SAN FRANCISCO — 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.
What: Finale of 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Where: Sonoma Raceway
Friday — Practice, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Saturday — Practice, 11 a.m.; qualifying, 3 p.m.
Sunday — Grand Prix of Sonoma, 3:30 p.m.
Distance: 85 laps over a 2.385-mile, 12-turn road course, 202.725 miles.
Tickets: $15 for Friday, $35 for Saturday and $39, $55, $60 or $75 for Sunday. Three-day passes are $76, $89, $94 and $106. For information and details on other ticket packages, visit racesonoma.com or call 800-870-RACE. Tickets also can be purchased at ticketmaster.com.
Traffic: Heavy traffic is expected on race days near the track, located at the intersection of Highway 37 and Highway 121.
For more information and full schedule of events, go to www.sonomaraceway.com.