Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood: Gentlemen, start your engines

Fresh off the announcement that the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, will be hosting a road racing series this summer, I summoned up an interview that I’d conducted last month with Rick Sutton, GaleForce Sports Marketing’s chief operating officer and Sea Otter race organizer, regarding the future of motorsports venues in North American bicycle racing. Pieces of the interview made it into my VeloNews story on the Sonoma NORBA National in issue 10 (”Work in Progress: Solid infrastructure not enough to draw crowds to NORBA National at Sonoma speedway”), but I present it to you here in

By Neal Rogers

Fresh off the announcement that the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, will be hosting a road racing series this summer, I summoned up an interview that I’d conducted last month with Rick Sutton, GaleForce Sports Marketing’s chief operating officer and Sea Otter race organizer, regarding the future of motorsports venues in North American bicycle racing.

Pieces of the interview made it into my VeloNews story on the Sonoma NORBA National in issue 10 (”Work in Progress: Solid infrastructure not enough to draw crowds to NORBA National at Sonoma speedway”), but I present it to you here in its entirety.

There were few spectators in Sonoma, as Bay Area weekend enthusiasts were split between a 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain-bike event, held at Laguna Seca, and the Bay to Breakers, an annual event where as many as 100,000 participants run through the streets of San Francisco. Still, Sutton remained optimistic about his new event in Sonoma, and with the announcement of the Infineon Raceway Summer Cycling Series, it appears those at the raceway remain so as well.

But first, the news: Beginning in August, the Infineon Raceway Summer Cycling Series will give cyclists six chances over two months to race the same course usually reserved for NASCAR Nextel Cup stock cars. This marks the first cycling series offered in the 36-year history of the facility.

The series, which will be open to beginners as well as experts, will feature three dates for competitive racing (August 19 and 26, and September 16), as well as three practice dates (August 5 and 12 and September 9). Racing will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., with gates opening at 4:30 p.m.

Cyclists will compete on the same 12-turn, 2.52-mile road course that is used by NASCAR, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) and the American Le Mans Series, among others. If the program is a success, there are plans to expand the schedule for 2005, and beyond.

“The Bay Area is such a hotbed for bicycle enthusiasts, but there are so few stretches of quality pavement where cyclists can ride without mingling with car traffic. I expect this to be a terrific new use for our facility,” said Steve Page, president and general manager at Infineon Raceway.

There will be five racing categories. Cost is $20 per rider for competition weeks, and $5 per vehicle for parking on practice weeks. Spectators will be admitted free.

“The cycling community has needed a site to ride and train on, and Infineon Raceway makes perfect sense,” said Michael Sebastiani, race director for the Infineon series. “It’s a unique opportunity for all levels of riders to ride in a safe and supportive location. Plus, how incredible is it to ride the same track as NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon?”

For more information on the Infineon Raceway Summer Cycling Series, please e-mail mks@kostermotorsports.com.

In addition to the cycling series, Infineon Raceway is also pleased to announce the formation of the Infineon Raceway Cycling Team, an active club of amateur bicycle racers based in the wine country.

Originally founded in 1990 as Napa Valley Velo, the club has pursued a mission of bringing together local bike racers, organizing race events, and sponsoring up-and-coming junior athletes. Team alumni have graduated to the professional ranks for major teams such as Mercury Pro Cycling and the U.S. Postal Service.

The Infineon team includes 30 racers and supporting members, with representation in all age and ability categories, participating in road races, criteriums, cyclo-cross and mountain bike races. Riders include Nick Agate, 18, who recently won the overall season individual championship in the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Series, and is currently being scouted by the DEVO mountain bike pro-development team.

Among the veterans on the roster is Jeff Caton, 38, who competes at the national level in several disciplines, including road cycling, mountain biking, and cyclo-cross, earning a podium spot at the cyclo-cross national championships in Kansas City. For more information on Infineon Raceway Cycling see the team’s website at www.napavalleyvelo.org.

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Now, on to the interview with Rick Sutton, conducted at the Infineon Raceway’s media center.

VeloNews: Is it true that you’re looking into creating more of these road and mountain bike weekend events at motor-sports raceways across the country?

