Cotati Airfield and Raceway, RP development remembered
As America prepares to observe the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a few long-time residents think of Cotati and remember its role in U.S. defenses.
As early as 1941, the U.S. Navy targeted the hayfields and farmland northwest of Cotati as an auxiliary airstrip.
The Naval Outer Landing Field (or NOLF), as it was called, was one piece of the “Aviation Gateway to the Pacific,” a defense network that started with Alameda Naval Air Station in 1938, in anticipation of Japanese aggression. Landing fields in Santa Rosa and Cotati supported it.
The Cotati field has since vanished, now covered by Burlington Coat Factory and other retail and hotel buildings. But World War II-era aerial shots of the field show two intersecting runways, one east-northeast by west-southwest, the other northwest by southeast. Each was nearly three-quarters of a mile long.
Cotati boasted everything but hangars: a two-story control/operations tower; a small arms magazine; a fire-and-crash truck garage; two gasoline storage containers; an oil storage building; a well, tank and pump house; and a machine gun backstop. Planes were flown to and from Alameda for practice landings and takeoffs, known as “touch-and-goes.”
One bomber pilot to bounce the tarmac was then Petaluman Maurice Fredericks, now 86, and co-founder with Paul Golis of Rohnert Park in the 1950s.
“I flew SNJ trainers into Cotati,” Fredericks says. “I joined up in 1942 at the age of 17 and finally separated from the Navy in 1946 when I went to law school.”
The landing field ceased operations in 1945 when the ancient flood plain reasserted itself and buckled one runway permanently, though road testing and small plane use continued into the 1950s.
By the mid-fifties, when the Navy declared Cotati NOLF excess property and the state began expanding U.S. Highway 101, part of the site returned to farmland. The runways entered a new phase in Sonoma County history, the age of racing.
Sponsored by the Santa Rosa City Council in 1957, the Racing Drivers Club received federal permission to conduct drag races on the airfield’s old landing strips and taxiways.
The track was popular locally and internationally throughout the 1960s. British champion and Maserati driver Sir Stirling Moss visited a September 1960 contest with Hollywood pin-up girl Jayne Mansfield on his arm.
Tough-guy Steve McQueen raced his Cooper Formula Junior in 1962. He returned in 1968 with crew and cars to practice driving for the movie “Bullitt,” which features what is perhaps the greatest car chase ever filmed.
Ron Riner, transportation coordinator for Warner Brothers recalled in “Muscle Car Review” that “Steve handled the Mustang real well. He flowed well with the car.”
The raceway closed in 1972, in part due to competition from what is now Infineon Raceway.
In the meantime, both Cotati and Rohnert Park incorporated as cities, with the bulk of the old NOLF/raceway site falling inside Rohnert Park city limits.
Developer Hugh Codding recalled flying his personal plane there in the 1950s, and Codding Enterprises bought the land in 1966. Since the early 1970s, the land has been developed for retail shopping, housing, hotels and commercial and industrial space, primarily by Codding Enterprises.
Kmart started business in 1986 on the site now occupied by Burlington Coat Factory, and in the early 1990s, Price Club, House of Fabrics, Target and other chain retailers boosted Rohnert Park economic growth.
Today the area continues to compete economically, of late with restaurants and entertainment venues.
From farmland to airfield to raceway to shopping mall, Cotati and Rohnert Park’s western acreage has long been a reflection of the times.