How Sonoma Raceway Became the Motorsports Jewel in the Sonoma County Wine, Cuisine, and Tourism Crown

How Sonoma Raceway Became the Motorsports Jewel in the Sonoma County Wine, Cuisine, and Tourism Crown

Think of legendary corners in American racing and several instantly pop to mind. The fall-off-a-cliff Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. The sweepi

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Think of legendary corners in American racing and several instantly pop to mind. The fall-off-a-cliff Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. The sweeping Esses at Road Atlanta. The Carousel, Sonoma Raceway’s iconic series of left-hand turns leading to the track’s longest straightaway and the Turn 7 hairpin.

Which, oddly enough, no current NASCAR Cup driver has ever raced in a Cup car.

Until this weekend.

To celebrate Sonoma Raceway’s 50th anniversary, NASCAR will run the track’s full 12-turn, 2.5-mile road course circuit for the first time since 1997. (The race airs on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on FS1; it’s also Darrell Waltrip’s final race before he retires from the broadcast booth.)

Re-introducing The Carousel makes an already demanding course even more challenging, especially since most drivers feel they don’t benefit from driving a simulator for road courses. (As Jimmie Johnson says, “I’ve tried (the simulator) a few times and I’ve only made a couple laps and had to get out and look for a sick bag.”)

Fifty years in business is a huge accomplishment in itself, but especially so in the rapidly- sports and entertainment industry. 

All of which made it a great time to talk with Sonoma Raceway President and General Manager Steve Page. Before moving to Sonoma, Steve was a press secretary for Congressman Leon Panetta and a marketing and special events coordinator for the Oakland A’s.

So yeah: He knows a little about catering to a constantly shifting customer base, creating genuine experiences, engaging loyal customers while attracting new ones… in short, challenges familiar to every entrepreneur.

Your team faces a somewhat unique challenge: You control the venue, the infrastructure, etc… but not the actual “show.” 

The same thing was true when I was with the A’s. We work really hard to create a total experience… but still knowing that what happens on the track, or on the field, is totally beyond our control. 

If it’s not a great game, or a great race… hopefully the ancillary environment you create still leaves people with a good experience. And if it is a great race, so much the better. (Laughs.) 

Everyone in this business – as in any business — has to learn that you can only control what you can control. Even though the thing people are most focused on is the thing we have the least control over.

Which I would think means you naturally obsess over every little detail you can control.

Absolutely. When you can’t control everything, you absolutely need to excel at the things you can control. 

In our cases, that means we want people to leave feeling they had fun. That they were well fed. That they were well taken care of. That they experienced this beautiful site at the mouth of the Sonoma Valley. That they got a taste of the sport and the area… the Sonoma experience is unique in itself, and we do everything we can to accentuate that.

We’re almost maniacal about the things we can do to create the experience, create the environment, and make sure people have fun.

That’s the business we’re in.

Focusing on more than the racing also helps you promote and then provide a broader set of experiences. 

Trying to base the fan experience based solely on what happens in the competition itself will do nothing but frustrate you. And it’s a limited way to look at what people hope to get from their day at the track.

I once spent the fall in a market that I will not name. (Laughs.) I would hear this football team’s ads every week, all about how were going to thrash the competition… that was the sole theme of their advertising. 

And the team was horrible. They lost every game I was there… but on Monday morning they’d be touting how they were going to thrash next week’s opponent.

You don’t have credibility when you don’t have control. Create and promote the experience you can control. Work incredibly hard at that.

How has attracting fans changed over the years?

Fans have definitely changed in terms of the environment they expect. They experience events differently than in the past.

That’s why one of the things we’ve focused on is creating a number of different zones within the track, with different experiential elements, that are fun places to hang out.

The Carousel plays a role in that. When we re-introduced the carousel and put the full 2.5 mile circuit back in place… there was no reason to go out to this little “island” in the middle of the track in the past, but returning to the old configuration means you can stand out there, watch the cars come through the start-finish line, head into Turn 2, and watch them come barreling down into The Carousel. So we built a redwood shade structure, a picnic area, belly-up bars on the fence lines where you can watch the action, play games like giant Jenga… it’s a fun area for people to watch the race and hang out.

Many people no longer want to sit in one seat and watch the race from start to finish. 

That’s a problem with many road courses; you can only see one or two corners. It’s really fun to move around and see a race from different parts of the track and get different perspectives, but at most facilities that’s impossible to do.

Our track is unique in that its natural geography means it sits in the middle of a bowl. And when when we did the complete track remodel, we re-sculpted the landscape and made most of our seating amphitheater style, using the contours of the hillsides. 

That leaves us with the  best of both worlds: We preserved the ethos of sitting on a hillside to watch a natural terrain road course… but in Turn 9 you can see the cars throughout the entire length of a course. The ability to follow the action in that manner is definitely atypical. 

