Two Nearby Tracks That Are Worlds Apart

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Yesterday, we got confirmation on what had been rumored for a while – that WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca will be on the 2019 IndyCar schedule. The only thing close to a surprise at this point was that we learned that it will serve as the site of the season finale in 2019, covering the weekend of Sep 20-22. Last Friday, that rumor came pretty close to fact when Laguna Seca sent out a tweet saying that the Verizon IndyCar Series would be running there next season, and that a press conference would be happening Tuesday to formally announce it. That’s about as confirmed as you can get when the actual track tweets it out.

Social media went crazy. It seems that almost everyone is ecstatic to have open-wheel racing back at Laguna Seca where CART/Champ Car had an uninterrupted run from 1983 through 2004. Well, everyone except nearby Sonoma Raceway. They have made it clear that they are not interested in having a competing race so close by. Sonoma is about an hour north of San Francisco, while Laguna Seca is in Monterey County – about an hour and a half south of San Francisco.

Longtime readers here know that I have always been perplexed why everyone talks about how beautiful Sonoma Raceway is, although when I watch it on television – it always looked like a dustbowl hosting a boring race. People that I know and trust have told me that I need to go to Sonoma to appreciate it. So a couple of months ago, Susan and I decided to take their advice. We bought plane tickets and made our hotel reservations – at a time when we had no idea that Sonoma may be going away.

I say all of that to say that I have no real feelings about Sonoma one way or the other, other than the fact that I’ve usually said bad things about their race.

I hate to rain on all the feel-good coming from the IndyCar camp right now, and I know I’m in the vast minority on this. But I’m thinking that I may be missing something here because I am not at all excited about returning to Laguna Seca – especially at the expense of losing a track that may not be that thrilling on television, but has been a good partner to IndyCar since they started running there in 2005.

I’m wondering what it is that had fans so giddy on social media last week and yesterday. What am I missing here? We all know about The Pass that took place in 1996. For those with short memories, Bryan Herta was driving for Bobby Rahal and was seemingly headed to his first career victory. He was being chased by Alex Zanardi, but Herta was holding him off. As they headed into “the corkscrew” area of the track on the final lap, Zanardi dive-bombed Herta – cutting across the dirt (dust), with Zanardi’s car bouncing nearly out of control. The operative word there was “nearly”. Somehow, Zanardi pulled off the risky move and ripped the win away from Herta. Twenty-two years later, it has become a signature move for Zanardi and Laguna Seca.

So that is one memorable highlight for Indy cars from Laguna Seca. Tell me another one. The only other moment that I can think of is at the Marlboro Challenge in 1991, when Rick Mears had a fuel pickup problem while leading, heading out of the final turn and getting passed by Michael Andretti.

In over twenty years of Indy car racing at Laguna Seca – those are the two standout moments for me. The rest is just a blur of parades surrounded by dust and hills, just like Sonoma – but on an even tighter track that is harder to pass on.

I’m thinking that fans are remembering The Pass and are thinking that singular moment is symbolic of the kind of action we can expect from Laguna Seca.

If Laguna Seca was simply an addition to the schedule, I would have no problem with it. But when we were hearing this as just a rumor, many IndyCar insiders were already saying that this was going to ruffle the feathers of the management at Sonoma Raceway, whose contract expires at the conclusion of this season. It did. Mark Miles knew this was going to infuriate Sonoma beforehand, but pushed for a deal anyway.

Reportedly, Laguna Seca is going to pay IndyCar an annual sanctioning fee of between $1.2 – 1.5 million, which is apparently substantially more than what Sonoma is currently paying IndyCar or willing to pay to renew the contract. Did Miles know that Sonoma would not come close to that amount, so he followed the money? I guess he figured if sponsors enjoy going to Sonoma, they’ll like Monterey just as much because they are both in the Bay Area. Since I’ve never been to either location (yet), I can’t speak to their similarities or differences.

There is an old saying that it’s better to choose the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know. Sonoma Raceway is a known quantity. Yes it’s produced some snoozers in the past, but what track hasn’t? It’s also not my idea of a great place to decide a championship, but the sponsors seem to think otherwise. They apparently love being wined and dined in wine country. I don’t recall hearing that sponsors loved going to Monterey when CART held their season finales out there.

I don’t pretend to know all of the details that made Mark Miles risk alienating a good partner like Sonoma, by signing a deal with Laguna Seca. At first, I suspected this might be a bargaining ploy to use as leverage with Sonoma. Now I’m convinced it was and Sonoma called their bluff.

I may be wrong, but I’m afraid that IndyCar may regret adding Laguna Seca to the schedule. Some say that they should have started the season at Laguna Seca and finished it with Sonoma – putting the two events half a year apart. I’m not even sure that would have worked because I’m not sure there are enough fans or corporate sponsors in the area with deep enough pockets to support two similar events as close to each other as these are. Yes it’s a very affluent area – but there are other sporting and non-sporting events out there begging for the corporate dollar along with support from fans.

