at the intersection of state Highways 37 and 121, begins at noon Sunday.

The final qualifying round before Sunday's race is on Saturday.

On Friday, cars hit the track ahead of this weekend's race.

"Buckle up, left turn, left turn, left turn, then right," one man said.

And he's right, for a racing circuit that has spent the entire year making left turns on oval tracks, this is a real head scratcher. It's a road course occupied by all the usual suspects.

"I want to see them slippin, slidin', banging into each other, a lot of action. That's why we got these seats," one man said.

Though as you might surmise, getting to those seats and then home from them will prove difficult in the traffic and crowds.

"Traffic through this corridor on any day of the week can be tough, but Sunday will be adding an additional layer to it, or two, or three or four," Sonoma Raceway general manager and president Steve Page said.

Some fans don't even think about leaving this place until Monday.

Wayne: "How much time do you budget?"

"Probably about half a day," one man said.

Though somehow, the hassle seems a fitting tribute in this annual homage to car culture.

The California Highway Patrol and Sonoma Raceway have plans to mitigate traffic on state Highways 37 and 121 during the Bay Area's largest single-day sporting event.

The focus is informing non-race attendees about alternate routes in and out of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. In past years, as many as 85 percent of the drivers passing Sonoma Raceway at Highways 37 and 121 during the peak entry and exit times were not attending the race.

One of the traffic mitigation measures includes using 46 changeable message signs -- 25 more than prior years -- within a 15-mile radius of the facility to direct traffic away from the two highways.

Traffic warnings, including maps and alternate routes have been widely distributed to local hotels, restaurants and wineries for residents and visitors.

Seven new signs on Highway 121 will direct raceway guests to the appropriate entry gate, and additional parking staff will remain in the lots to organize and manage traffic.

Sonoma Raceway's traffic manager will work with more than 30 CHP and Caltrans employees.

Fans can avoid the immediate post-race traffic by sticking around for the post-race Track Walk around the course soon after the checkered flag falls. Specially painted lug nuts, that are redeemable for valuable prizes at the Ticket Pit Stop behind the Main Grandstand, will be scattered around the track.

"Our goal is to improve the experience for our guests, but also to minimize the disruption our event causes for other travelers throughout the Bay Area," Page said.

"By using alternate routes, which may look longer on a map, local drivers will actually save themselves time and frustration, and ultimately reach their destination more quickly," Page said.

"We feel these efforts have gone above and beyond to assist the public," CHP Sgt. Brad Bradshaw said.

Race fans are advised to arrive at the track early on Sunday. Mass transit is available to 500 fans via the NASCAR Express Train from Sacramento, and the SportsFan Express bus program that will bring 1,000 fans from 27 locations in Northern California to the race.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office will be stringently checking the paperwork for disabled driver vehicle placards. Violators will be fined, ticketed and required to appear in court.

The local economy stands to be the big winner. Many fans will fill North Bay hotels in Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties. Others plan to camp out near the track.

Other events this weekend include a 15-minute Patriots Jet team air show at 10:50 a.m. Sunday, the Gravity Powered Car Challenge at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and the 64-lap Carneros 200 NASCAR Pro Series West Race at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

In addition to those events, there will also be a qualifying round for Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest on the main stage in front of the Main Grandstand.

Wonder Bread 5, a Bay Area band, will play in the Club 7 Saturday, and there will be movies on a 15-foot by 25-foot screen under the stars Saturday night.

Bay City News contributed to this story.
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