Sonoma Raceway Accelerates Growth Plan with Corporate, Group Events

As more than a hub for NASCAR events, Sonoma Raceway is gearing up for a banner 2022 with a new mission aimed at attracting companies and other users wanting to experience the thrills of its motor sports venue.

The wheels of progress are underway for the Raceway, which began its journey in 1968. Now it is embarking upon a new initiative called Sonoma Reimagined, anchored by a new VIP-style hospitality center designed for company events.

The marquee corporate facility provides the best front-and-center view of races. At 19,000 square feet, the hospitality structure will overlook the track’s hairpin Turn 11. Groundbreaking for the Turn 11 Club building came in June 2020, and it is due for completion next April. Sonoma Raceway, one of eight privately held venues owned by Speedway Motorsports LLC in Concord, North Carolina, declined to provide construction costs and other financial details.

Beyond sponsorships, the Sonoma Reimagined program focuses on developing ways for companies, agencies, auto clubs, educational centers and event coordinators of all sorts to use the 2.52-mile, 12-turn course and its adjoining facilities on the 1,600-acre grounds for team-building corporate outings. The Turn 11 hospitality center, which may accommodate groups of up to 1,500 people, is the hallmark addition to that mission.

“Our goal is to create a welcoming and high-end focal point for our facility that represents Sonoma Valley well,” Sonoma Raceway General Manager Jill Gregory said, adding the center will be formally unveiled during the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame induction ceremony on June 9.

Gregory said the Raceway goes into next year with larger expectations for her 80 full time employees than one in which pandemic resulted in its operating at a third of its capacity.

“2022 will be a whole different animal. The most striking difference and the most lucrative will be an expansion from the 33% capacity, given the (social distancing) restrictions,” Gregory told the Business Journal. “It’s not that 2021 was a lost year. It’s just that 2022 will feel like a full calendar year. We expect to triple our events.”

Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Bodenhamer noted that much of the Raceway’s charm lies in how understated it is.

“Most people assume there are three to four events that happen every year, but actually they have hundreds of events,” Bodenhamer said.

For Bodenhamer, the Sonoma Reimagined initiative helps the Raceway expand the venue’s potential for generating revenue, one that goes way beyond lodging and restaurants a few times a year. He listed under-the-radar businesses such as gas stations and grocery stores as also benefitting. The chamber chief estimated the revenue-generating economic impact from the Raceway, which is also a chamber member, at more than $10 million a year.

“There aren’t many singular entities in the Valley that have that kind of impact,” he said.

The spillover benefits to neighboring businesses are obvious.

“I think the Raceway is great for the Valley’s local businesses, especially with corporate conventions and group travel a huge component to our local economy,” Bodenhamer said. “When it went away in 2020, we saw a huge impact from it.”

Bodenhamer noted the Raceway holds the double distinction of bringing people to the area and providing entertainment for residents. The corporate focus in Sonoma Reimagined represents a growth business with promise, he added.

“I think this is something that’s going to be really popular. When word gets out, they’ll have a lot of interested companies,” he said.

“You had me at ‘hello,’” Exchange Bank President and CEO Troy Sanderson said, while on a recent tour of the grounds to check out new ventures and ongoing mainstays. Sanderson essentially grew up “on a dealership,” launching his zero-to-60 enthusiasm for hot cars.

“The team-building piece of this would be very helpful — especially since we’ve been working remotely,” Sanderson added. “This will bring people back together again. Our teams are tired. Rejuvenation and reconnection are our focus right now.”

Sonoma Raceway is widely-known as a NASCAR venue. The Raceway has announced NASCAR’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 return to the Wine Country June 12 on its 36-race schedule. Up to 47,000 seated fans or spectators in 27 luxury suites may see the 90-lap spectacle and get a glimpse of a venue undergoing a facelift.

“We’re ‘hot’ 330 days of the year,” Vice President of Sales Pete Rogers said of normal operating circumstances.

Sonoma Raceway is ramping up efforts to attract companies, car clubs and other organizations wanting their employees or members to experience the Raceway in a variety of ways.

LightSpeed Ventures, as it’s referred to, may host 150 hot rods in various car clubs on the track. Tenants may rent garage space for their four-wheeled “babies.” California Highway Patrol units may use a designated area for distracted driving demonstrations. Auto manufacturers have showcased their latest models on the track. Film shoots have also utilized the grounds. A Tough Mudder competition, which is a severe obstacle-course challenge, has also been staged there.

Wednesday nights light up the Sonoma County landscape with Sonoma Drags & Drift, a sanctioned “sideshow” program that serves to take the activity off the streets. The program has been around since 2009 but has gained in popularity recently. Its biggest event is Winter Jam set in December, which brings out the best of the best for the rubber squealing sport.

Another program allows groups to pilot “race car-type” rentals around the track to either experience a teasing thrill or floor it at Mach 4 with their hair on fire.

“Karting,” which is intended for the novice, features 70 mph karts in hot, low-to-the-ground four-wheelers that resemble go-karts on steroids.

One other added option is a sports car driving experience. The Audi turbo-charged “track” cars aren’t street legal, but at 300 horsepower and 1,700 pounds may give a driver a hair-raising experience. A half-day program provides a class on the fundamentals of speed racing.

“You’d be impressed with how well people can drive these once they have instruction, even though we don’t expect they’d be Jeff Gordon,” said Chelsea Lazzari, raceway special events and community relations manager, said of the stock car legend, who NASCAR named to its 50 Greatest Drivers list.

The corporate events usually span about four hours and bring out between eight to 40 people, but the Raceway may accommodate up to 100 in corporate events. Traditionally, participants take “hot laps” around the track, receive instruction and set up a picnic.

Sonoma Raceway’s inroads into attracting visitors from the local feeder market of the greater San Francisco Bay Area as well as long-term vacationers across state lines has turned the facility into a magnet for tourists and economic opportunity for Wine Country stakeholders.

In 2017, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board commissioned a study that indicated spending among drivers and spectators amounted to $1.27 million in value-added sales receipts. Further, a weekend long event has been predicted to generate $1.9 million in economic activity throughout Sonoma County.

The purpose of the study involved estimating the economic impact on the Sonoma Raceway hosting the Classic Sports Racing Group David Love Memorial Vintage Car Road Races (a CSRG event). It examined the effect on retail, lodging and transportation industries, to name a few.

Along with the Raceway’s contribution to the local economy, North Bay Leadership Council President and CEO Cynthia Murray notes the organization as a community partner.

“While the Raceway is unique in bringing in tourism and entertainment dollars, they are more unique in how much they give back to the community,” Murray said, listing assistance to nonprofits, first responders, children’s charities as some of the recipients. “If you look at the safety net of the North Bay, you will always find Sonoma Raceway as one of the strongest threads.”