Sonoma Raceway drops plans for music festival and entertainment overhaul

Sonoma Raceway officials have dropped plans to remake the Carneros motor track into a broader entertainment venue, essentially pulling the plug on a proposed four-day music festival that they hoped could one day rival popular music events such as San Francisco’s Outside Lands and Napa Valley’s BottleRock.

The surprise decision came down Thursday from Raceway officials who said it was driven by concerns about how much money and time it would take for Sonoma County to review the proposal and the likelihood the project would face a court challenge. Neighboring ranchers already had notified the county that they intended to sue over the plans.

“It’s simple arithmetic when you start looking at costs and how long it takes to get through the process,” Sonoma Raceway President and General Manager Steve Page said.

He sent county planners a short letter Thursday asking to withdraw the application seeking changes to the track’s use permit. The revisions would have enabled the 1,600-acre property off Highway 121, one of the largest motor speedways in the state, to put on non-racing events, including an annual music festival.

The same idea is being pursued at several other U.S. tracks owned by Sonoma Raceway’s parent company, North Carolina-based Speedway Motorsports.

Page said the decision to drop the proposal here was his and that it resulted from concerns about ballooning costs and delays that could have allowed another big music event to roll into the North Bay region before the Raceway’s first planned music bash, in 2017.

“I’m not an easy person to give up,” he said. “But my responsibility is ultimately to decide where the line is between tenacity and stupidity. Last night, we decided we were on the wrong side of the line.”

He said he had already spent $500,000 on the permitting process and estimated it could have cost the Raceway up to $3 million to just get through the environmental review - before even reaching the Board of Supervisors for a decision.

“It’s an unfortunate reality that the process doesn’t allow for good business-development ideas,” Page said, voicing frustration over delays in moving forward with the environmental study.

Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, said that review was set to start next month. Misti Harris, the county planner overseeing the project, estimated that effort - aimed to determine the impact of the track changes on Sonoma Valley, its residents and natural resources - could have taken as long as two years.

The key change would not have been to track infrastructure but rather was to reclassify the property’s primary purpose as an entertainment venue, instead of its current designation as a motorsports facility. The proposal sought an additional five days of camping on Raceway property to accommodate festival-goers. It also wanted permission to install lights at the go-kart racing track and extend its hours until 10 p.m.

The sudden retreat from the ambitious entertainment plans marked a stark turnabout from the track’s public message promoting the project earlier this year.

Page, in a February interview, said he envisioned the music festival would draw up to 55,000 people daily.

“We’d be talking about three stages … (and) lots and lots of acts,” Page said at the time, adding the venue would bring in major headliners to appeal to fans of all ages.

Multiday music events are a common and increasingly competitive industry, and the bid by the North Bay’s largest sporting venue to join that crowded stage faced many hurdles aside from the county review and public scrutiny. BottleRock, in the wake of its first year in 2013, almost didn’t live on after its original producers stopped paying their bills and filed for bankruptcy.

Yet Morty Wiggins, a former A&M and Bill Graham Presents executive who founded his own concert promotion and talent management agency, said he saw ample opportunity for a successful high-profile music festival at the motor track.

Wiggins noted that the Raceway has the right facility and experience for a multiday concert.

“They already deal with crowd management numbers that are pretty significant,” Wiggins said.

He said local festival could have been a major destination for concert fans as long as it wasn’t scheduled around the other established events.

Page in February said that festival organizers were tentatively looking at May as a possible time slot, but would re-evaluate if BottleRock was still running in that month down the road. The Napa festival next month will mark its third year with a three-day lineup starting the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the Carneros region, said he was disappointed the entertainment project was dropped, citing the money and jobs it could have generated in the county.

Some residents and neighbors have been opposed to the project since it was unveiled, citing the potential for additional noise and traffic. About 200 people in February attended a Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission meeting about the project, said Jack Ding, the commission chairman. He said the room was evenly split among those who supported the project and those who opposed it.

Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said most residents concerned about the project and its impact on the already-congested Highway 37 were nevertheless willing to wait for the environmental review findings before making a decision.

“It would be incumbent upon the county that impacts were appropriately evaluated,” she said. “That takes time and thorough analysis.”

Tony Lilly and his wife, Nancy, who live on a ranch about two miles from the track and who have sparred in court with Raceway officials over the operation, contended that a prior agreement linked to the track’s expansion 15 years ago prohibited the kinds of entertainment activities it sought to hold.

Tony Lilly said they had planned to sue to challenge the latest changes.

“That’s good news,” he said Thursday on hearing about the track’s decision. “A four-day concert going to midnight would have been a disaster for us.”

Rabbitt said he understood that the lengthy and costly review process can be burdensome for businesses, especially when facing litigation upon county approval.

“I know there are neighbors that feel they’re better off, but I’m not sure the county is better off,” he said.

The track, first built in 1968, holds three major events a year, including a NASCAR race in June that draws about 100,000 visitors over the weekend. The rest of the year, it rents out the track to clubs and other groups and provides an on-site racing school.

The property is one of eight tracks nationwide owned by Speedway Motorsports of North Carolina. Plans for music festivals at the other venues are still alive. Page said Sonoma Raceway officials were responsible for the initial idea.

“The irony is that we brought the deal to corporate, but it’ll be our sister tracks that’ll enjoy the benefits,” he said.

The Raceway as part of its application also was seeking permission to open a winery and hold smaller private events, such as corporate parties and fundraisers. The track plans to revisit some of those proposals later this year, Page said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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