Should the Verizon IndyCar Series: A: stick with Sonoma Raceway as its lone Bay Area circuit, B: consider a switch to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca a few hours south, or C: try and hold two road course events in Northern California next year?
Those are the three scenarios currently being debated as the open-wheel series puts the finishing touches on the 2019 calendar. For those who love picturesque venues with amazing food, wine, and great corporate getaway possibilities for all the sponsors in the paddock, the easy answer might be C.
But, and there’s always a but in situations like this, it might not be a slam dunk for IndyCar to double its annual presence above and below Silicon Valley. Not without destabilizing itself — and both tracks — if Laguna and Sonoma receive the green light.
The most obvious concern involves diluting attendance by hosting two Bay Area IndyCar events. Sonoma, despite strong efforts to promote its IndyCar race, has not been burdened with an excessive number of fans. Interest was high when the modern IndyCar Series first appeared at the intersection of Hwy 37 and 121 in 2005, and with Danica Patrick and a few other stars at peak power, ticket sales were encouraging.
Numbers have long since settled at whatever they’ve been in recent years, and while small upticks in growth have been reported, big stretches of empty seating atop Turn 2, down through the Esses, and overlooking the pits remain hard to ignore.
And if Sonoma’s non-NASCAR crowds have been light, Laguna’s non-FIM Superbike masses have been even smaller.
Sadly, turnout for established road racing properties like IMSA and the Pirelli World Challenge series at the Monterey County-owned property have been tiny. Even at a grand event like the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, foot traffic is heavy on Saturday — the day before the Pebble Beach Concours, but far from busy on Thursday, Friday, or Sunday.
With both tracks, the struggles to put a meaningful audience in front of open-wheel and sports car series that draw huge numbers elsewhere — Road America, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Lime Rock and VIR, for example — should be a cause for alarm.
As someone who’s fortunate to have Laguna and Sonoma as home tracks, crowd size has been the only negative to report on a regular basis. While it’s easy to blame the respective series and tracks, it’s more likely a result of having too few fans in the region to support open-wheel and sports car races. NASCAR’s also seen a consistent decline, which speaks to shifting interests in the Bay Area.
In what was once a hotbed for road racing, the sport’s footprint, while still visible, has been shrinking. Where I’m fully convinced Road America could host two IndyCar races each year and pack the house on both occasions, I’d dream of seeing Laguna or Sonoma even half full for one open-wheel or sports car event. Different places, different responses to the products being offered.
Having listened to the local radio ads, watched TV commercials, and seen all manner of online advertising for the aforementioned IndyCar and sports car events, it’s possible those series are actually capturing a high percentage of fans who are interested in what they’re offering. As much as I’d like to believe there’s a great untapped audience to grab, or a large contingent of lapsed fans waiting to fall in love with road racing again, I just haven’t seen evidence of it locally.
It makes picking A or B — one venue or the other — a worthy candidate in the battle of Bay Area IndyCar venues. Especially at a point in time where the series and ISM Raceway in Phoenix parted ways after dismal attendance and financial losses brought an end to the experiment.
If we ignore crowd size, Sonoma is where IndyCar’s teams — and the series itself — bring VIPs to show gratitude and, in some cases, finalize business deals for the following year. After the Indy 500 (and maybe Long Beach), Sonoma is where the love is returned to those who make IndyCar’s corporate engine sing.