Possibilities include music festival showcasing region food, wine
SONOMA — Sonoma Raceway said it plans to seek a Sonoma County government green light to accelerate into nonracing activities such as a music festival, wine tasting and small social events, while remaining largely within the lines of noise, attendance and other existing limits.
The racetrack, owned by South Carolina-based Speedway Motorsports (NYSE: TRK), plans to apply to the county Permit and Resource Management Department in coming weeks for updates to the use permit for the 1,600-acre property at the junction of highways 37 and 121.
It would be the racing venue’s most significant permit change since spring 1997, which propelled a $100 million project modernize the track, facilities and infrastructure. Construction started in 2000. The new raceway was unveiled in 2002, though work on ancillary buildings continued for several years years.
This time, there wouldn’t be any physical changes, track management said. Rather, the permit update would redefine the raceway as a “special event and entertainment” facility. The current use permit and county General Plan limit activity at the raceway to racing and related-vehicle uses.
“Our use permit reflects a snapshot of activity at the raceway nearly two decades ago,” said Steve Page, Sonoma Raceway president and general manager. “The professional sports and entertainment industry has changed dramatically in that time, and our business model needs to change with it. The revisions we’ve proposed will create a platform for the raceway to succeed as a business in the coming decades and to continue as a major regional economic contributor, while maintaining reasonable limits on any disruptive impacts on the local environment.”
Presenters of major sporting and entertainment events have been battling economic and technological headwinds, he said. In its recent financial report, Speedway Motorsports attributed its lower revenues last year partly to “negatively impacted by the ongoing weak and uncertain economic conditions, including high unemployment and high fuel, food and health care costs.”
“We’ve been in a period of declining attendance at major events,” Mr. Page said. “It has been going on since the 2008 recession and has leveled out, but it is not going in other direction.”
Beyond pressures on the visitor are changes in how fans experience sports and entertainment, he said. Prevalence of big-screen televisions and broadcaster innovations for getting viewers closer to the action are making it more difficult to convince fans to leave home.
“We try to convey how better it is to experience the event on site, with the speed and sound and sensory aspects,” Mr. Page said.
So, that’s why Sonoma Raceway is trying to future-proof its use permit, anticipating entertainment demand in the next two decades while taking care of needed changes accumulated since 1997. Noise and traffic were major contentions against the first permit expansion and likely will be again, so the raceway is hoping that the time and cost invested in this update won’t be needed again anytime soon, he said.
Events at the raceway are governed by specific noise and attendance limits outlined in the existing use permit, which has 54 pages of conditions for operations such as how loud given events can be and how many people could attend certain events, including events the track no longer offers. Much of the existing conditions in the permit would continue under the forthcoming proposal, although some categories and limits would be modified, Mr. Page said.
The most notable of the soon-to-be-proposed changes would allow for a four-day music festival on the raceway grounds, utilizing existing seating and infrastructure, as well as the areas currently used for parking and camping, according to Mr. Page.
Although specific plans for the festival are not fully developed, the raceway envisions an event featuring nationally recognized artists and showcasing Sonoma restaurants, wineries, arts and culture. This came from a request from a musical festival promoter wanting to move the event. The track has reserved seating for 50,000 in three terraced seating areas plus the grandstand at the finish line, which are physically separated enough to accommodate separate musical acts simultaneously.
Among the other proposed changes is a reallocation of the raceway’s attendance limits, adding capacity to accommodate the music festival and consolidating other attendance categories into broader groupings.
Other requested items include:
- Addition of lights to the kart race track and extended its hours to 10 p.m.
- Five additional days of camping in lots on the west side of the property (along Lakeville Highway).
- Increased noise threshold for certain racing school programs 10 days per year.
- Additional evening use of the main track for certain noise-controlled car programs.
- Three additional days for nonracing promotional activities, such as pyrotechnics or jet flyovers.
- Development of a winery tasting room in the raceway’s former administrative offices at the facility entrance.
Wine tasting already is allowed as part of racing events under current zoning, but some wineries have been interested in tastings for nonracing events.
The raceway already has airplane flybys and fireworks as part of big IndyCar and NASCAR racing events to keep the thousands of visitors interested while on the property throughout the day.
“These changes to the raceway’s permit will allow us to evaluate and pursue those opportunities as they arise over time,” Mr. Page said.
The track currently has scheduled use an average of 350 days a year. It is home to one of the nation’s only high-performance automotive industrial parks, hosting about 70 tenants. About a half-million visitors attend various races annually.
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