Infineon Raceway Celebrates 20th Anniversary of NASCAR Cup Racing in the Sonoma Valley SONOMA, Calif. (June 5, 2008) -- When Ricky Rudd won the NASCAR Cup debut at Infineon Raceway in 1989, few realized the significance of that day's ...
Infineon Raceway Celebrates 20th Anniversary of NASCAR Cup Racing in the Sonoma Valley
SONOMA, Calif. (June 5, 2008) -- When Ricky Rudd won the NASCAR Cup debut at Infineon Raceway in 1989, few realized the significance of that day's race.
There were a lot of things different on that day 20 years ago. For one, Infineon Raceway was called Sears Point Raceway. It was also a completely different racetrack -- different length, different amenities, different ownership.
Before that day 20 years ago, Infineon Raceway was a track that had struggled to survive for two decades, searching for an identity and trying to carve a path for the future.
And then NASCAR showed up.
"Clearly, (NASCAR racing) brought Infineon to a new level," said Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon Raceway. "If NASCAR hadn't come to the track, and certainly if (owner) Bruton (Smith) had not bought the track, it would be a much different facility, probably operating at a local level as opposed to a top-level professional facility.
"Bringing Cup racing to Infineon Raceway is probably the single most important economic milestone in this track's history."
Since then, Infineon Raceway has transformed from an adequate road course to a showplace for national events.
"It's just night and day; you look at every conceivable aspect of the event, and it is just dramatically different than it was," Page said. "I saw some pictures of one of our early Cup races, and I never would have dreamt the changes that have been made since then."
Not only has the layout of the track changed, but the safety features, competitor facilities and fan amenities have all been enhanced. Pair that with the beautiful local scenery and the proximity to San Francisco and Sonoma's wine country, and Infineon Raceway has become one of the most popular race destinations for fans and drivers alike.
"It's one race on the schedule that I absolutely love and look forward to coming and running," said Tony Stewart, a two-time winner at Infineon. "We've had success out there ... but I always love coming to the area. It's an awesome crowd that's very energetic and loves to see the Cup Series run there, and it's a track that I really have a lot of fun driving on."
That's a sentiment echoed by many drivers.
"What's so special about Infineon Raceway is it's so difficult," said Carl Edwards, who had a best finish of sixth at Infineon in 2006. "I grew up racing on a 3/8-mile dirt track in Missouri. To come to a twisting, turning, uphill, downhill road course where you're shifting gears in a 3,400-pound stock car -- against guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Boris Said -- is a very, very tough thing. To be able to come here and win a race would be one of the most satisfying wins in all of NASCAR."
It certainly was for Dale Earnhardt, who posted the only NASCAR road-race win of his career in Sonoma in 1995, slipping past Mark Martin on the second-to-last-lap.
"Earnhardt passed him in the Carousel -- and it is almost impossible to make a pass there," Page said. "He claimed on the lap before that he could smell oil and thought Mark might get a little wobbly there. Whether it was true or not, it was a pretty amazing story. And you know, just having him in Victory Circle was pretty exciting."
In 1998, a driver who had started his racing career in California came back to claim his first of a track-record five wins at Infineon. That driver was Vallejo native Jeff Gordon.
"His first race here, he couldn't drive a road course to save his life," Page said. "The fact that he's come back and been so dominant is just amazing."
On the other end of the spectrum, last year Juan Pablo Montoya became just the third foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR Cup race when he took the checkers in Sonoma.
"Juan Pablo Montoya's first win here last year was terrific," Page said. "It's great to have some firsts like that to be associated with the track."
With his victory, Montoya also became the first rookie to ever win on the challenging road course. The victory continued the trend of record-making in the Sonoma Valley, with more to come as the track celebrates 20 years of racing history, June 20-22, with the Toyota/Save Mart 350.