Sonoma Raceway, or more widely known as Sears Point Raceway and Infineon Raceway, is one of Northern California’s “old-time” tracks with rich racing history that stretches back to 1968. Often overshadowed by Laguna Seca Raceway, it has long been the home of SCCA racing, NASCAR, the Indy series, and at one point, Bob Bondurant’s Racing School. The racing circuit is one of my personal favorites with its challenging tight corners, nervous sweepers, and straights that make up a highly technical road racing course. It’s the ideal course for the country’s most iconic period-prepped cars.
From its inception in 1968, Sonoma Raceway has been the site of some of the most successful Japanese racing cars on American soil. The timing of the track’s opening coincidentally coincided with the pinnacle of Japanese manufacturer racing in SCCA and and IMSA.
Fast forward forty years, Japanese classics are still putting rubber down on this famous circuit on a big stage. This past weekend was the inaugural Sonoma Festival of Speed. While the vintage racing event itself is not new to Sonoma Raceway, having been owned and run by multiple organizations, this year was something truly spectacular.
For 2019 the event was modeled after the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed, where vintage racing meets fine dining, wine, and class. While the Ferraris, Porsches, Alfas, and Lancias of the world are very accustomed to such events, the Japanese cars are only starting to break the surface. Building off the momentum of the 2018 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, where Nissan was the featured marque, it was no doubt that the Datsun presence would be heavy.
The event included a slew of them, including a strong lineup of 510 B-Sedan cars in Group 7 (1965-69 under 2.5-liter production cars). Among the drivers were Jim Froula of Racecraft, Mark Nettesheim, and Daniel Caggiano and Ricardo Stuart Milne, both international participants that flew out from Argentina for the event, driving Ermish Racing-built cars. Dave Stone and David Martin represented the Z cars in Group 10 (1971-80 IMSA Camel GT cars) with the ex-Bon Temps/Bondurant school car and ex-Dave Friselle 1976 IMSA GTU champion.
Unfortunately both Z cars were sidelined through the weekend due to mechanical issues. The Datsun 510s put on a clinic in the first qualifying session, locking down the first three positions. Jim Froula took pole position, with Ricardo Milne and Mark Nettesheim in second and third. The race was even more exciting with Ricardo and Mark dicing it up with the Lotus 26R of Michael Malone. The Lotus DNF’ed on lap six paving the way for top three finishes for Datsun — Froula, Milne, and Nettsheim.
For Jim, it was a relatively tame race as he had led from the beginning and was able to maintain a consistent lead. For Ricardo, the second place finish was an amazing feat having never raced at Sonoma Raceway before. It was truly encouraging to see participants traveling internationally to race (and perform superbly) in period US-based Datsun race cars.
Sunday’s race grid saw a change in starting positions after a heated second qualifying. Ricardo was now on pole with the Lotus 26R and Jim Froula starting second and third. An exciting race ensued with multiple swappings of position in the top three. Ricardo, in his Troy Ermish built 510, kept his first place spot with Michael Malone in second. Third place was Mark Nettesheim, who drove consistently all weekend.
As much as I loved seeing the Porsche 917Ks, Ferrari Testarossas, Formula One and Can-Am cars, it was a breath of fresh air to see Datsuns competing and being recognized. We can only hope that events like these continue to invite Datsuns in the years to come, as they undoubtedly put on an equal if not more gut-wrenching show.