"Holy Toledo!"

July 23, 2009

Hot Rods Arrive In Sonoma

Filed under: NHRA — Bill @ 9:58 am

The big rigs started arriving Tuesday and by today the pits will be jammed with high priced vehicles of every shape and size.  Yes the NHRA’s traveling circus has arrived in Sonoma.

Old timers like me refer to it as Sears Point but now it is officially called Infineon Raceway.  Much has changed over the years from the racetrack I first visited on July 4th, 1976.  The tower back then consisted of a rickety two story building that had less square footage than John Force’s new motor home.  Now when you arrive at Infineon you see many new building housing a multitude of racing related businesses, most notably the Jim Russell Driving School.

The first official NHRA national event held here was in August of 1988, the race was known as the California Nationals.  Back then it was stop number two of the “western swing” between the Mile High’s in Denver & the Sea Fair Nationals in Seattle.  In the early ‘90’s the name was changed to the Autolite Nations, which morphed into its current title the Fram Autolite Nationals.

In the old days they used to have a bridge that would allow spectators to walk back & forth from the pits side to the spectator side of the track.  The bridge is long gone, now there is a tunnel that runs directly under the drag strip at about 800 feet.  Two years ago I stood in that tunnel as John Force thundered over me at 300 miles an hour.  Now that was an experience!

The close proximity to sea level combined with the air conditions have created an environment for some extremely fast times.  Unfortunately in the early years the racing surface often fell far short of matching the air quality.  Once Bruton Smith took over ownership of Sears Pt. he upgraded the drag strip to its current state.

With good air & low altitude comes big horsepower, which can sometimes lead to big explosions.  The Sonoma event has seen its share of big crashes.  Eddie Hill destroyed his “nuclear banana”, Gene Snow took an ambulance ride, & it was here that Whit Bazemore became forever known as “Blazemore” while driving Dave Benjamin’s funny car.  One of the scariest crashes however was when Shelley Anderson folded up her top fuel dragster and she was trapped alongside the burning engine.  Long before the NHRA tour came here I witnessed Paula Murphy’s rocket powered dragster not shut off and she was severely injured when her car careened out of control.  Let’s hope this year’s event is a safe one.

My favorite memories of this race have nothing to do with crashes.  In ’96 I saw Blaine Johnson win Top Fuel.  It seems like only yesterday when I saw Don Prudhomme’s purple Skoal funny car run the first four second pass at Sonoma.  Hard to forget the day when Bob Glidden almost ran over me in the pits or meeting Darrell Gwynn as he signed my buddy’s cap.  Perhaps the best experience came when we were taking a break from the races while sitting in my friend Roy’s new Vette having a sandwich.  I was in the passenger seat as I heard Roy talking to someone.  The man asked Roy if this was the new Corvette and wanted to sit in it because he had just ordered the same model.  Next thing I know I’m sitting next to Connie Kalitta as he & Roy discussed the sports handling package available on that year’s Vette.  He was extremely nice, just a regular guy, and meeting the Bounty Hunter in this unusual way was very special.

This year I will be attending two of the three days of racing, only missing Saturday to celebrate my 30 year class reunion.  Yes I’m getting old.

If you are in the neighborhood stop by and see what it’s like to go from zero to 300 m.p.h. in less than 4 seconds.

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