Padecky: IndyCar racing at Sonoma Raceway is done in by simple economics
SONOMA — IndyCar is leaving Sonoma Raceway and you can’t tell it by looking at the eye candy. Yes, eye candy. Parked, the cars themselves appear to be part spaceship, as if they are going 100 miles an hour standing still. On the move IndyCar is the fastest thing every year at this track, its best winning time 19 miles an hour faster than the fastest NASCAR time. And the sound? Hornets everywhere and boy are they angry.
So it’s a shock, like a bucket of ice in the face, when Steve Page, the track’s president and general manager, explains why the relationship has ended after 14 years.
“We have a good fan base and my staff loves IndyCar,” Page said. “But we lose between $200,000-$250,000 every time IndyCar comes here. The last four years we have not broken even. In the 14 years we’ve made money only a handful of times.
“I majored in political science in college but even I can do simple arithmetic. We are not a nonprofit operation.”
Lest anyone think the wheels are falling off the Sonoma Raceway operation, remember this: The track could run an event every weekend every year.
“But I think it’d be nice if our people got Christmas off,” said Page, his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek. Fact: next year’s IndyCar weekend slot already has been replaced by a function that will net the speedway $75,000. So that’s, give or take, a $300,000 swing to financial daylight.
“We have a waiting list to use the track,” he said. How long is the list? I might as well have asked Page how many times he’s been speeding with his head out the window singing Italian songs.
Follow the money. It always explains pro sports. The Warriors are moving because they can make more money in San Francisco. The Raiders are moving to Las Vegas for the same reason. IndyCar is now going to Laguna Seca and the accountants are quite happy about that, considering Monterey County is paying a sanctioning fee to IndyCar of $1.2 million in 2019 and $1.5 million for each of the next two years running at Laguna Seca.
Can you match that Bruton Smith? The question was posed to the pugnacious owner of Speedway Motorsports and Sonoma Raceway. Bruton doesn’t suffer fools or extortion. The response might be best characterized as in-your-dreams. Now and forever. With possibly a colorful verb or adverb thrown in there somewhere.
Still, the last of something always feels like the lost of something. While IndyCar didn’t have the hold on Northern California motorsports fans like NASCAR, the drag or the bikes, it had athletes that were mature and personable, who didn’t frequent the police blotter or say something that would launch an investigation. The drivers represent the sport well and Sonoma Raceway ably gave them that stage.
What the drivers couldn’t do, nor could Sonoma Raceway, was affect the spread of declining interest in their sport. It is a condition not unique to IndyCar. NASCAR is quite nervous over the well-documented drop in attendance (14.7 percent in the 14 Cup races after the Daytona 500 this year) and sponsorship withdrawal from mainstays like Lowe’s.
“This development is not unique to motorsports,” Page said. “It’s an across-the-board situation with all sports. It’s a struggle with live entertainment. The at-home experience now is getting to be so good. The beer doesn’t get warm and you always get a good seat.”
NASCAR once was thought to be bulletproof. So was the NFL, the sport with seemingly the best insulation to strife and declining interest. A punch in the mouth, football was so America, so unassailable for its ability to be so legally violent. Until domestic violence and head trauma took over the headlines.
Nothing changes so routinely as change in sports. Stadiums, cities, attitudes, health, technology and sponsors affect anyone who competes for money. Money moves the needle and now the money moves from Sonoma Raceway and it already created wild speculation.
“I hope there’s room on the schedule for both,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the race Sunday. Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway on the same IndyCar schedule? Sure, IndyCar would like that. Sure, and while we’re at it, let’s have race cars powered by solar power.
Such an idea once was run past Steve Page and he responded the way you would have after running over a skunk. Two IndyCar races 120 miles apart? Doesn’t make sense of course but when did common sense become the guiding principle in sports?
Rather, think of Hunter-Reay’s pipe dream as the best compliment available, a homage of sorts to Sonoma Raceway. “This is our Indy 500,” he said, “outside of the Indy 500. Everybody loves coming here.”
Oh, for that to be true.
To comment write Bob Padecky at firstname.lastname@example.org.