By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Race Sonoma’s annual June NASCAR weekend might be centered around stock car racing, but it’s also—like many events at the speedway—a major source of charity dollars.

For many Valley residents, the weekend’s highlight is the Children’s Champions Grand Marshal Banquet, with its after-dinner Q&A between Race Sonoma’s president, Steve Page, and the evening’s celebrity Grand Marshal.

A different Grand Marshal is selected each year. Tony LaRussa, one of the greatest managers in Major League Baseball history, was the 2012 Grand Marshal. Past honorees include John Lassiter, the Smothers Brothers, Jerry Rice, Mario Andretti and Roger Craig.

This year, as usual, the banquet sold out, with about 500 people in attendance (tickets cost $250 each). When combined with other fund-raising events during NASCAR weekend, more than $140,000 was raised for charity.

The proceeds will be split between the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley and the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities, the raceway’s charitable arm. Founded in 2002, the chapter has since donated more than $4.1 million to youth organizations in Sonoma County.

Last year alone SCC distributed more than $273,000, which included eight Sonoma Valley youth organizations: the Boys & Girls Club, La Luz , Hanna Boys Center, Teen Services, Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, Mentoring Alliance, Valley of the Moon Children’s Foundation, and the WillMar Family Grief & Healing Center.

“The auto racing world is a philanthropic champion in our eyes,” said Laura Zimmerman, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

“Speedway Children’s Charities has provided tens of thousands of dollars for our schools in support of computer carts, the School Gardens, and our Teacher Support Network at Sonoma Valley High School. They also fully fund the Every 15 Minutes alcohol prevention program for Sonoma Valley High School. They really get it!”

The Sonoma chapter of SCC is overseen by Denise Silver, the speedway’s Community Events Coordinator. She works closely with a board of trustees, whose members include Sonoma County supervisor Valerie Brown, former Sonoma mayor Ken Brown, Sonoma Valley Teen Services’ president Tim Boeve,  and former Sonoma police chief John Gurney.

“They bring so much insight,” Silver said, “and help me narrow down priorities.”

Speedway Children’s Charities was started in 1982, when O. Bruton Smith—founder, chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports—was motivated by the death of his young son to help children in need.

The organization’s focus is on children in communities surrounding eight raceways owned by Speedway Motorsports. Besides Sonoma, they are in Atlanta, Bristol (TN), Charlotte (NC), Sparta (KY), Las Vegas, Loudon (NH), and Fort Worth.

Each of the charity’s eight chapters coordinates with the national office, but operates with latitude to identify needs, and to raise and award funds, within the community.

“What works in one place doesn’t always work in another,” said Silver. “But kids are kids no matter where they are, and in the end we all strive for the same goals.”

Those goals are defined in the charity’s mission statement: “To care for children in educational, financial, social and medical need in order to help them lead productive lives.”

That’s a tall order, but in its 30 years Speedway Children’s Charities as a whole has donated $47 million nationwide, funding thousands of organizations that do everything from feed hungry children to provide educational assistance.

In Sonoma,  many of the funds distributed by the charity are raised at special events held throughout the year, with most geared to major race weekends.

For example, during the annual Tour de Charity last March, drivers of the National Hot Rod Association’s Full Throttle Drag Racing Series carted on the raceway’s course with fans who paid for the privilege. The sold-out event raised $12,350.

In May, more than $22,000 was raised during the annual 3J’s Motorcycle Track Day, when 100 paying licensed riders came to the raceway to enjoy recreational riding on the track, a catered lunch, and other activities.

Other fund-raisers this year include 24 Hours of LeMons, the eBay Charity Auction, and the Speedway Children’s Charities Track Walk.

Other organizations work on the charity’s behalf at non-racing events, too. Save Mart Supermarkets (Lucky, SaveMart, SmartFoods and FoodMax) donates 3% of grocery purchases via its free S.H.A.R.E.S. card (see below). For the past nine years, the Classic Sports Racing Group has donated more than $500,000 in proceeds from its annual October vintage racing car challenge to SCC. And personal donations and auctions also bring in funds.

But the Grand Marshal’s banquet remains one of the favorite fund-raising events of the year—so popular that Speedway’s CEO, Bruton Smith, always flies in from the east coast for the event.

“Our Grand Marshal’s banquet is really unique among the eight branches of SCC,” said Silver. “Everyone else holds their banquet in a hotel, and it’s black tie all the way. But we go ‘Sonoma Formal’ here, which basically means clean jeans. The banquet is held in the beautiful barrel room of Cline Cellars, and it’s very popular.”

For Silver, being in a position to help so many non-profits in Sonoma Valley offers incalculable rewards.

“For me,” she said, “it’s simply the best part of my job.”

Learn more about Speedway Children’s Charities, including how to apply for a grant or make a donation.

Denise Silver is happy to mail you a free S.H.A.R.E.S. card. At no additional cost to you, Save Mart Supermarket will donate 3% of your grocery purchases to the Sonoma branch of Speedway Children’s Charities when you swipe the card at checkout. To receive a card, send  your postal address to Silver at dsilver@racesonoma.com