The area is home to the San Francisco Forty-Niners, (for now) the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A’s, the Golden State Warriors, the San Jose Sharks and the Sacramento Kings not too far away. On the college athletic front, Cal and Stanford both call the Bay Area home. Sonoma currently hosts an IndyCar race as well as a NASCAR Cup race. With so many teams and events, the Bay Area is already spread pretty thin. Would they really support two IndyCar events per season? But given the announcement that Laguna Seca is now the season finale – I think it’s a moot point. I expect this September will be the last appearance for IndyCar at Sonoma Speedway.

Who knows? Maybe Laguna Seca will magically start producing signature moments on an annual basis. After all, it only took them fourteen races to produce The Pass in twenty-two years of racing there.

Based on the reaction I’ve seen on social media, I know not many – if any – agree with me on this. I’m prepared to receive my share of heat on my stance. Just keep it civil. But I do feel that IndyCar has not made the right move this time. I hope I’m wrong.

George Phillips

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24 Responses to “Two Nearby Tracks That Are Worlds Apart”

  1. George, I agree with you. Like you, I’ve not visited either track, but have watched several races on television. I can’t remember a one that kept me “on the edge of my seat.” I wished they would have raced Sonoma in the spring. If you watch any pre-season testing from Sonoma, the grass is green which makes for better television. Either way, I just wish Indycar would end the season in the Midwest.

  2. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George
    The reason I don’t agree with you is that every year I would watch Sonoma and all I would see is empty seats. Maybe the racing won’t be better but if the attendance is better then it is a good move.

  3. S0CSeven Says:

    My recollection is that the Corner 1 sand trap eats cars and if the drivers aren’t careful, gives you half of the race run under full course yellow.

  4. Jim Shaver Says:

    I was born in Central California and lived there for 61 years until I moved to the Indianapolis area. I started going to Laguna Seca several times a year in the mid seventies. I also made several trips to Sears Point (I’m old school) for both IndyCar and NASCAR. Both tracks have their charm but I’ll take Laguna Seca.

  5. George, you’re not wrong, but I wish we could leave both crap tracks off the schedule!

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

  6. BrandonWright77 Says:

    I’m pretty much with you too George, feels mostly like a push to me. That being said, while Sonoma may have been a “good partner” they really didn’t do IndyCar any favors with that boring race as the finale, talk about ending the season on a whimper and killing your momentum.

    Laguna is a wonderful track for certain cars, I’ve raced it virtually on the sim hundreds of times and with the right cars the racing can be fantastic and that’s why a lot of people love it. But I don’t think IndyCars are the right cars so I don’t think the racing will be all that great. However, it can’t be worse than the racing was at Sonoma so might as well try something different.

    And even though it’s legend, I’ve never been too impressed by “The Pass” considering how he blatantly cut the course. I’m not a “Track Boundaries Warrior” but that was a bit much.

  7. I am happy that the additions are 2 tracks from CART that everyone has wanted back, maybe there is hope for Cleveland again. But I agree, Laguna is interesting to watch but never great races. When the top few things I can remember there are, as mentioned, The Pass, Rick Mears running out and adding a few more Servia’s flip, Carpentier’s flip and Gonzalo passing away there, not really all that many great memories at all for the years CART raced there. No barn-burner races. But same is said for Mid Ohio and it has worked out ok.

    Bottom line, we do need new venues and not going back to the same old places that didn’t work out in the past (Homestead ring a bell?). But we also need some of these new races to be ovals. I am voting for a Dover return, maybe Richmond.

  8. This move leaves you feeling that there is more to the story. Somebody pushed hard for Laguna Seca.

    The question is why.

    • ecurie415 Says:

      Very easy to answer. The MacNeil family company put money into sponsoring the circuit. Laguna finally has some money to spend. There’s no way that Sonoma could offer $1.5 million. The take at Sonoma is about $1.5 million total, so no profit if you spend 100% of your revenue on the license.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    It looks to me like much of the story here is the sanctioning fee, and that Laguna Seca was willing to pay a notably higher one than Sonoma. I find it hard to blame Miles and Co. for following money, even at the risk of alienating a long time partner. Perhaps it is debatable whether the reward is worth the risk, but there is clearly a reward here.

    That there is considerable nostalgia for Laguna Seca over Sears Point is not surprising. A good chunk of the Indycar fanbase remembers a 20+ year run at the track. Whether the races were especially memorable or not is not as critical as the fact that most of the races at Laguna Seca were run when times were good for American open wheel racing (during CART’s so-called “heyday”).

    As for my personal opinion, this is a wash. I do not like seeing any race leave the schedule, though a replacement in essentially the same market area takes some sting away. I have always enjoyed the fact that the western part of the Laguna Seca circuit, when viewed from above, looks like the head of a parasaurolophus.

