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Sonoma Raceway seeks use permit for music festivals

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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.”

 

  • Justincase Weego

    Well, I think that is a wonderful idea. Carry on!! Thanks.

  • dd

    Request denied. Raceway already puts too much stress on Tolay Creek Unit of Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area bordering 700 acre ‘Parking Lot’ across from main entrance. Actually that ‘Parking Lot’ should be part of the Tolay Creek Unit WA since it naturally floods even in low wet years (like this year) and supports ducks, geese and swans. Each year Geese and Ducks lay eggs in the ‘Parking Lot’ field that are crushed each year by cutting down of vernal pool flowers and grasses.

  • Mike Stephens

    Stupid idea! Traffic is already a mess and this is not the place to do this. The camping along the side of a busy road is dangerous and not nice to look at. It should be hidden if allowed.

  • Kim

    I think it’s a great idea. The raceway has been here longer than I can remember and more activities in this town, but yet not directly downtown are a great idea!

  • Dee Test

    Increased decibels, pyrotechnics, jet flyovers, increased camping days and nighttime programs….all translate into complete disregard for quality of life for the people in our community. Its all about the profit motive for the billionaire who owns the raceway……at the expense of the rest of us who live here. Our county officials needs to prohibit this expansion of activities at the “raceway”.

  • East Side

    No, no, no! They always say it brings business to downtown Sonoma. They do not spend money in town. They are self contained and stay right at the raceway and party in the “campgrounds”. When the raceway was first approved before their huge renovation, they were supposed to have a couple of races a year! Traffic may be better right at the raceway but it backs up on 37, on 121 over by Nicholson Ranch, on Highway 29 etc. Our two lane roads are not suitable for these huge events. It is too big with too many events already.

  • Roberto de Chimpo

    I’m all for it. I love races, I love music. Sonoma Raceway has always
    been cooperative and forward thinking. As a person who grew up here and
    doesn’t care for wine or art or picnicking with winos, this would be a
    wonderful addition. Besides BR Cohn and Napa. If there is any other
    worth while concert to be seen, I have to travel to the city or god help
    me, the East Bay. a $500 endeavor, being I refuse to drive home at
    night after a show. Santa Rosa rarely has anything worth while. I would venture further to say those campground should be used during the concerts too. Imagine something not boring.

  • Michael Anthony Donegan

    This would be so much more creative for the local residents of a Sonoma, who are repeatively put through the same problems that Sonoma’s Venues create. Between the repeatively trash, vandalism and noise problems that we are reminded of, the venues are overpriced for locals who deal with the wants of a bunch of overpriced concerts. Better parking, Shuttle Service and safer Drunks, make Sonoma Raceway a better venue.