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In The News

Sonoma Raceway Seeks to Hold Non-Racing Events

Seeking to host a four-day rock festival as a way to refresh its operations and restore some lost revenue, Sonoma Raceway will seek permission to hold non-racing events at its Carneros wine region track.

The racetrack unveiled plans Monday to seek county approval for changes in its use permit that would redefine one of California's largest motor sports complexes as a “special events and entertainment” facility, said Steve Page, its longtime general manager.

“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 raceway is also looking for new sources of revenue. In 2012, it lost a contract that generated $4 million annually when Infineon Technologies declined to renew its 10-year naming rights deal.

“We're not losing money but the last few years have been challenging,” Page said.

The move is not surprising, said David Rabbitt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

“It's been what, close to 20 years since they received their use permit,” said Rabbitt, whose 2nd District includes the raceway. “I understand and I think it's an opportunity for the county to try and see what can be accommodated at the raceway within reason for everyone involved.”

The raceway, one of 11 tracks nationwide owned by North Carolina-based Speedway Motorsports, Inc., also proposes to:

-- Open a wine tasting room in a former administrative building at the entrance to the track complex;

-- Add lights to the go-kart racing track and extend its hours of operation until 10 p.m., up from 7 p.m.;

-- Increase the noise threshold for some racing school programs 10 days a year to accommodate exotic cars that can't compete at lower decibel limits;

-- Add five days of camping on the Lakeville Highway side of the track complex in order to accommodate festival-goers.

But the key piece of the proposal is for the rock festival, which a consultant's report likens to the popular Outside Lands festival in San Francisco and the Coachella Valley Music Festival, but “on a much smaller scale.”

“That was the trigger that caused us to consider the change,” Page said.

Over the years, he said, music festival promoters have approached the raceway, but “the scale of the (latest) project has taken it to a level where it was compelling enough.”

The concert proposal, by a group he did not identify, is part of a plan to stage similar music festivals at other Speedway Motorsports tracks, Page said.

The 44-year-old track's previous attempts to expand operations sparked fierce resistance by neighbors who objected chiefly to the noise it produces and traffic it attracts.

In 2000, supervisors unanimously approved an environmental impact report and general plan amendments for an expansion that included hillside seating, a new administration building and a 70-foot tall grandstand. The approval came with more than 300 operating restrictions to reduce noise, traffic and other problems.

“The point we're making now is that we are an event facility,” Page said. “We are always going to be a racing facility 99 percent of the time, but as long as we continue to operate within the noise and attendance limits, what difference does it make.”

The 11-turn racetrack, which opened as Sears Point Raceway in 1968, has grown into one of the country's top racing venues, hosting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NHRA drag racing and IndyCar events. Each year, more than a half-million fans visit the 1,600-acre facility, which has a grandstand that can seat 50,000 with hillside seating available for thousands more.

Some businesses in the area welcomed the potential flow of new customers.

“I think in general it's probably a really good idea, which is kind of how we feel about anything that will bring more people into the area,” said Crista Johnson, marketing coordinator at Schug Carneros Estate Winery.

At the Carneros Deli on Highway 121, just over six miles from the track, General Manager Chris Bambury said: “It's good for business, it's good for the neighborhood. We get a lot of guests that are coming to the racetrack.”

He said the application process, including public hearings on the proposal, should be adequate to address concerns about increased traffic and noise, and other impacts.

Sonoma Raceway's current use permit limits the track to racing and related vehicle uses and any changes such as those it plans to seek would require a general plan amendment and an environmental report, county planning officials said.

Rabbitt said the track has been a good neighbor.

“I think the track has been working diligently and quite hard to hold these events in a way that doesn't impact the neighbors and residents too much,” he said.

The proposal to host music festivals at the raceway is not the first. In 1969, the Rolling Stones were scheduled to play a free concert at Sears Point. Hours before the event, the band's management moved the concert to Altamont Speedway near Tracy after a dispute with the venue's management. The concert was immortalized in the documentary film “Gimme Shelter.”

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