Sonoma Raceway at 50

This two-part series examines the storied past of the raceway at Sears Point and its unwritten future.

Sunday: Bold vision evolves over a half century

Monday: What’s in store for Sonoma County’s largest event venue?

In 2012, Sonoma Raceway faced a crossroads.

A 10-year sponsorship with Infineon Technologies ended, and the raceway needed to decide what it would be called.

Since opening in 1968, it has had a number of different names: Sears Point Park, Sears Point Raceway, Sears Point International Raceway, Golden State International Raceway and Sears Point International Raceway, again. The “international” fell off at some point, and then, in 2002, it became Infineon Raceway.

When the corporate naming deal ended, the raceway brain trust thought about whether to go back to the track’s origins.

“‘Sears Point’ means nothing outside of the area,” said Steve Page, raceway president and general manager. “But ‘Sonoma’ is an international brand that connotes a lifestyle.”

It’s that brand, that Wine Country food, wine, clean, green, good-living reputation, the raceway wanted to be part of.

As it celebrates 50 years of racing this season, Sonoma Raceway is looking back to honor its storied motorsports history but also looking forward to what its next 10, 20 or 30 years holds in a climate-changing world that may not be so auto-centric.

Positioned for the future

On the wall in Page’s glass-windowed office atop a hill on the south side of the raceway at Highways 37 and 121 hangs a 1968 aerial photo of the original Sears Point racetrack.

It shows a course unlike today’s configuration, with four pedestrian bridges arcing over the pavement and sparse facilities for fans, race teams and administration.

What will today’s track look like to Page’s successor in another few decades?

Page said the facilities — after more than $100 million in infrastructure investment in the past decade — and the veteran staff are in a great position to move into the future.

The upper management has been on the job on average nearly two decades. The raceway is booked 340 days a year, and about 300 employees come to work each day at the track and its auxiliary businesses.

The raceway isn’t mourning last year’s loss of the IndyCar Grand Prix race, which, while a popular event, was a quarter-million-dollar financial loser for North Carolina-based track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc.

Page said the track now can rent out that weekend to a profitable event.

“I liked IndyCar,” he said. “But it’s one more weekend our staff can spend at home with their families. And I’m happy not to lose a quarter-million dollars.”

The most lucrative events aren’t always those with the most fans or the highest profile, although NASCAR is the biggest moneymaker.

“We now have greater demand for the track than ever,” Page said.

Though most people likely only think of the raceway as host to the annual NASCAR and drag races, the facility hosts 100 small-business tenants, including vintage car restoration shops, fabricators, racing teams, driving coaches and printers.

Simraceway Performance Driving Center offers teen driving classes, karting programs and defensive driving courses.

A café feeds the employees and the public. There are medical facilities, and virtually all of the buildings are available to rent for private or corporate events.

The raceway hosts amateur drag racing events, drafting opportunities and go-karting on a separate track above the main race course.

High-end experiences

A new event debuts this weekend, one raceway officials hope will become a classic.

Sonoma Raceway at 50

This two-part series examines the storied past of the raceway at Sears Point and its unwritten future.

Sunday: Bold vision evolves over a half century

Monday: What’s in store for Sonoma County’s largest event venue?

A celebration of vintage racing, the inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival will bring together a group of exceptional historic race cars from Thursday through Sunday. Among the remarkable vehicles that will race include several Ferrari 250 GTOs and Ferrari 250 Testa Rossas, a 1957 Maserati 300S and multiple Maserati ‘Birdcages’.

Race cars from the Brass Era to modern-day speedsters, vintage dragsters, concept cars, prototypes, and other museum-quality cars will race or be on display all weekend, under tents and surrounded by local food, wine, beer and coffee selections.

Page said Rob Walton, the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, rescheduled a corporate board meeting to bring several of his historic cars to Sonoma for the event, conceived by Ram’s Gate Winery owner Jeff O’Neill.

VIP “experience” tickets are $1,500, though single-day tickets are as low as $75.

Such high-end events likely will be part of Sonoma Raceway’s future — as Page notes, they are examples of the “Sonoma lifestyle.”

Communications chief Diana Brennan, who grew up a drag-racing fan and started as an intern at the track in 1999, predicted those type of specialized encounters will be a significant part of the raceway’s future.

“People will continue to seek individualized experiences that cater to their specific, personal preferences in a fun, lively environment,” she said. “Whether those are events catered to a specific interest group, vehicle type or shared experience … visual, exciting atmospheres will continue to be a space where people choose to spend their money and time with those of similar interests.”