  10. SkipinSC Says:

    While I’m not crazy about either venue, I would welcome an opportunity to see Sonoma in the spring when it is GREEN. Neither place promises exciting racing, but at least it would be visually tasty.

    I am concerned that the series is getting far out of balance between road, street , and oval. Are we heading back to CCWS lite + Indy?

  11. Ron Ford Says:

    For those of you who have consistently complained through the years about Sonoma being “dusty”, if I remember my high school Spanish correctly, Laguna Seca means dry lake.

  12. I think it is a toss up between the two road courses. I was hoping for an oval as the final race of the season, so this is disappointing. My other gripe is the double points for the finale, which is stupid IMHO no matter where it is located.

    We do have seasons out here in the West, so expecting green hills in the summer is silly. (Great for growing wine grapes though).

  13. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’ve never been to Snorenoma, but I have been to Monterey and Carmel Bay area and it’s a beautiful place. I doubt all of those B2B types will be very disappointed. After all, they can eat dinner in Clint Eastwood’s restaurant and then put it on the expense account.

  14. For a sport that always seems to be on the brink financially, the conversation should end with “follow the money.” If the financials are accurate, IndyCar is doing the right thing.

  15. Yannick Says:

    So it has since become obvious that this was a contract year for Sonoma, and they got outbid by their geographically closest competitor who has only recently got new management with new enthusiasm. Also, it was mentioned on another IndyCar fan board that Sonoma’s title sponsor GoPro was not going to renew.

    I can only hope that the promoter of the new race at Laguna Seca still has got enough of a budget left to properly promote the race now that they have paid a higher sanctioning fee than Sonoma.

    And I can only hope that this sudden change of plans does not alienate Sonoma’s parent company SMI. In fact, I feel IndyCar should offer SMI a replacement race at another of their tracks. Here’s hoping Mark Miles and Jay Frye try that route. That would make another new addition to the IndyCar schedule, too, if possible. Would Kentucky Speedway work, even though it’s now got steeper banking than when IndyCars last raced there?

  16. In the late 90s, Laguna Seca Champ Car race was traditionally held the weekend after Labor Day

  17. BobF, i’m with you.

    “This move leaves you feeling that there is more to the story. Somebody pushed hard for Laguna Seca.”

  18. Gurney Eagle Says:

    Laguna Seca looks worse on TV than Sonoma. I don’t expect any improvement in the racing. I agree that it’s a wash at best.

  19. “You’ve got to finish the season on an oval. It’s a lot smarter than what we’re doing,” said A.J. Foyt on Wednesday night from his home in Houston where he’s recovering from back surgery.

    “IndyCar is known for oval racing, not road racing, and it’s still our best shows, and I can guarantee you my sponsor [ABC Supply] would rather have a good show on national television than some parade.”

    I knew there was a reason I liked A.J. Foyt.

  20. ecurie415 Says:

    You are spot on, George. Laguna will see a good crowd the first year, because of the newness. After that, it will sink back to reality. The racing will not improve, because it is not 1996, the cars are not the same, the racing isn’t the same, and it’s naive to expect the same result. The circuit has also changed a bit, too.

    Laguna is a great racing circuit for motorcycles, and terrific for sportscar racing where wheel-banging has less consequence. Open wheel racing suffers a bit. An IndyLights race with seven cars will be pretty dull around a track the size of Laguna. The last MRTI visit was incredibly boring (I went).

    I go to Sonoma and Laguna every year and have for many years. Mark Miles was interviewed by Marshall Pruett and he admitted that IC had not done a market survey for a Monterey race. This is purely on “feel.” This choice feels good for a lot of stakeholders with long memories. If you go to these circuits regularly, it’s hard to see where the crowds are. Is there a mass of IC fans who stay home rather than go to Sonoma? I don’t think so.

    You would think that Rahal and Penske and Ganassi would remember the sparse crowds for IMSA racing, which has been coming to Laguna Seca for years. You are correct about how many things there are to do in the Bay Area. How is it helpful to IndyCar to move the race away from most of the population (including the Sacramento area, which is very supportive of racing)?

    These are both circuits with a lot to offer. Your point about Sonoma’s long term support is very significant. No matter how you slice it, Laguna Seca essentially went out and found a new investor (the McNeil family, from Weather Tech), and then it probably overpaid to have this race. It will sell some extra tickets in the first year or so, if they advertise it. Sonoma spent a lot of money on ads and never moved the needle. Laguna does not need to make a profit because it is basically a charity group leasing land from the County. Sonoma is a private company on private property.

    But I gotta be honest, I don’t see a whole ton of folks spending 3 hours in their car each way to watch IndyCar in Laguna. At Sonoma, you have 7 million people within a 45 minute drive. Laguna feels good, especially if you’re a long-term fan, but it makes no sense for anything else.

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