NASCAR has, with good reason, been likened to a circus.
It comes to town in a kaleidoscope of color and sound, escorted to Sonoma Raceway in behemoth transporters 80 feet long, weighing 80,000 pounds and costing half a million dollars each.
The circus will be here this weekend, officially named the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
With 36 Sprint Cup races stretching from February to November, the season seems more like a marathon, and NASCAR drivers typically engage in serious training to stay in shape for the grueling months of racing.
The trucks that haul their cars (two per transporter) are constantly on the road, and Sonoma is the longest drive for every team, most of which are headquartered in or near Charlotte, North Carolina, where NASCAR has its roots.
The so-called “stock” cars are anything but, fabricated from largely identical parts, virtually identical engines and conforming to dimensions of width, length, height and weight, as measured by 30 different templates to which each car must conform, that can’t be off by more than a fraction of an inch.
The headlights are decals, the doors don’t open and the engines are hand-built to exacting tolerances. Generating more than 850 horsepower from 358 cubic inches, NASCAR engines are limited to carburetors (no fuel injection) pushrod-activated valves (no overhead cams) and they can run at more than 9,000 rpm for 500 miles.
The cost of putting all this stuff together, for just one car, has been estimated at between $10 million and $20 million a year. Some small, independent teams do it for a lot less, but rarely for a full season or without major sponsors.
While NASCAR tradition still evokes images of moonshine and chewing tobacco, modern Sprint Cup drivers are by-and-large sophisticated, intelligent and technically savvy. Occasionally, some are women and NASCAR has been remarkably open to females behind the wheel since its inception in 1949.
Danica Patrick, better known for her years in open-wheeled IndyCars, now drives a Sprint Cup car for Stewart-Haas Racing and this year won the pole position and led a lap at the Daytona 500, ultimately finishing in 8th place. She’s had less success on road courses where she has alternately been bumped off the course while running fourth on the final lap (Elkhart Lake Wisconsin), and where she ran over a shoe thrown by a fan (Montreal) and moments later had to pit for mechanical repairs. Last year, in her first Sprint Cup race at Sonoma, she started in 31st place and finished 29th.
Meanwhile, local favorite and former Vallejo resident Jeff Gordon, is leading the Sprint Cup standings and has more wins at Sonoma than anyone else.
Valley residents wanting to see Gordon, Patrick and some 40 other drivers, can avoid most of the race traffic headaches by taking advantage of the free shuttle being provided by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau and Sonoma Raceway, running between the Sonoma Plaza and the 50 Acres RV campground, across Highway 121 from the raceway, on Friday and Saturday. Shuttles departing from the Sonoma County Transit bus stop on the Sonoma Plaza horseshoe will depart on the hour. The first shuttle leaves for the track at 10 a.m. and the last shuttle returns to the track at 5 p.m.