Tucked away across the North Bay from San Francisco, Sonoma Raceway is a 4km clockwise road course with 12 turns featuring significant elevation changes. The home of NASCAR, NHRA drags, MotoAmerica, and, previously, IndyCar, Superbike, and the FIA WTCC, Sonoma has been serving the local racing community for 50 years.
Heavy equipment broke ground in 1967 at what was then called Sears Point Raceway and, later, Infineon Raceway. The early history of the track was fairly shaky, as operations were closed in 1970 and ownership was exchanged multiple times, hence the later name change. However, since the 1980s, the raceway has made a massive name for itself, hosting many more car clubs and small-scale race events than I would have room to fit in this story.
So, what was a track that sells out for massive sanctioned races doing dabbling around with a grassroots drift events in 2010?
This was exactly the question I posed to Karlo Belarmino, one of several guys around for the inception of the official Sonoma Drift program.
Back around 2010, Karlo owned a shop called KBR Performance which specialized in race prep, primarily building time attack cars. Of course, they also sponsored and prepared a number of cars for drifting.
Drifting was, in many ways, still very new to Northern California. People were doing it, of course, but besides the skidpad at Thunderhill, Karlo tells me “back in 2010 there was no real spot for drifters in NorCal.”
Enter the CREAM Meets, a small group of like-minded guys who’d park their cars up at Tapioca Express on Wednesday nights. After hanging out at TapEx once the roads quieted down, a handful would go streeting. This was less than ideal, and eventually the group wanted to legitimize their drifting activities.
Conversations started but it was all an underground sort of operation, up until Karlo received a call from Lino Ramos, a huge car enthusiast, a big fan of drifting, and facilities manager at Sonoma Raceway (which was still then Infineon, but we’ll just stick with Sonoma from here out).
Simply put, Lino wanted to bring drifting back to Sonoma. Karlo says that phone call turned into conversations with the board and the local drifting community, the end result of which you see in these photos.
During a weekend in 2009, Formula Drift had shared the course with IndyCar for an event which Stephan Verdier took home first place. The following year at Sonoma, Tanner Foust qualified with a perfect 100 (the only such score in the history of the sport), and the top spot after competition went to Vaughn Gittin Jr. The 2009/2010 pro layout lives on as a Winter Jam course, and in the video above you see Dai Yoshihara running in a freshly built S13.
With this track history and a good number of FD Pro, Pro-Am, and grassroots drivers in the Bay Area behind Lino’s cause, Sonoma Drift was born. Featuring Wednesday night drifts and a Summer Jam event, the project successfully took off with local drifters (such as now-named Drift Team Animal Style) deciding layouts and members of the community volunteering their time to make it all happen.
After a couple good seasons of drifting at Sonoma, the crew started thinking about whether they could do something over the winter months when the entire facility is closed for other major events.
You know where this is going, of course, and the first Winter Jam event (check out Matt Field’s OG S14 in the clip above) brought out nearly 50 drivers and a handful of spectators. Today this turnout is similar to what you’d see at any run-of-the-mill Wednesday Night Drift at Sonoma, but it was certainly a sign of what was to come.
Besides Sonoma Raceway’s official involvement, Karlo tells me this was an entirely community-based and non-commercial affair. Although I didn’t get any shots of Karlo himself, I did finally get a chance to shoot the all-carbon R35 Nissan GT-R owned by Ronan Castillo, which Karlo’s shop Horsepower Industries is getting ready to perform more work on. Full feature coming soon.Enter Faruk
In 2013, Faruk Kugay — who is of course now a Formula Drift Pro competitor — drove at Winter Jam and later approached the track to see if he could run a drift school at the venue, something he had been doing in the States and around Europe in years prior. Taking it further, Sonoma Raceway invited Faruk to manage the entire Sonoma Drift program.
Of course, he accepted.
To this day, Faruk says that it’s pretty incredible that Sonoma Raceway (whose parent organization owns six other tracks) is and ever was willing to reach out to the local drift scene. Still today, there are no major third parties involved in organizing the event.
“Sonoma is an opportunity that a lot of people can benefit from,” says Faruk. “It’s a funny combination — NASCAR track, NHRA track — but there’s a completely grassroots drift scene here. They care enough about the community to create a program for the community.”
Once Faruk was on board, one of the events that he really wanted to expand on was Winter Jam. With the entire track potentially open for
business drifting, he wanted to bring a Gatebil-type festival atmosphere to the event.
Fast forward to 2018, the year that Faruk had to place a 350-car cap on an event that drew less than 50 drivers just several years prior. It’s awesome to see guys from all over the West Coast camping out in the paddock to dedicate one last weekend of the year to banging doors with their friends.Back To The Basics
Being such a renowned facility, Faruk says one of the major requirements to grow the program was improving the safety of the vehicles attending their weekly events. Certain specs for the skid pad, full track, and tandems were put into place to avoid a potential catastrophe. And, uniquely, all cars require inspection by a NASA tech before they’re allowed to lay any rubber down at Sonoma.
I’ve seen a lot of blowback on social media to these strict guidelines for drift cars at Sonoma Raceway, but from the outside they make perfect sense, both for the track and the community. A death or serious injury at Sonoma could significantly cripple, or even completely destroy the program that so many have worked so hard to create.
It would also tarnish the face of drifting in the Bay Area for those that don’t understand what the motorsport is all about, and that would have subtle, yet far-reaching consequences.
As with any event, Faruk and the other organizers are always looking for ways to improve, although, in a sense, Winter Jam has plateaued. Even with multiple track layouts, the huge skidpad and two donut boxes, there just isn’t extra room for any more cars. It’ll be exciting to see what the group has in store for next year, but regardless of any changes Winter Jam always has and always will attract drivers with a wide range of skill levels.
Pulling in big drivers like Dan Burkett, Fredric Aasbø, Deane Kearney, Pat Goodin, and Matt Coffman to name a few, it’s really genuinely cool to see these guys driving here. This is exactly how it started for everyone, just driving with your friends for fun.
This is especially true for Matt Field who tells me he’s been to every single Winter Jam event held. Driving here again, this time in his back-up car, and with Parts Shop Max’s new-to-drifting C7 not far behind (a workshop that brought out more than one car, and a workshop for which I’ll bring you a feature shortly into the new year), it’s safe to say that Winter Jam is here to stay.
With such a varied pool of drivers — all there only in the quest to have fun — Winter Jam is the great equalizer, taking everyone back to their roots. By the same token, last weekend’s drift event was a return to my roots as well. Like several other Speedhunters, watching and shooting drifting is what got me hooked on photography.
I had an amazing time out at the track with friends, catching up with drivers, and teaching my wife some starting points for getting cool drift shots. It was a good reminder that I still have a lot to learn, and that the drifting community is what really got me rolling. As such, we’ve tossed in an extra 90-odd photos to this story.
And if you’ve never been to Winter Jam yourself and are in a position to do so, I really do encourage you to make the trek out to Sonoma to camp up for the weekend. Just bring a jacket, or maybe three, and get ready for a good time.
Additional Photos by Sara RyanGood Til The Last Drop