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.”