Archives: A Half-Century in Sonoma
Of the venues on the MotoAmerica Superbike calendar, the track with the longest history of national road racing is Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California. This weekend when MotoAmerica makes its annual stop at the track, it will mark the 50th anniversary since the AMA Road Race National was first held at the scenic Bay Area circuit in 1969.
Archives: A Half-Century in Sonoma
The origins of the track, once known as Sears Point, can be traced back to the late 1960s when a pair of North Bay racing fans, Jim Coleman and Robert Marshall, Jr., were on a hunting trip on the hillsides overlooking the San Pablo Bay’s mudflats. The two agreed that the rolling hillsides would make an ideal setting for a racing circuit. By the end of 1968 the twisting, hilly 2.5-mile, 12-turn road race track, with an integrated drag racing strip, was completed. The next year, 1969, was the first full racing season for Sears Point.
Interestingly, the hill on the backside of the track is the southernmost peak of the Sonoma Mountains. It offers great vistas of San Pablo Bay. The track was named in honor of Franklin Sears, who settled on the land south of Sonoma in 1851. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that in old age, Sears suffered from dementia and sometimes wandered off aimlessly into the hills. When his absence was discovered, the local fire bell would ring and the community would gather to search the hills until he was found.
The first AMA National held at the track was on Sept. 7, 1969 and it was an historic event. Northern Californian Art Baumann raced a Suzuki TR500 to victory on a blazingly hot day in the 125-mile national over Ron Pierce (Yamaha) and Roger Reiman (Harley-Davidson). It marked the first time a two-stroke motorcycle won a premier class AMA Grand National. Baumann earned $3450 (almost $24,000 in today’s dollars) for his win.
Road racing sequences for the movie starring Robert Redford called Little Fauss and Big Halsy were filmed during that first weekend.
Sadly, the first weekend also witnessed the first causality of a motorcycle racer at the track when Lee Patterson, of Fresno, hit a haybale that landed on the racing line in turn seven after Bart Markel crashed during a practice session. Patterson hit the bale, fell and was then hit by a couple of oncoming riders.
The Patterson incident was the first of many serious injuries and even deaths for riders competing on a track that had little runoff and was lined with dangerous guardrail and hillsides. Starting in the late 1980s, and accelerating in the mid-‘90s after the facility began finally being properly managed by former Oakland A’s executive Steve Page, the track gradually began addressing safety issues and went from being considered by most riders as very dangerous, to one that was comparatively safe by the 2000s.
Sears Point suffered through multiple owners and poor management during its early years. After the ’69 AMA race, the series didn’t visit the track again until 1977. It would be a trend of starts and stops for the national road races, that would continue for decades to come. In ‘77 Kenny Roberts took the national win on a Yamaha.
The ’77 race also witnessed the first AMA Superbike race at Sears Point and it was a local club racer named Paul Ritter who took the unexpected win on a privately-owned Ducati. Ritter’s victory started a trend of local Sears specialists whop would annually give the AMA national rider fits. The club races at the track produced some riders who had the track absolutely dialed. After Ritter it was locals David Deveau (600 Supersport in 1988), James Randolph (750 Supersport 1994), John Williams (Battle of the Twins 1984) and Brian Parriott (750 Supersport 2001) who each took upset wins over series regulars.
In 1979 Sears was one of only four AMA National Road Races (along with Daytona, Loudon and Laguna Seca) on that year’s very lean road racing calendar. It was in ’79 that a teenage racing sensation from Louisiana named Freddie Spencer scored his very first AMA Superbike victory riding a factory Kawasaki KZ1000.
In 1982 John Williams won the AMA Battle of the Twins in Kent, Washington, becoming the first African-American to win an AMA National road race. This, some 30 years after black riders were first allowed to compete in AMA national events. Williams, who was from nearby Berkeley, honed his racing skills in club events at Sears Point. He finally won a national at his home track in 1984, when he took the AMA Battle of the Twins victory at Sears.
Donny Greene, from neighboring Novato, California, became a multi-time AMA 250 Grand Prix Champion after earning his chops at countless club races at Sears. AMA Superbike sensation Scott Gray, from Santa Rosa, was another leading rider to come out of the club battles there.
AMA Motocross Nationals were held at the track on the hillsides above turn seven for three years starting in 1978 on separate dates from the road race nationals.
Sears Point hosted the AMA Superbike season finale in 1987 and 1988. In ’87 it was the epic Wayne Rainey/Kevin Schwantz battle. Schwantz won the Sears finale, but Rainey came away with the championship. The same thing happened in ’88 with Doug Polen winning the season finale in a last-ditch effort to catch Bubba Shobert in the Superbike title chase, but came up four-points short.
There have been some amazingly close finishes at Sonoma. One of the most memorable came in 1993 when a young Miguel Duhamel, on a factory Kawasaki, nipped the dominant champion Doug Polen and his Ferracci Ducati at the line. Then there was the 1996 knock-down, drag-out battle between Yoshimura Suzuki teammates Aaron Yates and Mat Mladin, with Yates scoring his first AMA Superbike win.
In 2002 the track signed a sponsorship agreement and was renamed Infineon Raceway, although diehards continued calling it Sears Point for years. When the naming rights for Infineon came to a close in 2012, the track was renamed once again to Sonoma Raceway. It’s taken awhile, but the Sears Point name is fading into history and most fans today, especially the younger generation are comfortable calling the track Sonoma Raceway.
During the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s that track saw massive crowds show up for the AMA Superbike events at Sonoma. The crowds were among the biggest in the series. Often fans were still trying to get in when the races were starting. A big part of the credit for that explosion in popularity was directly attributed to the track’s hiring of newspaper reporter John Cardinale to head up media relations in 1998. Cardinale was friends with so many of the Bay Area media and he worked tirelessly at promoting the events at Sonoma, including the Superbike races. Even though Cardinale passed away in 2013, the legacy of excellent promotions continues at Sonoma.
So, if you attend the MotoAmerica races this coming weekend in Sonoma, you’ll be a part of a milestone event, a half-century of motorcycle racing at the track that has one of the richest legacies in the history of the sport.