By John Ramos

SONOMA (KPIX) — The limited tickets for Sunday’s NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway sold out quickly and, while the event was nationally televised, those who were lucky enough to get in said nothing beats being there in person.

“We are thrilled to open up our gates and have spectators back at Sonoma Raceway after, what, 15 months? I mean, we’re ready,” said track spokesperson Jennifer Imbimbo.

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Crowds returned Sunday to Sonoma Raceway for the annual Toyota/Save Mart 350 filling 33 percent of the stands in accordance with state COVID-19 guidelines.

“There’s no handling of any tickets. We’ve gone completely cashless,” Imbimbo explained. “Everybody’s seated in socially-distanced pods of two to six people so it’s really changed the landscape of it.”

That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Olivia Easton and her group of young cousins.

“You get to see everything happen,” she said. “You can see every part of it. It’s super fun, you get to meet people, you get to see things happen.”

The event is as much spectacle as sport with people craning their necks for a pre-race glimpse of celebrities like television chef Guy Fieri, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and race car owner Michael Jordan. But the fans reveled in an experience they couldn’t get on television — feeling the roar of the race engines.

“I love when they turn it on and they rev their cars, it sounds amazing!” said fan Laura Crutchfield.

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Randy Malispina, from Pleasanton, said racing only makes sense if you can watch it live and in person.

“Live is just amazing,” he said. “Hearing the roar of the engines, the pit stops, everything that’s involved, it’s amazing. Better than sitting and watching it at home.”

The racers seemed to agree. After a year competing without fans, pit crew member Deven Youker said it never really felt normal.

“It was kind of like a ghost town out here, you know?” he said. “It was just the workers so you didn’t have — it was just a different feeling.”

It was what NASCAR diehards had been waiting for but it was the first race for Richard Summerland of El Sobrante. He and his young son had missed being active and, for them, this event was a kind of therapy.

“We were just dying to get back out,” he said. “It was like the first time to get back out so we jumped at the chance that we could.”

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About 16,000 tickets were sold to Sunday’s race so it now ranks as one of the largest, in-person sporting events in the Bay Area since the pandemic began. Although doctors say the pandemic isn’t over, to the fans at Sonoma Raceway, it felt like it may be on its last lap.