IndyCar racing is putting Sonoma County in its rearview mirror again.
The open-wheel racing series, best known for its iconic Indianapolis 500 over Memorial Day weekend each year, is maneuvering to move the Grand Prix of Sonoma to Monterey County’s Laguna Seca raceway. It is one of the top three motorsports events held each year at the sprawling track off Highway 121. The largest, the NASCAR Cup series, can attract more than 100,000 fans over a three-day span.
On Tuesday, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors is poised to authorize the signing of a three-year contract with IndyCar LLC to race at its county-owned track in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Sonoma Raceway has hosted IndyCar since 2005, with the Grand Prix of Sonoma series finale determining the year’s points championship since 2015.
This season’s 85-lap race is set for Sept. 16 and will again determine the series championship.
The move ultimately was a business decision by IndyCar, with whom Sonoma Raceway had been in negotiations over its contract, Sonoma Raceway General Manager Steve Page said.
The greater Bay Area cannot financially support two Indy races, he said.
Because Monterey County owns its track, it can essentially subsidize any race held there. For Sonoma Raceway, the series has been a money loser, Page said.
“We have been running Indy for 14 years. It has been a struggle financially and we have been in negotiations with them on a renewal of our contract, where we would need some financial relief in order to make the numbers work,” he said. “It’s a great event, but we’re a for-profit company and can’t do events where we lose money.”
Word came of an apparent deal with Monterey County on Thursday.
“We’ve been in negotiations with IndyCar for quite some time,” Page said. “They have from time to time floated Laguna Seca as a backup. We’ve made it clear from the start if they go to Laguna Seca, that needed to be their choice.”
The decision was somewhat disappointing, he acknowledged.
“We love IndyCar car racing. We’ve invested millions of dollars and lots of time and energy of our staff to build an event here and build their brand,” he said. “But business is business.
“We would be happy to continue that effort, but only under a sustainable business model.”
Under the Monterey County agreement, the county will provide the track and pay IndyCar between $1.2 million and $1.5 million next year, and $1.5 million the following two years. Race dates haven’t been determined.
Laguna Seca chief executive Timothy McGrane couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
Page said that Sonoma Raceway never considered seeking public subsidies to help with race costs. “That’s not the way we operate,” he said.
Monterey County officials say the race will have an undeniable financial impact on the county, already renowned as a motorsports destination.
“If approved the event will have a positive impact on our regional economy over the next three years, increasing hotel occupancy rates, attendance at local hospitality establishments as well as a general increase in tourism throughout the county,” a staff report recommending approval reads.
The costs, including the fee paid to IndyCar, are expected to be covered through sales of sponsorships, concessions and tickets. County officials expect the race will create a “major increase” in local hotel and sales taxes.