Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to explain their career path and how they reached their current position. Up this week: Steve Page, president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway. This interview was recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
Did you grow up around here? Did you grow up interested in racing or anything like that?
I did not. I grew up in Monterey, which is about 150 miles south of here. My father was an attorney on the Monterey Peninsula. And the only experience I had with motor racing before the day I interviewed for this job was I had been to Laguna Seca when I was very young to see a race. It was the Can-Am Series with Jim Hall and Mark Donohue. I didn’t know what I was seeing.
Then in high school, they used to hire high school kids to park cars there. That was my entire motorsports universe. I’d never been to a NASCAR race until I came here. I didn’t follow the sport, didn’t really know anything about it.
When you were growing up, what did you have aspirations of doing?
I bounced all over the place. My first real sporting event was when I was about seven years old. My dad took me to a Giants game at Candlestick Park, and Willie McCovey hit a three-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Pirates, and it pretty much set the hook on me. I grew up as a diehard Giants fan, and it became quickly evident when I played my one year of Little League that I was probably a better candidate for the front office. The only sport I actually played competitively was tennis; I was on the tennis team in high school.
But I’m not sure I had a specific career aspiration. I always had a certain attraction to events. There was a lot of rock music that happened on the Monterey Peninsula — the Monterey Pop Festival, I saw Bob Dylan for the first time when I was about 10 years old and used to get jobs ushering and working rock concerts at the fairgrounds. I think there was always a certain attraction to event activities, the event business.
But my career has just been a whole succession of happy accidents. If someone had told me I would be running a motor racing facility back when I was in high school or even in college, I would have told you they were nuts.
I graduated high school, I started off in college down in Santa Barbara — and had a great time. Got a letter from my dad at the end of my sophomore year that said, “If this is your idea of going to college, then you’re more than welcome to keep doing it, but you’re gonna pay for it yourself from now on.”
So you were having too good of a time.
I was having a wonderful time. But I was not on a good trajectory academically. So I used that as an excuse to drop out of school for almost two years.
Did a lot of traveling, eliminated a lot of potential career choices. I spent six months selling women’s shoes, I sold Buicks, I worked as a gardener. I traveled across the country with a friend in a van. We spent about three months getting across the country through the Southwest and the South and up the East Coast. He was one of my college buddies, and then he went back to go to school. I wasn’t ready to give up the road, so I hitchhiked up to Maine because I was running out of money and it was the potato harvest in northern Maine. I worked the potato harvest, and then hitchhiked back to California.
Wow! Hitchhiked all the way?
Maine to California. And the last guy that picked me up — it was right around Halloween — was driving a truck full of Christmas trees and hired me to drive Christmas trees back and forth from Oregon back to San Francisco, and I lived in a trailer on a Christmas tree lot and sold Christmas trees.
And at that point I had actually somehow managed — I don’t know how with the grades I had — to get accepted to (Cal) Berkeley and transferred there. So I spent a couple quarters at Berkeley, then went and spent the summer traveling in Europe. I went back (to the U.S.) in the fall of ’76.
My family had always been involved in politics, Democratic politics, and a local attorney and someone who was very well known, Leon Panetta, was running for Congress for his first time. I did some work on his campaign. He got elected and took office in January. So I was a couple quarters from graduating, but went to do a three-month internship with Leon’s office right as he was taking office.
As the internship was winding up, the guy who was our press secretary got accepted to go get his Master’s at Columbia Journalism School, so the job opened up and I was like, “What the heck?” I had taken one journalism class in college; I was just phenomenally unqualified for the job. Somehow being in the right place in the right time, I ended up in that job and spent three years on Capitol Hill as Leon’s press secretary.
So what was being a press secretary on Capitol Hill like? I can’t even imagine the demands you had to deal with.
It was a very stimulating environment. It was a much better, more collegial environment in D.C. — this was in the late 70s — than it is now.
People would actually work together?
Yeah, and Leon was a guy everybody loved. We were Democrats, and when you’re on the staff, you’re all in. But Leon had some of his best friends and would go out with dinner and play basketball with right-wing Republicans. At the staff level, you’re like, “How could you hang out with those guys?” But Leon was just one of these guys who crossed party lines. Everybody loved him. Bright, funny, articulate, swears like a sailor — he still does — and just had this warm personality people gravitated to. So he was a freshman and I was there in his second term, but just one of the really highly respected people in that world and continued to be through his career.
