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Photograph BY Mike Doran

Man and Machine

The history of the automotive is on show at the Wine Country Classic

By J. M. Berry

Since the beginning of time, if it had wheels, someone was going to race it. The Wine Country Classic comes to town at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma May 30–31, offering a chance for visitors to enjoy racing like it was in its heyday, long before the insert-your-brand-here series. These race teams don't race for money—heck, they don't even get trophies. What they do get is bragging rights among their peers, which is the best prize of all to these racers.

The event, which is official Sports Car Club of America (SCCA)–sanctioned, is called the Vintage Race Series everywhere but Sonoma, where it is known as the "Wine Country Classic." Started in Monterey in 1974 by Steve Earle, it is now the premier vintage race series in the country. One of the best features of the race weekend is the open-pit policy, allowing fans to wander "backstage" and talk to the car owners in person, see the machines up close and even get a picture taken in some. The history of some of these meticulously restored vehicles is legendary. Indy cars run by the Unsers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Richard Petty's Ford from the 1969 Daytona 500 as well as Lolas, Porsches and Bentleys from many vintages, all restored to their original form.

For those who haven't been to Infineon in a while or are still scared off by the traffic rumors, be assured that the raceway has improved by leaps and bounds in all aspects since the acquisition by Speedway Motorsports in 1998, which invested over $70 million into track improvements, especially with an eye to access in and out of the facility. This event is angled to the locals and families, with children under 12 gaining free admission.


Photograph by Nate Jacobson

There will be over 300 vintage racing cars at the Classic, with manufacturers including Maserati, Lotus, Ferarri and Porsche, but this time, it's all about the Morgan, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

The Morgan was conceived in 1909 when H. F. S. Morgan attached a seven-horsepower Peugeot engine to a three-wheeled tubular chassis. He called it the "Runabout" and that's what it did, running past many vehicles equipped at the time with much larger engines. Even into the 1960s, the Morgan routinely outpaced Corvettes, Porsches and Jaguars, despite its engine having a smaller displacement. There will be a large display of Morgans from over the years for fans to view at this year's event.

Until the late 1960s, the SCCA—founded in 1944—was the premier race body in the country, with its Trans-Am series being immensely popular. Over the years, however, many of its drivers joined up with the up-and-coming race circuit, NASCAR. The Wine Country Classic recreates the competition of past eras with rules that forbid any vehicle with modifications that weren't in place at that time in history. A 1972 Boss 302 engine cannot have any production or modified part on it made later than 1972; the same goes for vehicles from the 1950s.

Since 1972 is considered the height of the "muscle car" era for American car makers—when one had the ability to buy a car off a lot, modify it and race with the professionals, if you could afford it—there are no vehicles newer than 1972 allowed in any of the race classes. Ten different eras will be represented over the weekend, with some dating back to pre–World War I.

Sonoma resident Brian Ferrin will race his 1970 Ford Boss 302 Mustang in the event. What got him into racing and what keeps him coming back? "Obviously, it was the love of racing and the car," he says, "but the camaraderie and friendships I've made will last a lifetime." Asked about what part of the weekend is the most fun for him, other than the race itself, Ferrin says it's a no brainer.

"Being able to drive these racecars that aren't actually street-legal on the roads all the way up to the Sonoma Plaza on Saturday is a real treat," he chuckles. "It kind of gives you a deviant feeling, plus it's really a feeling of community once you get there, and helping to raise money for Speedway Charities is a great thing as well." Ferrin is not the only local racer, with drivers from Danville, Santa Rosa, Modesto and many other Northern California drivers competing.

The races are fun to watch, with several going on at the same time. There may be Cam Am cars from 1960s on the track at the same time as Trans Am cars from the 1970s and Lotuses from the 1950s, not racing against each other, but racing within their class. The difference between the team's resources is interesting as well, with some driving $100,000 race transports simply to bring the cars to the track.

Others are of the "weekend warrior" variety, the car owner who tows his one vehicle from race to race simply for the love of the sport; just because you have a fancy trailer, doesn't always give you the edge. These are old cars and things break, and of course, there's the whole driving-skill thing. There are some who say that racecar drivers aren't athletes. After taking two laps at over 140 miles per hour around Infineon Raceway in a 700 horsepower NASCAR Pontiac a couple years back, let me assure you, they are definitely athletes.

The Stats

Tickets for the Infineon event are $40 each day for adults, with discounts for ages 13 to 20; children under 12 are free. The Wine Country Classic particularly wants to fete Sonoma Valley residents, offering half-price $20 tickets to the events of Sunday, May 31. Tickets both days include free admission to the Wine Country Pavilion, where residents can enjoy gratis treats from their neighbors in the food and wine industry, headed by the efforts of former COPIA chef Victor Scargle.

The weekend kicks off Saturday, with practice sessions at 8:10am; qualifying for all classes starts at 1pm at the racetrack. In the town of Sonoma, the Vintage Race Car Festival takes place on Saturday, May 30, as a CHP escorts 30 or so of the classic vehicles from the raceway to the historic Plaza at 5pm, followed by a wine and food event to benefit the Speedway Children's Charities, an organization that has donated over $3 million to various Sonoma County youth organizations since 2002. Admission is $30.

Sunday's event start at 8:30am with practice laps; the main event begins at 12:40pm. Poster artist David Grandin will be signing $5 posters from 3pm both days in the Wine Country Pavillion. Infineon Raceway, Highway 37 at Highway 121, Sonoma. 800.870.RACE. For tickets and more information, point your browser to or just get on up and out to the track. See you at the races.


How Green Is My Raceway?

Infineon Raceway has been active in making the facility more "green" since 2004 with a comprehensive recycling effort. Since its inception, the facility has recycled over 73 tons of material, including cans, bottles and plastic. This year, they will bale and recycle 3,000 pounds of cardboard each month. All motor oil used at the facility is recycled, as well as all used tires, being turned into roadway asphalt and playground rubber. The facility also has its own water and sewer systems and uses reclaimed water for the landscape. A herd of 3,000 sheep and two shepherds live at the facility full-time and keep the vegetation in check. This year, owl boxes have been added around the track to help keep the rodent population down.


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