A bit of a change after 30 years

If you’re looking for the last time NASCAR teams faced an unknown similar to this weekend’s trek to Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Roval, you’d have to go back about three decades.

Other venues have come along since then – New Hampshire in ’93 and Indianapolis in ’94, Auto Club in ’97 and Las Vegas in ’98 for starters. Kentucky and Kansas and Chicago, too.

But those venues weren’t tremendously different, with the possible exception of Indy, from places already on the schedule. Another 1.5-mile stop? Ho-hum. A 2-miler? Yeah, we’ve already got Michigan. A short, flat track? Have you ever been to Martinsville?

All were ovals. Some just a little longer than others. Teams had a pretty good idea what to expect.

That was hardly the case when Sonoma Raceway was added to the schedule in 1989.

It was a road course swap but not everyone was pleased when NASCAR announced it would pack up its show and head north to the Napa Valley region in an effort to keep a presence on the West Coast.

Richard Petty, the series leader in career wins and championships, said at the time that racing at Sonoma “is not us … not our kind of racing” but to be truthful the King could have been talking about road course racing in general. It wasn’t everyone’s favorite type of competition during that era.

Dale Earnhardt said he would “run four ovals in one day not to run here again.” And that was after his fourth-place finish in the inaugural event.

The year before had seen the final race at Riverside International Raceway, a 2.620-mile road course that hosted Cup events in ’58 and ’61, then became a yearly staple from ’63 through ’88.

At that time, Sonoma was seen as much narrower and thus more difficult to navigate than the wider Riverside or Watkins Glen.

There were drivers and teams glad to see another road course on the schedule of course Those drivers and teams were successful on such layouts. Drivers such as Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip. Few won more often on road courses during the ‘80s than those folks.

Wallace, Mark Martin and Elliott traveled to Sonoma three weeks before the race to participate in the Bob Bondurant driving school. According to reports, Bodine, Rudd and Sterling Marlin did likewise.

Earnhardt and Waltrip had made the trip out earlier in the season to brush up on their road course skills.

Three drivers were involved in roll-overs during the weekend – Jimmy Means during Thursday’s practice and Michael Waltrip on Friday. Mark Martin’s No. 6 Thunderbird flipped during the race after Martin had a right rear wheel come off. None were injured.

An additional 12,000 grandstand seats were brought in from Phoenix to help handle the increased fan turnout. Estimated attendance for the Sears Point 300 was a record 53,000.

Highlights of the race can be found on YouTube. Do yourself a favor and watch Rudd and Wallace battle it out over the final few laps for the win.

No one from the drivers to the teams knew what to expect. And the race was entertaining and exciting and a success.

Chances are, Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 will be, too.j

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