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."