Sonoma Raceway seeks use permit for music festivals

Sonoma Raceway, until recently known as Infineon Raceway, and before that as Sears Point, announced Monday it will seek changes in its Sonoma County use permit that would allow it to host non-racing activities at the facility, including a proposed four-day, outdoor music festival.

The proposed changes will require a General Plan amendment and a variety of changes in the use permit, but no structural changes will be needed at the 2.5 mile race track or surrounding facilities.

Sonoma Raceway sits on some 720 acres at the intersection of Highway 37 and Highway 121 and takes its original name from the Sears Point Ranch just across Highway 37. It was opened in 1968 and went through a variety of ownership changes before being acquired in 1996 by O. Bruton Smith, the billionaire racing tycoon who owns a majority share of Speedway Motorsports, owner of eight racetracks around the country.

The proposal being submitted to county planners would enable the raceway to use its property for non-vehicular events, including the proposed music festival and smaller social and fundraising events, while still maintaining strict limits on noise, event attendance and other factors impacting the surrounding region.

The application, which will be submitted to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department in the coming weeks, represents the raceway’s first effort to make significant changes to its operating conditions in 17 years. The raceway last applied for a major permit revision in the spring of 1997, which resulted in the entitlements for a $100 million modernization of the facility’s infrastructure and amenities. That permit process ran into a lengthy series of public challenges over noise, traffic and other issues, but was eventually approved on a 5-0 vote by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

The raceway currently hosts a busy program of major racing events, including NASCAR, NHRA national drags, an annual Indy Car grand prix, the FIA World Touring Car Championships, the Classic Sports Racing Group Charity Challenge, along with numerous local events for drag racers, drifters and motorcycle racers.

But racing revenues are in decline across the country and Sonoma Raceway president and general manager Steve Page, explained in a press release the need for a revised business plan that redefines the raceway as a “special event and entertainment” facility.

“Our use permit reflects a snapshot of activity at the raceway nearly two decades ago,” Page said. “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.”

In keeping with that goal, Page said in a subsequent interview that the raceway is not currently making full use of the resources at hand because even small events, like corporate or charitable gatherings, are disallowed under the use permit, unless they are associated with racing. “We couldn’t just host a party,” said Page, and the raceway is “not available as a resource for the community as much as we’d like.”

All events at the raceway are governed by specific noise and attendance limits outlined in the existing use permit, which would continue to be the case under the proposed changes, although some categories and limits would be modified. A few annual events have unlimited noise limits, but for the ongoing driver programs produced by the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, which is located at and utilizes the track, noise limits are normally 96 decibels.

The new permit requests an increase to 103 decibels during the 10 days a year when customers bring their own cars that may not comply with the lower limit.

The proposed music festival, which anticipates a future attendance limit of 55,000 people, would utilize the raceway’s famous 50 Acres campground for overnight music fans, with four stages scattered around the track facing various grandstands.

Details of the music festival are not fully developed, but Page said he envisions an event featuring nationally-recognized artists presented in an environment that showcases Sonoma restaurants, wineries, arts and culture.

Page said he hopes to work through the county permitting process this calendar year with the first music festival opening in 2016.

Perennial racetrack issues, at least in the eyes of critics, have been traffic and noise. Page believes noise is now well contained, within the limits of the permit, and a decibel meter, positioned by the track’s turn 12 is on 24-hours-a-day, year round to monitor noise levels.

Improved traffic management has significantly reduced the automotive logjam on Highway 121 in front of the racetrack during major events, But Page said the highly successful NASCAR Train that brought a sold-out load of race fans from Sacramento and points in between last year, will be back and bigger this year.

Page also said he expects that when the SMART train is up and running along the 101 corridor, the spur to Sears Point can be utilized to greatly increase the use of rail carts for race fans.

Other sought-after changes to the use permit include:

• The addition of lights to the karting facility and extended hours of operation to 10 p.m.

• Five additional days of camping in lots to the west side of the facility along Lakeville Highway.

• Additional evening use of the main track for certain noise-controlled car programs.

• Three additional days for non-racing promotional activities, such as pyrotechnics or jet flyovers.

• And development of a winery tasting room in the raceway’s former administrative offices at the facility entrance, leased to Foyt Wines, owned by racing great A.J. Foyt, who now has a local winery.

“Sonoma Raceway is one of the world’s premier centers for motor racing and automotive events, and that will always be our core mission,” said Page. “However, we also have the facilities and expertise to host a broader array of activities that can help grow our business and benefit the community at large. These changes to the raceway’s permit will allow us to evaluate and pursue those opportunities as they arise over time.”