IndyCar poised to leave Sonoma Raceway for Monterey’s Laguna Seca

This year's Grand Prix of Sonoma is likely to be the last as the race moves to Laguna Seca in Monterey County.|

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.

Conversely, Sonoma County stands to lose income the race generated here.

While the raceway doesn’t release attendance or financial figures, Page said the economic impacts will be felt with the loss of one of the top three events it hosts: the NASCAR Cup series, IndyCar and the National Hot Rod Association drag races.

“It sells a lot of hotel rooms and a lot of restaurant (meals),” Page said. “One of the things that is unique about this event is it generates a much higher portion of revenue from corporate hospitality and entertainment than ticket sales.”

A county economic impact report on a smaller weekend event at the raceway, the David Love Memorial Vintage Car Road Races, estimated a $1.9 million influx into the economy through race participants, spectators and the jobs needed to host the event.

Page said the money Monterey County is set to pay IndyCar wouldn’t be possible from Sonoma Raceway.

“We would not even come close to matching that. The county government of Monterey is subsidizing the deal. We would lose more money than we do now if we did that deal,” he said.

He said Sonoma Raceway had lost six figures each of the past several years on the Gran Prix.

IndyCar first came to Sonoma County in 1970, bringing flashy drivers including Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, and Dan Gurney to the 150-mile Golden Gate Race.

The race marked the first time Indy cars competed in the Bay Area, the first time Indy cars ran on a twisty road course instead of an oval and the first of a 10-event program at the then-Sears Point Raceway.

After a 35-year hiatus, the IndyCar series returned to Sonoma Valley in 2005. Tony Kanaan claimed the inaugural victory and did push-ups in the Wine Country Winner’s Circle. Later winners included Marco Andretti (2006), Scott Dixon (’07), Helio Castroneves (’08), Dario Franchitti (’09) and Ryan Briscoe (’12).

Three years ago, Sonoma Raceway hosted the IndyCar series season finale for the first time, with Dixon taking the checkered flag and clinching his second series championship.

The IndyCar series has never raced at Laguna Seca, though the CART/Champ Car World Series raced there from 1983 to 2004 before moving to San Jose. The Champ Car Series merged with IndyCar in 2008.

Sonoma Raceway has events scheduled about 340 days a year, with a variety of professional and amateur races and other events. Seventy-five businesses operate in its industrial park, which employs 300 to 400 people daily and as many as 2,500 on big race days.

Losing IndyCar will be disappointing for area fans, Page said, but the track will survive just fine.

“Being race promoters is in our DNA and we hate to see something go away,” he said. “But we have more demand for the use of the track than we are able to satisfy. We’ll rent the track to someone else.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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