I was in my early 20s; I think I was 22 when I got the job. It was a super stimulating environment. D.C., Capitol Hill, you work late nights, work long hours — but at the point in my life, you could do that. You went out and partied hard at night and you rolled back in the next day and you did it again.
So I did that for three years and finally realized I was two quarters away from a college degree, and really ought to go and finish it up. And at that point, after three years on Capitol Hill, I realized that was not the world I wanted to spend my career in. So I moved back to California, finished up my last couple quarters at Cal. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but I had a friend in the real estate business, so I got my license and kind of worked with him for six months at a time when the real estate interest rates were about 22 percent. So there was not a lot of real estate changing hands. I realized that just in order to feed myself I had to get a night job as a bartender. So I could see real estate was also not going to be my future.
So you’re just crossing things off the list, going through and eliminating careers.
That was a long list, including everything I did in high school in restaurants and washing dishes. I sold Fuller brushes door to door in high school. If I actually filled out a full resume, it would take a pretty big piece of paper.
You did even bartending, you said?
I bartended in college and supplemented the money I wasn’t making in real estate. I worked in a bar in San Francisco.
In October, right at the end of baseball season, Charlie Finley sold the A’s to the Haas family, the family that owns Levi Strauss. And over the years, I had sent letters, resumes to the Giants. At a certain point, my dream job was to work for the San Francisco Giants. I don’t know if I kept all the rejection notices, but they were not interested.
But the Haas family bought the A’s. Finley had run the organization into the ground. I think their attendance in 1980 was 350,000 for the season. Team was horrible. But they had this young rookie, Rickey Henderson, and they had a lot of good pitchers and Billy Martin was the manager.
So I went and showed up with my resume at the Oakland A’s offices, it happened to be there the day their new VP of the business side of the operations, Andy Dolich, was waking in the door with his briefcase and his suitcase, having moved there from the East Coast to take over the job. So I found out he was the guy and bugged him. I drove him crazy.
In person, on the phone, any way I could. And they finally hired me to sell season tickets door to door. At the time there was all this excitement about the team. They had a total of 75 season ticket accounts. You could actually sell someone a season ticket in the first row over the dugout.
So a bunch of us went out and did that and a few of us got hired full time. I ended up spending 11 absolutely wonderful years in that organization, moving up (the ladder). I started off running the season and group ticket sales operation, moved into special events, ran the All Star game in ’87 — I just did a lot of community-oriented stuff in Oakland and worked for probably the most amazing owners you could ever hope to have in the sports franchise. They were totally committed to the community, saw themselves as the stewards of the community asset; they made their fortune selling Levi Strauss blue jeans, and this was something that they did.
And they ultimately sold it for more than they bought it for, but their first focus was, “How can we use this as a resource to elevate the community?” It was just such an inspirational group of people to work for. Walter Haas is just probably one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met. And so I was there for 11 years, 11 great years.
Where you there for the earthquake (in 1989)?
I was there.
I was there as well. (Editor’s note: You can read about my earthquake experience and see pictures here)
Well there’s a picture on the wall we can talk about. Although there’s an interesting story behind that. Since this is not a visual medium, that is a six-foot long picture of the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants lined up on the baselines for the player introductions for Game 3 of the World Series. A friend of mine had that and I got it replicated and put up on the wall.
And everyone that comes in looks at the pictures, say, “OK, I was right there when the earthquake hit” or “I was over here.” And about six years ago, (former A’s manager) Tony La Russa was our grand marshal, and I had him in here on Sunday morning before we went down for the pre-race ceremony. I said, “Tony, look at that picture, that’s from the earthquake game.” And he says, “No it’s not.” I said, “What are you talking about? Look, Game 3, World Series.” He said, “We never made it out for player introductions before the earthquake — that’s 10 days later when we played Game 3.” I said, “Tony, you just screwed up a story I’ve been telling for 10 years.”
Anyway, I was there for all three World Series — ’88, ’89, ’90. Those teams were amazing. We were the center of the universe. It was such an incredible experience to go through.
Yeah, I remember those teams well. Those were my teams growing up. I was 8, 9, 10 years old at that time. I remember I cried when the Dodgers, I think it was in ’88, when Kirk Gibson hit that home run.
I was sitting right there over the right field bullpen watching Jose Canseco not even move his feet, just craning his neck to watch it go over. It was very mixed emotions because it was heartbreaking because we had that game in the bag. I mean, Canseco hit that grand slam in the first inning, we were up 4-0, Stew (Dave Stewart) was pitching a beautiful game.
