The first-ever Sonoma Speed Festival was a roaring good time
There are benefits to living in Northern California. We’ve got a beautiful coastline, wonderful wine, and great weather, as well as some of the finest racetracks in the United States by way of Laguna Seca, Thunderhill, and, of course, Sonoma.
Sonoma Raceway, created in 1968, is located a mere 31 miles from my home, and during my time here, its 2.52-mile, 12-turn circuit has been my perennial decompression sanctuary—this past weekend being no exception, for the first-ever Sonoma Speed Festival.
Think of the Sonoma Speed Festival as a mini Goodwood, or a condensed version of Monterey Car Week, but without the pomposity and pretentiousness. This past weekend was the Festival’s inaugural three-day event, and it greeted both participants and spectators with a feeling of comfort and belonging. There was food, wine, and a play area for children, along with smaller internal shows such as Radwood and Bring a Trailer, which catered to those craving a more eccentric variety of vehicle.
The raceway’s challenging layout encompasses a variety of tight and technical corners, changing elevations, and a slightly off-camber carousel that can make even the most hardened driver pucker. And with events like World Challenge, NASCAR, NHRA Drag Racing, and even MotoAmerica Motorcycle Racing on the schedule, it’s no wonder that another grand event, the Sonoma Speed Festival, has now been added to the roster.
Walking through the paddock was like taking a step back in time to when racing was more about talent and risk than technology. Hand-picked vehicles from the golden age of auto racing were in attendance, as were the drivers and pit crews. And for those who did want a bit of the latest and greatest, fear not, as a modern display of speed was on hand by way of the Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid chassis #04, driven by Lewis Hamilton to the tune of nine pole positions, 10 wins, and a whopping 14 podium finishes in 2016. Oh, and for those wondering how fast that car actually is, it just set the full-course 2.52-mile track record at Sonoma with a time of 1:15.430.
Take that, Ferrari.
As with most events of this nature, the races were broken down into categories that contained vehicles of a particular vintage and or class and then subsequently run throughout the weekend—a full class breakdown can be seen here.
Sports and racing legends from the early 1930’s up until the early 2000s could be seen running wheel-to-wheel at speed, with the outcome being some of the most exciting racing I’ve seen to date. Ford GT40s, 40-million dollar Ferrari 250 GTOs (there were three), Porsche 917s, Sam Posey’s Dodge Challenger, Mark Donohue’s AMC Javelins, along Formula 1 legends from the likes of McLaren, Lotus, and Tyrrell were all on hand. Not to mention the unbridled power and craziness of the IMSA cars from the 1970s and ’80s. BMW CSL, Budweiser Dekon Monza, and the Porsche 914-6 GT—some seriously sweet stuff.
Vehicles aside, it was the conduct and access of those in the paddock who elevated the event to a place that was hard to fathom. Example, a leisurely walk into one of the garages to view the Waterman Hampshire Top Fuel Dragster turned into a half-hour conversation with one of the original crewmembers. He kindly explained how terrifyingly awesome it was to run the quarter-mile at 7.51 with a blown-HEMI sitting just two feet from your face, and the rear differential spinning just inches from your wedding tackle.
Then, two garages over, sat a stunning 1937 Delahaye Type 135 M Torpedo Roadster, a vehicle valued at over $6 million. There were no ropes or armed guards, nor any electronic barriers or missile launchers to guard it. Instead, this stunning piece of automotive art was merely there, for all the attendees to view, in all of its grandeur.
As for the racing itself, that was a spectacle unto its own. During Sunday’s Group 3, 1959-65 Production GT car race, for instance, the podium consisted of a 1965 Shelby Mustang, a Ferrari 275 GTB C, and a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO (watch the race here). And let me be VERY clear, these guys were wheeling these machines with the carefree exuberance of 12-year-old boys at their first go-kart race. Sliding out of corners, trading positions and chasing down the back markers like they were running at Le Mans. It was great fun to watch.
Looking back on the weekend, I think the key to the success of the Sonoma Speed Festival was the trust the organizers placed in the general public, and the fact that never once was it abused. Here, laid out before us, at one of the most beautiful racetracks in the United States, was probably a billion or more dollars worth of automobiles for all to admire. But more importantly, there was mutual respect shared amongst those in attendance. And deep down, I believe everyone who witnessed it realized just how memorable an event of this caliber can be.