While NASCAR never releases figures on ticket sales, estimates of the spectator count at the annual Sprint Cup event at Sonoma Raceway usually hover around 100,000.
If that figure is even roughly accurate, then NASCAR produces the biggest sporting event in the Bay Area, dwarfing sold-out Raiders’ games (63,000), Niners’ games at Candlestick (70,000) or at the new Levi’s stadium in Santa Clara, which will seat up to 75,000 spectators for major events.
That also means that every June there is a traffic bottleneck near Sonoma Raceway during NASCAR weekend, especially along two-lane stretches of Highways 121 and 37 at Sears Point. But while race traffic can be a headache for motorists traveling between Highway 101 and Wine Country, or east to Vallejo, over the years a number of mitigating steps have incrementally improved the situation and raceway officials continue to search for more ways to relieve the pressure of too many vehicles in too small a space.
To that end, the raceway and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) unveiled new plans on Monday to further mitigate race-day traffic during Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.
A primary focus this year will be to educate non-race attendees about alternative routes in and out of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. In past years, said raceway officials, up to 85 percent of drivers passing the raceway on Highways 37 and 121 during peak entry and exit times are not attending the event. When combined with race traffic, the results can bring hours of congestion for all drivers.
The raceway’s traffic management plan includes an array of measures intended to divert ambient traffic from the adjacent highways on race day. Some of the new initiatives include:
A total of 46 changeable message signs – 25 more than in prior years – will be distributed along highways up to a 15-mile radius around the raceway directing ambient traffic away from Highways 37 and 121.
Widespread distribution of traffic warnings, including maps and alternate routes, to local restaurants, hotels and wineries for both residents and visitors.
Seven new signs placed along Highway 121 to direct raceway guests to the appropriate entry gate. The signs will also help explain lane delineation for raceway and Sonoma/Napa traffic.
The raceway will employ a traffic manager, who will work closely with a CHP officer to provide real-time direction to maximize ingress and egress for raceway traffic.
The raceway will utilize its on-site radio station (87.9 FM) to provide exiting guidance and driving routes.
“Our goal is to improve the experience for our guests, but also to minimize the disruption our event creates for other travelers throughout the area,” said Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager. “By using alternate routes, which may look longer on a map, local drivers will actually save themselves time and frustration, and ultimately reach their destinations more quickly.”
Sonoma Raceway worked closely with the CHP and Caltrans to develop and execute the plan, which will utilize more than 30 CHP and Caltrans workers on race day.
No one is saying there won’t be traffic congestion outside the raceway during NASCAR weekend, but CHP officials are praising the new plans and expect them to make a difference.
“The CHP support and endorses the efforts by Sonoma Raceway to help minimize the impact of traffic in and around the raceway,” said CHP Sgt. Brad Bradshaw. “We feel these efforts have gone above and beyond to assist the public.”
Race fans heading to the track are advised to arrive early on Sunday morning to beat traffic and, and raceway officials are also encouraging guests to explore two mass transit options, including the second annual NASCAR Express Train from Sacramento, which will bring 700 race fans to the track by rail, as well as the SportsFan Express bus program, which is slated to bring in more than 1,000 fans from 27 locations around Northern California.
To avoid post-race gridlock, fans are also being encouraged to delay entering the post-race traffic stream by taking a walk around the road course during the annual post-race Track Walk. The walk will feature specially-painted lug nuts dropped around the road course that will be redeemable for prizes at the Ticket Pit Stop behind the Main Grandstand.
To ensure sufficient parking for disabled guests, Sonoma Raceway will again team with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to impose a stringent placard check. Sheriff’s deputies will check each car and driver for its Handicap Placard, matching paperwork with name and placard number and a valid driver’s license. Fans displaying fake or borrowed placards will be fined, ticketed and required to appear in court.
Finally, the raceway will again team with Budweiser to help race fans make a commitment to get home safely. Offered at Sonoma Raceway during major race events, the Good Sport Designated Driver Booth will encourage fans to come by and pledge to be the designated driver for their group. Those who do will receive a free, non-alcoholic beverage in exchange for refraining from drinking and helping to make sure their group has a safe ride home.
For more information about the Toyota/Save Mart 350, Sonoma Raceway’s traffic plan, best routes to and from the race and transportation options, visit racesonoma.com/traffic or call 800-870-RACE.