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Sonoma Raceway launches its own racing school

The most common question Steve Page fields as president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway is, “How can I get my car on the track?”

Likely every racing fan has fantasized about speeding through racetrack turns and straightaways, testing the G-forces and their mettle in a screaming-fast car.

Now, with the raceway’s new “experiential automotive program,” called Sears Point Racing Experience, drivers will be able to do that and more at the Sears Point Wine Country motorsports venue.

The raceway announced Tuesday it has taken over the building, cars and teaching programs previously operated since 2006 by the Simraceway Performance Driving Center at Turn 1 of the track.

Sonoma Raceway bought out the center’s lease and assets, effective Jan. 1, and is launching its own racing school that will allow drivers of all skill levels access to the 2.52-mile road course in their own vehicles or luxury high-performance models.

“Our business model has been changing rather ?dramatically over the last decade,” Page said. “When I first got here, our income from major events was about 90%. Now, we have two, NASCAR and NHRA, and they are very successful events. But those take up six days and we have the track in use for 340 days a year.”

He said opportunities to increase income and bring new customers into the market with corporate events, track rentals and high-end motorsports experiences has been growing - particularly the hands-on racing experiences.

The new venture will allow Sonoma Raceway to offer ?high-speed driving courses, all-level racing programs, teen safe driver training, corporate outings, vehicle manufacturer showcases, go-karting and more. Simraceway offered much of that, but separately from Sonoma Raceway.

Drivers in those programs will be able to use the raceway’s premier racing vehicle fleet, or customers can test their own cars on the famed 2.52-mile road course used each year by professional stock-car drivers and drag racers.

New programs, schedules and options will be introduced in the next few months, Page said, and a formal grand opening will be planned for springtime.

The approximately two dozen Simraceway employees were welcomed to the new entity, Page said. Gift cards and classes purchased from Simraceway will be honored by the Sears Point Racing Experience.

Simraceway was owned by a group of investors, led by San Francisco resident Jonathan Haswell, who bought out former school owner Jim Russell in 2006 to form Simraceway.

With the new venture, Sonoma Raceway continues a 46-year history of hosting an on-site racing school.

The raceway has been home to four top-tier performance driving/racing schools, beginning with the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving from 1973-1990, which was followed by the Skip Barber Racing School from 1990-1995, Jim Russell Racing Drivers School from 1995-2006, and then Simraceway.

The hands-on experience has always been the core of the track’s day-to-day business, and demand for these activities has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, Page said.

“We are very excited to launch this new venture and to further integrate these behind-the-wheel opportunities with our existing menu of customer experiences,” he said.

The Racing Experience will operate from the existing 18,000-square foot facility adjacent to Turn 1 of the 12-turn road course; karting operations will also continue at the three-quarter-mile Sonoma Raceway Karting Center up the hill from the main entrance.

Simraceway leased the building and had control of the track on certain days, limiting what Sonoma Raceway could do with the asphalt.

“We saw a huge opportunity to make more efficient use of the facilities, take the operation as it exists and grow it into something we do every day,” Page said.

He said increasing corporate ?business will now have an ?on-site Racing Experience team to produce events and experiences better than ever. At the same time, other events that might have been held on separate days will be able to coexist.

Haswell could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The British native took over the school from Jim Russell and founded Simraceway in 2006 as a driving simulator business. He has been billed as an “entrepreneur leveraging skill quantification to improve online multiplayer gaming.”

At Simraceway, Haswell had a team of Formula 1 and Formula 3 technicians and professional drivers and a fleet of more than 100 vehicles. For many years, the raceway also ran the Audi Sportscar Experience, Audi’s factory driving experience center.

According to Haswell’s LinkedIn bio, this team trained more than 4,000 drivers each year, from autonomous vehicle test drivers to first responders and more.

Page said the new Sears Point Racing Experience also will offer luxury vehicle manufacturers an intriguing venue to demonstrate and sell their high-performance cars to an exclusive clientele.

“Luxury performance brands, customer ride-and-drives,” he said. “We’ve had to turn away a lot of business (because of track time or exclusivity in the Simraceway lease.) Doing something like that in Sonoma vs. somewhere in Kansas has a lot more appeal for the kind of customers these folks are focusing on.”

Simpler programs, like the teen safe driver program, go-karting and regular driving schools, also will continue and remain on the raceway’s online calendar.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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