There have been swimming pools and bowling alleys, dance floors complete with disco balls and sound systems that rival some of the best concert stages. And some say that once, there was even a brothel. In the long history that is “50 Acres,” the folks out at Sonoma Raceway – most recently known as Infineon Raceway – have probably seen it all.
Legend though it may be, exactly how it got the name 50 Acres is a matter of some small debate. Actually more like 47 acres, the flat grassy area was being claimed by overflow from Tolay Creek before raceway officials brought in specialists – enrivonmentalists, biologists – to mitigate the flooding. They spent about $300,000 to build a berm that basically defined where the floodplain could exist and where it couldn’t. Now back closer to 50 acres, the area has earned its rightful name in history and with literally thousands of race fans.
According to long-time camper and customer, Don Ferranti, the actual use of 50 Acres began somewhat organically. His first year at the races and in the field – 1989 – there was a tiny contingent of just eight campers. By 1990 the number had grown to 25. Word has it that the raceway didn’t start charging customers to camp until around 1996. This unsanctioned “freedom” likely led to some of the more wild aspects and stories that, during the first number of years, led to the spot’s notoriety.
“50 Acres is a unique aspect of our raceway. It really is a throw back to the way racing used to be. But we’ve formalized a lot of things since then so now, it’s a great place to bring the entire family,” said Gary Phillips, vice president of ticket sales and customer relations.
And there are plenty to fans who come back year after year making the giant field of grass home for a long weekend. A family reunion of sorts, people come from not just across the state but across the country to camp out and attend the race. This year, the track’s 24th annual NASCAR race, will be no different.
Take Karen Gutierrez for example. Sonoma born and bred, Gutierrez’s son was just a baby when she and her husband took him to his first NASCAR race – he’s now 15 years old. After sitting in “big, fat traffic” on the way to the track, the young family decided to make a weekend of it from that day forward. “We get out there on Thursday night and barbeque and hang out with friends. We watch qualifying events on Friday and then get to see the drivers arrive by helicopter on race day. Camping out has become a tradition.”
Another local to take the plunge is Richard Garcia. With just two stints at 50 Acres under his belt, Garcia is a relative lightweight compared to some. But he’s hooked nonetheless. “The camping thing is pretty awesome,” said Garcia. “We get to see more of the race like practice rounds, etc. And we run into all sorts of friends from previous years. It’s a pretty cool place to hang out.” Garcia admits to seeing some pretty funny stuff out in the acres like giant inflatable pools ad dance parties on the top of RVs. “It’s pretty silly.”
In addition to 50 Acres, the Sonoma track has camping facilities inside the raceway area. Joe Gandolfo of Rancho Mirage has been coming to Sonoma for the past eight or nine years. He camped in 50 Acres for a number of years before a coveted spot opened up above turn three. He jumped at the chance to upgrade and hasn’t regretted the move once. “We always had fun out at 50 Acres but we lucked out. This is a prime location.” Gandolfo now comes every year with his wife. A grown son also brings his wife and two children and another son joins them from his home in Sebastopol.
“For us, it’s the experience of being around racing the entire time we’re here. We see more and do more and get to watch things unfold like which drivers are on and which ones improve over the course of the practice runs. We’ve met a lot of great people and the grandkids just have a ball.”
The track’s Phillips echoed his statement saying, “So many of our fans come back to Sonoma year after year it’s like one big reunion. At its core, 50 Acres still maintains the pure essence of pulling into an empty field, setting up camp with family and friends and enjoying the traditions of a weekend at the races.”
The Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series roars into Sonoma Raceway from June 22 through 24. Tickets are $25 to $130 for a single day and $99 to $180 for the weekend. Parking is free and discounts are available for military personnel. For tickets and information call 800.870.RACE (7223) or visit racesonoma.com/nascar or ticketmaster.com.
Big rigs and more
More than 50 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series haulers will rumble through the streets of Sacramento at the 2nd NASCAR Hauler Parade on Thursday, June 21.
En route to Sonoma for the Toyota Save Mart 350, the NASCAR haulers will make their way over the Tower Bridge and around the State Capitol to greet Northern California NASCAR fans ready for big race.
Expect to see haulers from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and every other driver on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit. The parade will begin promptly at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 21, as the haulers depart their staging area. For route details, visit racesonoma.com/nascar.