NASCAR cancels Sonoma Raceway event for 2020 due to coronavirus concerns

The largest sporting event in Sonoma County, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup Series weekend held in June at Sonoma Raceway, was canceled Friday due to concerns over coronavirus.

The decision to cancel the race, which had been scheduled for June 12-14, was announced jointly by NASCAR, Sonoma Raceway and the venue’s owner, Speedway Motorsports.

The loss of an event that draws tens of thousands of fans to Sonoma Raceway and accounts for 65-75% of its annual revenue is a huge blow to the track, and another hit to the local economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We work all year for this event, so this is a huge disappointment for us, for our fans and our sponsors, but we realize it’s part of a larger challenge facing our nation and everyone in the live events business,” Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager, said in a statement. “We are excited that NASCAR is coming back to broadcast television and are ready to support the upcoming events at our Speedway Motorsports tracks. We look forward to NASCAR’s return to Sonoma in 2021.”

Existing ticket holders may choose between a full refund and a 120% credit that may be applied to admissions at any of the NASCAR-sanctioned events at Speedway Motorsports’ eight tracks, which include Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, in 2020 or 2021.

After a near-total two-month shutdown of American sports in response to a patchwork of stay-at-home orders, NASCAR will be the first major organization in the country to restart competition when it stages a race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17.

That event kicks off a revised schedule of five races, all of them in the Carolinas, that NASCAR had released in late April. The association presented the rest of its calendar Friday, and Sonoma was one of three raceways left out.

Local race fans had wanted a postponement rather than cancellation of the 2020 Toyota/Save Mart 350, and Speedway Motorsports officials held out hope for at least a race without fans in attendance.

But the more stringent stay-at-home order applied in California, and especially in Sonoma County, made a reschedule too complicated. County health director Dr. Sundari Mase has repeatedly said she will not approve mass gatherings in Sonoma County, including sporting events, until at least Labor Day.

“I think early on, it was clear to us a NASCAR race with fans in June in California was not gonna happen,” Page said by phone. “So we started working on protocols for an event without fans. About a month ago, we had that in place and were looking at the possibility. But in our conversations with folks at the county, we got a pretty skeptical reply.”

This will be the first year without a NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway since 1989, when the association’s top-tier series, then known as the Winston Cup, debuted at the road course in the Carneros hills with the Banquet Frozen Foods 300. The greatest drivers in the sport have visited Wine Country in the three decades since. Race winners have included Davey Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

At this point, Sonoma Raceway officials have no idea when their track will open again. They had already postponed their second-largest event, NHRA drag racing originally slated for July 24-26, indefinitely. Meanwhile, the raceway is missing out on the income generated by countless smaller events such as Sonoma Drift and Wednesday Night Drags.

Sonoma Raceway does not release attendance figures, but somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 were likely to show up for this year’s NASCAR race. With the show canceled, the raceway will lose not just ticket money but cuts from parking, concessions and the many activities surrounding the competition. Speedway Motorsports will retain its TV revenue, as the replacement race for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 will be held at one of the company’s venues.

Surrounding businesses will feel the hurt, too. Many of the attending Toyota/Save Mart 350 fans tend to make a weekend of it - hundreds fill the campground just on the other side of Highway 121 - and add to the local economy. This event, perhaps more than any other on NASCAR’s race calendar, is also a popular meet-up point for corporate sponsors, many of which rent out wineries and restaurant for private parties.

This year, it was not meant to be.

“As they looked at piecing the schedule together, the only window we could see in Sonoma was probably July,” Page said. “Given the landscape here, and the things we’re hearing from the governor, talking about not even opening offices until August or September, it was pretty clear they couldn’t put us on the calendar.”

This story will be updated.

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