Friday, November 2, 2012

A note from the Dept. of Modest Proposals: I've got a great new name for Sears Point. It's 'Sears Point'.

Early last Spring, Infineon Technologies AG announced that it would not renew it's naming-rights sponsorship of the race track formerly known as Infineon Raceway.

The deal expired in May, so this past season's AMA race was held at 'Infineon Raceway' but the track originally known as 'Sears Point' is now going by the bland name 'Sonoma Raceway'. Of course, the track's owners would love to rename it again, subject to finding another sponsor.

I guess at one time, Infineon Technologies thought of itself as a big-time sponsor.  While the returns on a naming-rights sponsorship are influenced by many factors, it's unlikely that Infineon really justified the investment that it made here.
Buying naming rights is a funny business. Generally, the clients I'd recommend it to are ones that have a consumer brand, not companies that sell business-to-business like Infineon. It makes strategic sense when the venue's located in a city where the brand has real roots. It's easier when the facility is new and doesn't carry the baggage of a previous name. So calling Kansas City's new multi-purpose arena the Sprint Center is reasonable. If you buy the naming rights to an arena or a stadium with existing heritage,  you're going to struggle to get people to start using the new name. But, if it's a venue that is used 200 days a year, eventually people will associate it with your brand.

Infineon's an electronics manufacturer based in Milpitas, near San Jose. So the Sonoma track was kind of a 'home track' for them. Since the auto industry is one of the company's big customer bases, a track with a NASCAR race probably appealed to them. (Sears Point has a storied auto racing history, having hosted Indy cars and the NHRA, too.) But Infineon's stock  dropped by about 50% over the ten-year period that the track was known as 'Infineon Raceway'. I guess the company just figured it didn't make sense to continue the sponsorship, which I've heard cost a few million bucks a year.

Despite all that money, a lot of people kept thinking of it as Sears Point anyway. It was only in the news a few times a year, the track and its signage are off the beaten path (thus minimizing incidental exposure to the Infineon Raceway name). And after all,they'd been racing there for 45 years so there was a lot of built-up 'Sears Point' heritage.

I've never stopped calling it Sears Point or just 'Sears' for short. No one's ever asked me what I meant, or corrected me. That's why I was mildly surprised when the track called itself 'Sonoma Raceway' after Infineon's deal lapsed.

Why create a third name? I suppose the owners' rationale is that they don't want to reinforce the original Sears Point name again, since they hope to create a track identity under the next sponsor's brand. Or, maybe they worried that people would think it was sponsored by Sears, the department store chain. (The name actually comes from a geographic feature.) In any case, denying Sears Points' heritage makes the track less, not more, desirable to a potential sponsor. They should have gone back to the old name. If they find a new sponsor, they can call it 'Sponsorname Raceway at Sears Point'.

I suppose I'd better say 'when' not if they get a new sponsor. It's hard for me to imagine the track continuing in a business-as-usual way, with a multimillion-dollar hole in the annual budget. It's already been shut down at least once -- in about 1970 -- and has changed ownership something like nine times. In the last few years the Bay Area's storied AFM home club and great local organizations like Zoom Zoom Track Days have had their track opportunities diversified as new tracks have opened -- Buttonwillow, Thunderhill, Reno-Fernley. So it's not as if they don't have other places to race. But it would be a tragedy if real estate developers got their hands on Sears Point.

Anyone who's raced Sears Point knows how much the character of the track's defined by it's great elevation changes. That topography was not lost on the organizers of AMA motocross races, either. Here's a great clip of Brad Lackey and Bob Hannah battling in the 1977 Trans-AMA series race held on the hills above the track.

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