Rick Sutton: I think the model that is at Laguna Seca, and also Infineon Raceway, is a really good model for where you can find success in North America. It’s not meant to be every weekend, you know, like 30 weeks of motor-sports venues, but I think that there are some unique venues that really lend themselves to this type of an event. All of them have their pluses and minuses, but I do think this is something that could be duplicated around the country.

We expect to see twice as many people next year. We count the number of events entered, and obviously some athletes enter more than one event, but our goal was to get 2000 events entered, and at [the end of Saturday] we were at about 1850. With our crit and short-track walkup we might hit our numbers. We’re at 9300 events entered at Sea Otter. It was important to plant a stake in the ground. Working with Infineon was great, because there’s a lot of infrastructure here. Not only are the buildings in place, as opposed to our media tent at Sea Otter, but they’ve got like 100 people that are here that allow us to focus on the athletes and the competitive elements. Not that we don’t at Sea Otter, but we’ve got a great deal of help here.

Infineon has done great publicity and TV, but what I’ve learned from this is that unless it’s Lance [Armstrong], it’s really word of mouth that builds this sport. We’ve got $100,000 worth of promotion on 107.7FM; we did a 12-page insert in the Marin Independent Journal, the big local paper. We were on TV in Sacramento; we were on TV in San Francisco, major publicity. I don’t mean to say those things didn’t work, but it’s clear to me know after having the backing of a publicly traded company behind us to get this thing launched [Infineon is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina], I’ve found that word of mouth is everything. If you look at the growth of the Sea Otter, we don’t want to wait around 15 years for this event to get to that size. Our intention is to get it that big. If we can do it in three to five years instead of 15, that would be a home run for us.

VN: After all these years putting on Sea Otter, why did you decide to branch out to Infineon this year?

RS: It’s an example of hard work meets some luck. The people that own this facility approached us. There aren’t a lot of facilities that have the topography and course designs that can really accentuate mountain biking and road cycling. There are a lot of 2.5-mile ovals. We’re very lucky to have Laguna Seca and have this venue. I think they’re absolutely ideal. For example, there wasn’t a big crowd watching the road race [at Infineon], but talking to the athletes they think this course is just wonderful, just epic. All smiles. I almost look at ourselves as gold miners. We keep putting the pan in the water, and I think this is another nugget.

VN: Why is the first-year event at Infineon a NORBA National event, while Sea Otter is not?

RS: What you’re able to do with a first-year event … you get into some history with corporate sponsors and whatnot. Here we had a blank canvas, so we could accept NORBA with its sponsors, and build around them.… Sea Otter grew from a grassroots event with some very solid support from companies like SRAM, and given that Shimano is a USA Cycling sponsor.… I believe that in a perfect environment, that the best races in the nation should be on the national calendar. Often times that’s not possible, given the necessities of corporate involvement. You’ve got to have a situation where you start with a pretty clean canvas.

VN: What is planned for Infineon next year?

RS:If I were to be optimistic, I think we can double it. I think people were really happy they’re here.

VN: Will it be scheduled for the same time of year?

RS: I think it would be neat to see how the decisions are made. A venue like this can sell track time for $5000-10,000 a day. So you have to look at their schedule, to see that an event like this doesn’t conflict with their motor-sports calendar. Then you have to look at things like the area, and the region, and when are amateur athletes going to be most likely to be excited to do an event like this. I really believe strongly in amateur races, whether it’s road or mountain. When is it best for [photographer] Mark Dawson to shoot up here? In September, when it’s brown, or in May, when it’s green? We’ll move around the calendar a little, I know next year we’ll be on the weekend after this, so we don’t conflict with Bay to Breakers, but we will conflict with a mountain-bike cross-country World Cup. So we’ll have the gravity guys here, but I’m not sure if we’ll have the cross-country guys here as well. But I do hope we’ll get the road events on the NRC.

VN: Weren’t you saying something earlier about a downhill course for next year?

RS: I’d like to turn [the hill across from the grandstand] into a stadium downhill. The land belongs to Infineon. What we’ve got is Infineon Raceway owns 1500-2000 acres of rolling green pastureland. They have to apply for special-use permits to use that land for things other than grazing cattle and whatnot. We have to go to the county and apply in order to build the courses. We started the process a few months ago in hopes of getting the permits approved by the board of supervisors for this year, but the paperwork has been done for next year, and we’re hopeful we’ll get quite a bit more land.