Some old, some new races

Although the Indy race has left, the raceway’s most high-profile event, the annual NASCAR competition is likely to stick around.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns eight other top-market raceways, has a television broadcast agreement with NASCAR through 2024. The company has separate five-year agreements with NASCAR where the tracks conduct NASCAR Cup races, truck series and all-star race events through 2020.

But another style of racing is on the rise — eco competitions and alternative fuels.

Sonoma Raceway is positioned to serve as a hub for emerging technologies and sustainable racing competitions, Brennan said. That includes a place to test, race and experience the latest technologies.

This spring, the raceway hosted Make the Future Live California, which featured the Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition. The eco-marathon, of which sister versions are held in Asia and Europe, is a global program that offers students hands-on opportunities to develop ideas and technology — and to put those skills to the test on a track.

At Sonoma, students competed to see whose vehicle design could go the farthest on the least amount of energy.

Those type of events are helping build the future of racing and a new breed of fan, Brennan said.

“While the focus on or around the track might change from traditional gas-burning machines to electric or other alternative fuels, or even self-driving vehicles or virtual racing, there will continue to be an enthusiasm for gathering with friends, sharing exciting, fast-paced moments and creating memories — both for self-enjoyment and social media response,” she said.

Another future-facing event is the sixth annual STEM Race Car Challenge, a curriculum-based program in which more than 900 North Bay students put principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to work building gravity-powered race cars using recycled materials.

Finalists will compete in the championship round on June 22 during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 weekend.

Looking to a green future

As climate change worries influence the world of fossil fuels, and thus motorsports, Sonoma Raceway must remain open to new, sustainable possibilities, Page said.

“The key is recognizing opportunities in the industry and having events that promote the profession,” he said. That includes staying abreast of fans’ changing desires.

“People’s expectations of what they’ll experience when buying a ticket is sky high now,” Page said. “I feel like we can deliver what they want.”

To attract more families, youth and millennial fans, the raceway has introduced kid zones, family-friendly RV areas, covered redwood viewing decks, shaded picnic tables and open gathering areas away from numbered seats.

“Especially young fans don’t like to sit in a seat all afternoon,” he said. “They like to get up and hang out.

“We deal with the short attention span, like other sports, and comparisons to the home experience. We think the live experience is so much more a sensory experience.”

The track opened the RevZone in 2017, a “party zone,” with a 200-foot standup bar, shade tent and food and entertainment options in addition to race views.

This season, “The Point” will be open — another gathering spot for fans that became available after course designers reconfigured the course to bring back a sweeping downhill called “The Carousel” after Turn 4.

Noise, traffic and concerts

Throughout its history, traffic, parking and noise from all those fans have been problems for anyone who lives or works near the track, or accidentally drives nearby on race days.

But new entrance and exits to the highways, including along Lakeville Highway, has helped spread the traffic flow.

Page has worked to keep the raceway within rules set by the county on noise, traffic and other impacts, though not always successful, neighbors say. Some critics, however, acknowledge positive changes over the years.

“Steve Page has been a very good steward at the helm,” said Cathy Wade Shepard, who 20 years ago headed a committee that challenged the raceway’s expansion plans. “The fact that they made adjustments, changed parking and where they go in from Lakeville, that was helpful.”

She also said she appreciates the Speedway Children’s Charities, which has distributed more than $6.4 million to Sonoma County youth groups since 2001.

“They’ve been really good community members,” Shepard said. “There is always another side to the story. But on balance, they did listen, they did change their plans and I think they’ve gone on to do well.

“Don’t tell me what you’re going to do, show me. They’ve shown me.”

In addition to adapting some of critics’ suggestions on traffic and seating, Page is firm on one other big concern: that the raceway will not allow large, multiday music festivals like BottleRock, Outside Lands or Coachella.

The raceway, back in 1969, was on the verge of hosting the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert, which ended in chaos, violence and the stabbing death of a fan. But at the last minute, the concert was moved to the Altamont Speedway in Tracy.

In 2015, Page sought to amend the raceway’s use permit to host a weekend-long, national-level festival with several stages.

But within a few months, after hearing vocal opposition at several public meetings, and facing costly litigation and a lengthy county permit processing, Page withdrew the change-of-use-permit request.

“They were very aggressive in opposing us,” he said. “We have high demand as a racetrack, but we were interested in a new adventure. We decided to go back to what we do best. The racetrack is viewed as a positive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.