Barber: The sad breakup of IndyCar and Sonoma Raceway
The 2018 IndyCar title will be decided at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. Twenty-five drivers piloting 25 cars will start the final race of the season, and one of them will emerge as the season champion. Pictures will be taken, confetti launched, wine gulped on Victory Lane. Then everyone will clear out, and IndyCar will leave Sonoma, perhaps never to return.
How did this happen? Economics, pure and simple. It’s the same reason Khalil Mack is no longer a Raider, and it isn’t any easier to reconcile.
And no one seems particularly happy about the breakup.
A raceway official told me Wednesday that she has always enjoyed IndyCar. The crowd is distinct from other race events like NASCAR and NHRA. IndyCar devotees tend to be more tech savvy and of higher socioeconomic status; she jokingly called it a “wine and cheese crowd.” The drivers are cooperative and deft with the media. This was clear on Wednesday, as the four men with a chance to win this year’s crown - Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden and Will Power - jumped through publicity hoops in SF, posing with the historic Astor Cup at the Golden Gate Bridge, sitting for caricatures at Pier 39 and cracking crabs at Fisherman’s Wharf.
But IndyCar wasn’t a moneymaker at Sonoma Raceway. In fact, raceway president Steve Page has said the track lost at least $100,000 each of the past several years. The venue was asking for financial relief in recent contract negotiations, and IndyCar was unwilling to accommodate. The series didn’t have to, because it had WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca as a foil.
Monterey County, which owns Laguna Seca, reportedly will pay IndyCar between $1.2 million and $1.5 million for next year’s race. Sonoma couldn’t do that and expect to make a profit. Instead, the raceway at Sears Point can rent out its pavement to a smaller group and make a modest profit that weekend, even if there aren’t any spectators.
I talked to Stephen Starks, IndyCar’s vice president of promoter relations, by phone Wednesday, and he wasn’t exactly jubilant about the schedule change, either.
Starks, who works with venues and TV partners in building the IndyCar schedule, said he had talked to Page about moving the Sonoma Grand Prix to an earlier slot in the schedule, perhaps when there is less competition from Bay Area professional sports and college football teams. They couldn’t settle on dates. Starks also was clear that IndyCar was OK with running races at both Sonoma and Laguna Seca.
“It was absolutely conceivable that we could hold events at both places, as long as we were mindful of the spacing between the two,” he said. “Steve Page made it clear that he didn’t think that would work. Ultimately, we were unable to find a solution.”
Page previously confirmed this to me. He and his advisors were convinced that splitting the NorCal open-wheel-racing audience between two sites wouldn’t be economically viable for Sonoma Raceway.
As for the drivers, they seemed interested in learning the twists and turns of a new roadway (Newgarden, for example, said he has never even visited Laguna Seca), but most of them were a little sad to be saying goodbye to Sonoma.
Dixon, who goes into the race at the top of the standings, spoke of the Sonoma Raceway course with begrudging admiration.
“It’s very technical,” he said. “You have the obvious things - you know, the elevation changes. You’ve got the corkscrew, you’ve got Turns 3/3A. There are some unique track dynamics you don’t get to see at many places, much like the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. But it’s very slippery, too. It’s very hard on tire management. The way that the wind shifts in the afternoon. You normally have a headwind into (Turn) 9, and then it shifts to a tailwind. There’s just so many things about the circuit that make it so, so tough.”
Even more than the actual pavement, what appeals to IndyCar teams is the lure of Wine Country. I know, we like to beat the rest of the world over the head with images of half-full Bordeaux glasses filtering the light of a Sonoma County afternoon, lush vineyards in the background. News flash: The rest of the world is buying it.
Outside of the Indianapolis 500, Sonoma is probably the biggest corporate weekend on the IndyCar schedule. It’s where all the sponsors want to have their race dinners. Rossi said his team, Andretti Autosports, has invited more than 500 guests to the raceway this weekend. Dixon said his primary sponsor, Target, was bringing 600 to 700.
These fancy people, like the rest of the race fans, are good for the local economy. They spend money at wineries, at restaurants and hotels in Sonoma and Napa counties. This will be the real loss of IndyCar’s flight to Monterey.
And that was Laguna Seca’s big advantage in this calculus. Monterey County, as owner of the raceway there, doesn’t mind if it loses a little money on the race, because it will win back the revenue in hospitality. Sonoma Raceway, a private company, doesn’t have that luxury.
It’s usually a terrible idea for cities and counties to pony up money to prop up professional sports. They rarely gain as much as they spend. In this case, it would have been nice for Sonoma and Napa counties to chip in and help even the IndyCar ledger. Page previously said, “That’s not the way we operate.”
So when the IndyCar engines stop reverberating on Sunday, that’s the last we’ll hear of them for a while. I’ll miss them, too. These cars are beautiful to watch; they’re faster and more nimble than NASCAR rides, don’t forget. And the IndyCar drivers can be charming. Many of them are better known in other countries than they are here, which tends to nurture a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Page and Starks both left open the door to a hypothetical return of the sport to Sonoma. Starks said that when you sign a contract with a new venue, you assume it will be a long, happy arrangement. But you never know, right? Perhaps the political situation in Monterey, or the financial situation in Sonoma, will somehow change, and the open wheels will return.
Rossi has deep ties to Sonoma Raceway. A native of Nevada City, he started his go-kart racing career here. But he harbors no such illusions.
“It’s already been replaced with Laguna,” Rossi said, “so it’s never coming back.”
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.