And we also take advantage of the fact that people like you do enjoy moving around and experiencing different things. We’ve created different areas for people to hang out with different characteristics, different food and beverage offerings, etc. We have a great shuttle system, and we recently introduced a program called Joyride, which is on-demand golf carts.

Like Uber for golf carts.

Exactly. (Laughs.) All of that lets you walk around, get a ride, get on the hill and look out at the valley at turn 9 and follow the car the length of the course… go to the Red Zone at turn 7 and sit in the shade and have something great to eat and drink…

Creating a broader experience, enhancing the experience… we’ve definitely adopted that approach over the years.

A second major change is how we promote and do outreach.

When I started here 28 years ago, we had an ad budget: You had so much for radio, for TV, for newspapers… and then you decided which stations, publications, etc.

Today that could not be more different. The tools available to segment and reach out in direct ways to your audience, to identify what a certain group is interested in, what buttons to push to attract their interest…

I stand back and let really talented people take care of that for us. They explain it to me and I nod my head and try to look wise. (Laughs.) The details of digital and social media marketing… I understand conceptually, but we would be poorly served if I tried to micro-manage them. (Laughs.)

Speaking of marketing, bringing back The Carousel for NASCAR isn’t a promotional gimmick. It’s an iconic part of the track, genuine to who you are. And maybe should have been done long ago.

The story behind shortening the course goes back to when we were acquired by Speedway Motorsports in 1996. Humpy Wheeler came here and said, “You oughta connect that (section of the track) and you’ll have a better racetrack.”

Since he was my new boss, I said, “Yes sir. Great idea!” (Laughs.) 

We tweaked it over the course of a couple of years. The results was good racing, that fans saw the cars come around the track more frequently… but ultimately The Carousel is one of the iconic corners in racing. So we had ongoing and increasingly more frequent discussions about bringing it back. Kevin Harvick reached out to Marcus Smith, our CEO. Other people were pushing for it, too.

SO we sat down to talk about our 50th anniversay year and said, “What better time?”

The feedback has been fantastic. As I said, it gave us the opportunity to create a new fan hangout area. And none of the current drivers in the field have ever competed on the full course in a Cup car. It will be a brand new experience, one some will be more comfortable with than others. (Laughs.)

So you’re right. It’s not a gimmick. It’s a great section of the track, one that has been here for decades.

What’s interesting about running the track is that events like the NASCAR are in a way your Christmas… but the track is almost constantly in use.

This year the track will be in use 340 days. And many of those days involve 3 or 4 events.  What we’re most widely known for is large spectator events, but those provide tremendous traction for daily activities. We have lots of amateur racing, traditional weekends for amateurs, weekend racers and club racers…. events like the recent GT World Challenge with lots of high-end manufacturers…

And we run a number of high-performance corporate driving programs that are extremely popular.

I’ll take driving a racetrack over playing golf any day.

Many corporate groups like to add an experiential activity to a meeting, accenting what they’re doing by letting people driver or be passengers. For many people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And of course it doesn’t hurt that we can combine whatever activity we offer with the backdrop of one of the world’s top destination attractions, Sonoma wine country. 

But one of the coolest events we’ve done recently is the Shell Eco Marathon, a competition among college and high school students from North, South, and Central America. There were 1,000 students who designed and built their own cars and competed to see who could achieve the highest fuel efficiency. The winning team in the internal combustion category achieved over 1,500 miles per gallon.

The kids were fantastic. They were so enthusiastic.

Whenever green, high performance automotive technology — the future of mobility — is showcased, we want our track to be the place where it happens. 

Speaking of your track being “where it happens,” a couple of years ago you decided to open up the track as a shelter after the wildfires: Food, shelter, etc.

It was an easy decision, one we got a lot of attention for since we’re a high-profile business… but we were just one small part of a huge effort. People throughout northern California reacted in wonderful ways after the disaster. We were just one of many.

So no, it wasn’t a hard decision. We already have a campground. We had vendors like United Site Services show up after one phone call with water, toilets, pumping services… the vendors we work with turned out in droves. 

We see ourselves as an organic part of the community. If the community around us needs help, we help. If the community around us thrives, we thrive. That’s part of the DNA of the organization, and is something we are proud of.

Of our 5 VPs, 4 have been here an average of 22 years, and fifth I hired in 1982 when I was with the A’s.

The upside to tenure is it helps you build a great team of supportive people. The downside to tenure is that you might do something simply because that’s the way you’ve always done it.  Fortunately, we have terrific young people spread throughout the organization who bring new approaches to new challenges.

And that’s why what I’m most proud of… is the people I get to work with every day.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

This article is from Inc.com

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