John Cardinale, who became one of the most respected and innovative marketing and media relations officials in motor sports in his 15 years at Sonoma Raceway, died Wednesday night at his Martinez home after a two-year battle with gastric cancer. He was 47.
Cardinale, a San Francisco native known for his tireless work ethic and his devotion to his family and friends, started at Sonoma Raceway in 1998 and later became the track's vice president of communications and marketing. For his efforts in promoting the raceway, Cardinale was named NASCAR Track PR Representative of the Year for 2008.
"I can't tell you how many drivers, reporters, crew chiefs and public relations people would pull me aside and tell me we had the best in the industry," said Steve Page, president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway, of Cardinale. "If you hear it once, that's one thing. When everybody says it, it's probably true. John was one of a kind."
Before joining the raceway, Cardinale, a graduate of San Francisco State, wrote for the Ledger Dispatch in Antioch in the early 1990s and later became the bureau chief at the Valley Times in Pleasanton.
It was at the Ledger Disptach where Cardinale's appreciation for motor sports began. With Antioch Speedway regularly drawing crowds upwards of 1,000 people for Saturday night cards, former sports editor Kerry Young needed one of his writers to cover the races. Cardinale, with his energy and enthusiasm, was the obvious choice.
"He attacked the beat and along the way gained the knowledge and a genuine love of racing that led to his real career at Sears Point," said Young, now a editorial systems analyst at Bay Area News Group.
As the Valley Times bureau chief, helped to coordinate local coverage of one of the Bay Area's hotbeds for high school sports, as the Valley Times and the then-rival Tri-Valley Herald competed for scoops and readers.
"He deftly worked with his colleagues, phenomenal communicator with readers, coaches and players, and he annually fielded some of toughest fantasy baseball and football teams in our co-worker league," said Bay Area News Group sportswriter Cam Inman, who began at the Valley Times with Cardinale in 1995. "I can't begin to describe his devotion to his family and friends, or humble generosity to anyone who crossed his path."
Cardinale brought his energetic personality to Sonoma Raceway, where he helped raise the Bay Area's awareness of motor sports. The raceway hosts a variety of events each year, including NASCAR, IndyCar and the NHRA.
Dozens of members of the motor sports community took to social media Friday to express their sorrow and their admiration for Cardinale.
"Have a hole in our heart w/news that John Cardinale passed away," drag racer Ron Capps tweeted Friday. "He made our trips to @RaceSonoma incredible. Gonna miss you 'my friend.' "
Cardinale worked with members of local media to help drum up publicity for the raceway's major events, often pitching story ideas to the media and educating them on the basics of each sport.
Cardinale oversaw such events as having drivers Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti drive IndyCars around Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and was instrumental in bringing the Daytona 500 winner, days after the race, to San Francisco for a number of years.
"When I first got to the raceway in 1998, motor sports wasn't something immediately on everybody's radar screen in the Bay Area, " Cardinale told the Pleasant Hill/Martinez Record in 2008. "Over the last 10 years, I think we've done as good a job as we can to try to bring motor sports into the consciousness."
Cardinale was also on the board of trustees for the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, which has distributed more than $4.3 million since 2001.
"John has been a part of every good thing that has happened at this track over the last 15 years," Page said. "We are all so fortunate to have had him in our lives and to have shared in his intelligence, his wit, his integrity and his brave spirit."
Cardinale is survived by his wife, Andrea, and their two daughters. A memorial fund has been set up on behalf of the Cardinale family. Donations may be sent to the John Cardinale Memorial Fund, care of Sonoma Raceway, 29355 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476.