Northern California’s Sonoma Raceway announced a bizarrely draconian new media policy this week demanding that anybody who takes pictures at the track needed to send those pictures, all of them, to the track’s media department so it could “use your photos for promotion and marketing opportunities without photo credit.” Once that started circulating around social media, outcries against it were loud and unified. It seems the track organizers are already backing off, but it still feels like a pointless and grossly punitive move against amateur and aspiring race photographers in particular.

The policy change was communicated with a letter which opens with the greeting “Dear Valued Photographer”, which seems nice until you read the new policies. In fact, it shows that Sonoma Raceway does anything but value photographers.

Mike Burch, Chief Strategy Officer of Speedway Motorsports (the company that manages Sonoma Raceway) expressed concerns with the track’s new policy. “This letter doesn’t reflect our intentions,” Burch said in an email to Marketing Director for the Jackson Automotive Group and motorsport photographer Dakota Snow, which Dakota posted on Twitter. Either that was a backpedal after seeing an overwhelmingly negative response, or that company needs to dial in its internal comms a little more before sending out letters.

The original letter, shown above, stipulates a lot of suffocating and annoying rules, but it’s most concerning because of one specific thing: Sonoma Raceway takes full ownership of all photos taken at the track by credentialed media. In my opinion, this amounts to little more than theft.

I started as a random sixteen-year-old kid shooting grassroots motorsports before I ever thought I could become a professional writer. It was cheap, accessible, and fun to do on weekends, and it gave me things to blog about. I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t just show up and shoot some drifting at various tracks in SoCal. Now, for some reason, Sonoma Raceway has decided to put amateur photographers in jeopardy with its frankly ridiculous new policies. To make matters worse, this announcement and change comes during a global pandemic in which a large portion of freelancers and media personnel have struggled to make ends meet.

If the goal was to drive away photographers from the track, Sonoma got its wish. The social media backlash has been loud and clear. Commenters have flooded the @racesonoma Instagram page with comments asking who took the photos and generally calling the track out for this conduct. I still follow a lot of my old drift friends, along with a few industry professionals, and they are all calling the track out directly for their policy, with some even blaming Kevin Kern directly.

The unpopularity of this decision is unsurprising. Grassroots photography democratizes digital media by opening opportunities up to everybody who has a camera and some initiative. I understand the need to vet talent to make sure trackside safety is adequate, but this is anything but that. This is giving me “we’ll pay you in exposure” vibes. There may be hope yet, however.

We received an email back from Jeff Motley, VP of Communications for Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway. He sent us the updated guidelines that Kevin Kern sent us and commented, “these guidelines only apply to freelance photographers who are not on an assignment of any kind and also does not apply to any national or regional events. This only applies to Wednesday night drags and drifting.”

Car Bibles reached out to Sonoma’s Manager of Digital Marketing and Social Media Kevin Kern for clarification and confirmation of the new policies. He affirmed their validity and we obtained a PDF version of what we saw in the original photos, with some modifications. Sonoma clarified that their position on photo ownership only applies to events hosted by the track like drag nights and drifting, while editorial and nationally sanctioned race series’ get exemptions. 

This still isn’t very helpful or constructive. It’s gatekeeping something that should be free and accessible. It’s profiting off of people who are there to create. You could argue that Sonoma is trying to thin the media herd for safety, but the cutthroat photo policies and $100 fine for not returning a $5 media vest make this feel like a smash-and-grab. 

Sonoma expects photographers who fall under these policies to submit all of their photos, non-watermarked, within 72 hours of the event completion. They will also take the extra energy and effort to even cross-check your photos against previous events and presumably social media to make sure none slipped through the net. If photographers fail to comply with this, they will not be able to get credentials in the future.

The truth of the matter is this: Sonoma Raceway is claiming rights to any photos taken by freelance photographers at its track, at its events. They’re reserving the right to use these photos for their profit, their social media, and their marketing campaign, all while leaving the photographers in the cold, with no money and more work to do in a short period of time for work that goes unpaid. 

For now, it seems that Sonoma Raceway and its digital marketing manager have lit a large fire under a passionate legion of creative individuals. These policies are questionable at best and take advantage of young photographers working for free. I sincerely hope that the track reconsiders its position and finds a fairer system of vetting on-the-ground shooters at their track. For now, the photographers and the community have spoken.