NASCAR Is Back in Sonoma at Full Bore This Weekend. Here’s How the Road Course Got Ready
Jill Gregory—a 13-year NASCAR veteran and the Raceway’s executive vice president—has been instrumental in the circuit’s return to in-person events.
As with nearly all circuits and motorsport venues, California’s famed and iconic Sonoma Raceway suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. After a lonely 2020 and sparse 2021 season, Sonoma Raceway is kicking off a docket of events starting this Friday with its annual NASCAR weekend: a welcome-back bash culminating with the return of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 Cup Series race on Sunday. But to the Raceway, the event isn’t just another NASCAR race. It marks the reemergence of in-person events after two years of organizers hustling to find ways to keep fans engaged and attract new business.
And if anyone can helm a roaring comeback, it’s Jill Gregory, Sonoma Raceway’s executive vice president, general manager, and 13-year NASCAR veteran. Currently, Gregory is getting ready for a full house—the first one the track has had since 2019—by ramping up staff from 50 to 750 and prepping for tens of thousands of fans to descend into Sonoma Valley. It’s something she has been working at since the checkered flag dropped at Sonoma Raceway’s NASCAR weekend in June of last year.
During the early days of the pandemic and while California was under lockdown, the Raceway team had to come up with ways to make money in order to keep the lights on. As an outdoor venue, Sonoma Raceway could attract local events where it would achieve physical distancing between attendees. More than two years later, these proved to be much bigger opportunities than the team might have originally recognized.
Before 2020 and the pandemonium that transpired with the pandemic, Sonoma Raceway was surviving but also wasn’t setting any sales records. Prior to Gregory taking over in 2021, Steve Page had been the general manager for 30 years: through the heyday of the Jeff Gordon era from the ‘90s to the turn of the new millennium, where he witnessed the steady decline in attendance.
In an attempt to combat that, Page implemented kid zones, family-friendly RV areas, covered viewing decks, shaded picnic tables, and open gathering areas. He recognized that millennials and families need more room to move and changes were required to maintain attendance numbers.
Gregory took charge in February of last year. She is one of only two women in charge of racetracks on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, grew up visiting the track with her cousins, and she has a deep love of motorsports and of the Valley. She brings not only new leadership but also new perspectives and values. Inclusivity, for example, is one of them.
As a whole, NASCAR has publicly embraced new tactics and diversity, understanding that it needs to adapt to the new generation or die. The organization’s Drive for Diversity program focuses on placing more women and people of color in the driver’s seat and has been active since 2004, launching careers for pit crew stars like Dalanda Ouendeno and drivers like Kyle Larson. But the most visible moment of change was in 2020, when the organization announced that it was banning the Confederate flag at events.
Gregory’s Big Plans for Sonoma
It’s that same kind of energy and innovation that’s helping Gregory lead the charge in Sonoma Raceway’s return to in-person events. When I spoke with her, she was watching two semi-trucks unloading a host of golf carts for staff.
“One of the things I try to emphasize is that we want the NASCAR experience to be open to all,” she said. “A more diverse audience doesn’t preclude the audience we have had for many years. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. We want to welcome everyone who wants to come. A more casual fan may be coming for the Ferris wheel, the entertainment, and the games in the Fan Zone and may not care that much about the race, for instance. I think making sure we provide something for everyone is our job. We need to make sure that whatever fan comes out, they’ll leave thinking, ‘Aha, that was amazing.’”
After the cancellation of the NASCAR weekend at Sonoma in 2020 and then the reduced capacity in 2021 (roughly 15,000 fans, or just 33 percent), the buzz of preparation must sound like a sigh of relief.
“You can see this facility transform, particularly for six weeks leading up to the race,” Gregory said. “We host events all year, but NASCAR is our biggest crowd. My office looks over the entire track and paddock area, and I can see everything from the hospitality tent being built to the striping on our parking lots and signs going up. There's an army of people here and they’ll be coming in and out on a nonstop basis so we can get ready for everybody.”
An army sounds like what’s needed if the team is to get the Raceway’s sprawling property ready in time. To start, Sonoma Raceway is situated on 1,600 acres of real estate and the track is just shy of two miles long, with 160 feet of elevation delta from the highest point Turn 3a (174 feet) to the lowest at Turn 10 (14 feet). Drivers at Sunday’s race will make 1,100 turns around the road course over 110 laps. Sonoma Raceway has 47,000 permanent seats, plus standing room for general admission ticket holders.
For size comparison, the Atlanta Motor Speedway is situated on less than half that acreage, Charlotte Motor Speedway sits on 1,310 acres, and Texas Motor Speedway spans 1,490 acres.
And this year, Sonoma is bringing back the Chute configuration, which connects Turn 4 to Turn 7 that offers passing opportunities close to the fans, which generates more excitement. Constructed in 1998, Martin Truex Jr. was the last driver to win on the Chute layout in 2018 before it was replaced by the Carousel (an S-curve that flows away from the stands) in 2019.
“The Carousel was part of the original course and we reverted back to it for our 50th anniversary in 2019 and used it again in 2021,” Gregory said in a press release. “But we race to bring excitement and drama to the fans, and an overwhelming majority of them asked us to bring back the Chute.”
Last year, Sonoma Raceway also commenced construction of a 19,000-square-foot hospitality facility called the Turn 11 Club. The new club is part of the site’s Sonoma Reimagined plan, aimed to expand the Raceway’s appeal across the board. As it is, the Raceway represents a $10 million economic impact in the Valley, including adjacent gas stations, restaurants, and more, according to a report from the North Bay Business Journal. Owned by conglomerate Speedway Motorsports LLC, the Sonoma Raceway shares its parent company with seven other tracks like Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. While Speedway Motorsports has declined to disclose construction costs thus far, it’s safe to assume that it’s a multi-million-dollar long-term investment that shows its faith in the Sonoma racetrack.
The Turn 11 Club is a prominent piece of the new vibe, but it’s just the start, according to Gregory.
“I think fans are going to see a bright and shiny and energetic facility,” she told me. “[But] the new building will be a focal point. In the fan zone area they’ll see the Ferris wheel, hear the music and our PA announcers, and we're going to have guys zipping around on jet packs. I think you'll see a buzz and an excitement that we haven't really had here in several years. And so I hope fans get that same energy because we're really excited to bring them in.”
Today’s NASCAR events aren’t the one-dimensional experiences I expected. What I found when I attended was access to drivers, friendly, passionate fans, a family-friendly atmosphere, and a caring, sophisticated staff. Ticket prices alone make it more accessible to average families than a Formula 1 event, and it has a festive, electric atmosphere. Now, I know it’s because there are people like Gregory, working hard behind the scenes, to make it this way.
The festivities will start with a fan appreciation day on Friday, June 10, followed by a doubleheader of the General Tire 200 ARCA Menards Series West race and the DoorDash 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck race series on Saturday. On Sunday, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 Cup Series race returns to Sonoma with a 1 p.m. start. Hopefully, the weekend marks the beginning of Sonoma Raceway coming back with a bang.
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