I sat there saying, “We’re losing this game, but I’m now seeing what will be one of the great moments in the history of sports.” And unfortunately I have to watch it over and over again, because I don’t know how many times a year it shows up back on TV. Gibson pumping his arm as he goes around. The little fat guy (Tommy Lasorda) running out of the dugout with his arms in the air. I still have nightmares about that.
So how in the world do you go from part of the whole Bash Brothers Era to getting involved in racing?
Well, another right place, right time situation. I was with the A’s for 11 years. I had sort of reached a point where there wasn’t a next move for me in the organization. I had a family at that point, needed to figure out where to advance my career and it wasn’t going to be there.
I was recruited, interviewing, spent the better part of two years at different places around the country looking at different jobs. I actually interviewed with George Bush when he was the owner of the Texas Rangers. They didn’t hire me, so I didn’t vote for him.
But Cleveland, Long Island — a long list of different organizations. But I always figured team sports was what I knew, sso I figured that’s where I would stay.
One day Andy Dolich, who was my boss, said, “I just got a call from this guy who owns a racetrack up in Sonoma — Sears Point Raceway — and they’re looking for a president.” And my first reaction was, “I don’t know anything about car racing.” And my second reaction was, “Wow, Sonoma.”
We actually had friends in Sonoma and spent a lot of time up here. And I always thought, “Well, this is some place that would be great to live when when I retire. But there’s clearly not a job in professional sports that would allow us to live here.” And so I said, “Maybe I need to listen to this bell that’s going off in my head.”
I came up and saw this place in the state that it was in at the time — which was very, very rough. It was a really run-down facility. Readers cannot see that picture (on the wall showing how Sonoma used to look), but I keep that there to remind myself of what this place looked like when I came to work here — no infrastructure, run-down, a few metal buildings. It was just a really terrific strip of asphalt that was fun to drive on and nothing else.
And so the owner at the time assured me he had plans to invest a lot of money and turn it into something. I thought, “I don’t know if I’ll like the job, but living in Sonoma, raising my family there, it’s worth a shot.” So I signed on, I came here in the fall of 1991.
1991! You’ve been here that long? Wow.
Yes. But as it turned out, I didn’t have a good relationship with the owner at the time. He did not have the money to invest in the facilities, so it just became a real dead end. We weren’t making improvements, it was just not turning into what it was described to me to be. And I was starting to look around at other opportunities when all of a sudden, Mr. Bruton Smith steps in, buys the track and one of the best of the days of my life is when Speedway Motorsports bought this facility. It was at a time when there was a big wave of consolidation in the industry, and Bruton was someone who believed in building the premier facilities in the sport.
So I was given the immediate mission to turn this place into something special. Of course, this being Northern California, we had to spend four years in the environmental process to get the permission to remodel an existing racetrack. But once we got those entitlements in the year 2000, we went out and we spent over $100 million of Bruton’s money to turn this into what you see out the window now. And it’s probably one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever been involved in.
Wow. No wonder you like to sit in here and look out at it.
We have a lot of people on the staff who have been here through for nearly two decades and went through that process. It is something that, when you consider that little farmhouse down by the entrance, which is where we used to work, that and a couple of double-wide trailers where the PR and the marketing department worked, it has been a pretty dramatic change. It’s something we all take a great deal of pride in.
I always ask people about career path for others who would like to follow. It sounds like your career path would be quite difficult to replicate. But I’m sure you do get people all the time who do ask you, “Hey, I’d love to get involved in racing on the track side of things.” If somebody’s reading this, how would you recommend they go about getting a start these days?
You’ve got to be persistent. Probably the most important thing is to be open to opportunities that don’t look like exactly what you were looking for, because that’s kind of where I’ve ended up along the way. You’re not going to find your dream job the first job you walk into.
Talk to lots of people, and everybody you talk to, ask them to give you three names of other people you can talk to. Build a range of contacts of people in the industry.
And don’t go to people asking for a job, go to people and ask them how they got in their job. Develop relationships. You never know who you’re going to hit it off with, who you’re going to impress. And you might click with someone who doesn’t have something available today, but three months from now they might, or they might have a friend who does.
Build a network, so that when that oddball opportunity pops out of nowhere, you are exposed to it. And be flexible. Like I said, I’d never been to a NASCAR race when this job came up and I said, “Well, maybe I can figure it out.” So I did.
That’s fantastic advice, actually. Thanks for sharing that.
You just have to expand your vision as to what an opportunity can turn into, because frequently what it is when you get there may not be what it can become, or it may open other doors along the way.