The inaugural NASA Western States Championships will take place November 7-9, 2014 at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Not only is the track a thrilling drive, but it also happens to be located at the foot of the Napa Valley in one of the most beautiful settings in the country.
Sonoma Raceway was built in late 1968 and initially was known as Sears Point Raceway. The 2.52-mile track is built on the former Sears Point Ranch, and is just off of an inlet to San Pablo Bay, which keeps things cooler in the summer months and makes for brilliant conditions in the fall. The facility underwent major upgrades in the 1990s, which added upgraded paddock space and garages, huge grandstands to accommodate the large crowds that attend the professional races, and new control towers for the drag strip and the road course. From 2002 to 2012 the track was known as Infineon Raceway due to a sponsorship deal with the German computer chip maker. However, in 2012 when that deal expired, the track began to use Sonoma Raceway in homage to its location not far from the town of Sonoma in the Sonoma Valley region, which is where commercial winemaking began in California.
Sonoma Raceway is located in the eastern portion of the San Francisco Bay area, which means access to airports is easy. You can fly into either Oakland (OAK) or San Francisco International (SFO), which are both about an hour away, depending on traffic. Another option is to fly into Sacramento (SMF) and drive about 10 minutes farther via Interstate 80. The track is at the junction of state highways 37 and 121, with 121 being one of the main routes into Napa Valley wine country. You can access Highway 37 from either Interstate 80 or Highway 101 depending on where you are coming from and then follow 37 until it meets with 121. You then turn north on Highway 121 and the entrance to the track is about 200 yards up the road on the left.
Due to the track being so close to Napa Valley, there are many hotel options available to you. You can stay in American Canyon or Novato as they are equally convenient to the track and have a number of reasonable hotels. Another great choice is to stay closer to the vineyards in Sonoma or Napa, which can give you access to all the fine dining and wine tasting available in the region. The track allows overnight camping, so you can elect to stick around after the checker and pitch your tent in the paddock too.
This area is one of my favorites for dining out. The options are nearly unlimited, but two solid favorites for simple and reasonable chow are Angelo’s Wine Country Deli for lunch and Moylan’s for a good brewpub style dinner. You are also within a 30 to 40 minute drive of my all-time favorite restaurant, Farmstead, up in St. Helena. Get the Cheddar biscuits if you go. They are truly life changing.
Sonoma is one of the most challenging and entertaining tracks to drive in the nation. The track rewards consistency and finesse, so when you get your rhythm down you will be able to sail around enjoying the banked curves, huge climbs, and steep drops that have been carefully crafted to keep you constantly busy behind the wheel.
The climb from Turn 1 into the off-camber Turn 2 is devilishly hard to get right and if you turn in too early you get spit out into the dirt in nothing flat. The Turn 6 carousel is a dropping left hander that feels a great deal like driving down a really smooth spiral staircase. Get it right and you can achieve some big speed into the Turn 7 braking zone.
The final part of the course offers more challenges, with the tricky Turn 8 “esses” and the diabolically fast and complex Turn 10, which offers a great opportunity to meet the wall up close and personal as you smoke down into the Turn 11 hairpin that takes you to the finish line. Again, this is a very rewarding place when you get it right, but like Road Atlanta, host track of the 2014 NASA Eastern States Championships, it demands respect and seat time to keep off the concrete and on the asphalt.
In terms of services, Ron Cortez’s AIM Tires is onsite and Wine Country Motorsports also maintains a shop with race-specific bits and gear. The track also is home to many fab shops and race-prep shops, which puts a welder within easy reach if you need one. You are also close to all the major parts vendors in the Bay Area, so sourcing anything you need should not be a problem at all.
NASA’s Western States Championships is sure to be a big hit, so make your reservations early and perhaps earn some spousal appreciation points by sticking around to enjoy California’s premier vineyards and beautiful scenery.
More travel information at: www.sonomacounty.com