Nascar may have the most fans and IndyCar racing has the high speeds, but neither has the kind of cars that turn heads every day on the street: the Ferraris, Maseratis, Corvettes and Porsches.
That’s what draws people to the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival at Sonoma Raceway every year, vintage cars that look like sculptured works of art.
“It’s more of a lifestyle event than any of our other motorsports events here,” said Sonoma Raceway organizer Diana Brennan. “Every famous old sports car you can think of is out here.”
In its 28th year, the festival draws nearly 400 cars in competition, ranging from 1911 Ford Model T’s and Packards to 1970s muscle cars. Racing dates are May 17-18.
“It’s a chance to turn back the clock, and for some people it’s, ‘Man, I never got to see one of those and now I can bring my kids out,’” said Steve Earle, president of General Racing Ltd., which produces the event. “Or maybe you used to race one back in the ’50s and you want to see it go around the track again.”
A pioneer in the industry, Earle created one of the first vintage-car races in Monterey in 1974. He’d bought a 1957 Ferrari 250 Testarossa for $4,500 but had nowhere to race it.
“I knew I wasn’t the only one,” he recalled. “There had to be more people like me out there, so the only way to do it was to create an event.”
A thousand people showed up to watch 60 cars race at the inaugural Monterey Historic Automobile Races at Laguna Seca raceway near Salinas. As word spread, twice the number of drivers and fans showed up the next year. Soon, retired race mechanics started helping out drivers, European racers came on board, and an industry sprang up around vintage-car racing.
Compared to NASCAR and IndyCar, pit access at “the Historics” is unparalleled, as fans can walk through the paddock and chat with the drivers about their cars and share their own personal histories. For the drivers, it’s not only a chance to show off their pride-and-joy autos, but also an annual race for bragging rights around a 12-turn, 2.52-mile road course.
“You’re never too old to enjoy your teenage years,” said Randall Smith, owner of the Mesa/Boogie amplifier company in Petaluma. He’s been racing his Chevron B19 at Sonoma Raceway for nearly 20 years, going back to the days when it was the Wine Country Classic Vintage Car Race.
Every year before the race, Earle has a meeting with the drivers, explaining the rules very clearly.
“We stress, be gentleman about it, go out and do the best you can,” Earle said. “But (professional drivers) Jackie Stewart and Michael Schumacher didn’t go around knocking the wheels off their cars. That means you’re not in control. Be in control. We don’t care how fast you are. Just be in control. Most of these drivers are very good about that.”
Or, as Smith recalled the pre-race edict: “They tell us, ‘The cars are the stars and you guys are just the chumps who are fortunate enough to be able drive these things. Keep it under control.’”