At home in California, Jill Gregory welcomes back NASCAR, fans to new era at Sonoma Raceway

·6 min read

Jill Gregory grew up roughly a two-hour drive away from Sonoma Raceway in California’s central valley. The picturesque road course would become intertwined in her life and career, but truth be told, it registered with only a blip before her first visit.

“To be honest, giving up my secrets, I was not a big NASCAR fan growing up,” Gregory says now, with a smile you can hear coming through the irony.

Thankfully, the cousins who lived nearby and brought her to Sonoma for the first time were. Gregory’s memories of a hillside vantage point on a blanket with a handy cooler from that day still resonate, but so does the spectacle and all the soaked-in sights and sounds.

“It was unique, from the setting and the racing standpoint, so it’s always been my No. 1 track,” Gregory says, “and to be here now is pretty surreal.”

From casual spectator to a vested supervisor, Gregory is now in charge of charting the 2.52-mile circuit’s path into the future. She began her tenure as Sonoma Raceway’s executive vice president and general manager in February, assuming a central role in preparing for this weekend’s NASCAR festivities, including the Cup Series’ Toyota/Save Mart 350 (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM).

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If it feels like a homecoming for Gregory, there’s good reason to support the notion. When her career spanned motorsports-centric marketing posts for Bank of America, Sprint/Nextel and eventually an executive role with NASCAR, Gregory would make a point to book extra travel time — either on the front or back end of a Sonoma race weekend — to visit friends and family.

Now back in her home state, Gregory has those loved ones within closer reach. But she’s also reconnecting with California’s great outdoors, enjoying the natural beauty of the nearby beaches, mountains and other surroundings.

“So I think once we get through this race here on Sunday, I’ll have time to do even more of that,” Gregory says. “But it just does feel familiar, like I never left.”

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Gregory had established her own roots with NASCAR starting in 2007, settling into the role as the organization’s executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer. The breadth of her work led Adweek to recognize her as one of “The Most Powerful Women in Sports” for two years running, and her influence remained a guiding force as the sport navigated the COVID-19 outbreak last year.

But the pandemic’s interruption of normal operations provided Gregory with an opportunity to hit pause as well.

“At the end of the year, I started to think about 2020 — as everybody did — as a little bit of a reflection,” Gregory says, “and I was aware that Steve Page had retired and they were looking for someone to lead this place, and it just started a little idea in the back of my head, thinking is that a way I can keep all my experience and relationships and what I love about NASCAR and the sport and the family we have, but also do it in a place that is home to me in California. It just made a ton of sense.”

Jeff Speer / Sonoma Raceway
Jeff Speer / Sonoma Raceway

Gregory leapt, but the scenario full of ideals also had its hurdles. As NASCAR officials modified the 2020 schedule to allow for racing with streamlined weekends, protocols and only essential personnel, a handful of tracks had race dates reassigned. Sonoma Raceway was among those; its Cup Series event moved to Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, citing “the ongoing uncertainty around large events in California” amid the state’s stricter lockdown.

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With Gregory taking the reins, the track’s primary thrust turned to safely hosting events this season. Sonoma will reopen with attendance capped at 33%, and screenings and face coverings will be required. While the protocols will be far different from when the track last hosted NASCAR’s road show in 2019, the renewed roar echoing through the Sears Point community will be familiar.

“I think part of what we’ve been focused on in having an event again here in ’21 is bringing NASCAR back to the fans,” Gregory says. “… So the excitement and I guess what we’ve been focusing on is making sure that when those fans do come back, even at a reduced capacity, that they get everything that they love out of a NASCAR event — the competition, the excitement, the experience — so we’re only allowed to have 33% capacity here at the race on Sunday, just still following the California state and our county protocols, but even at that capacity, we’re sold out and fans can’t wait to come back.”

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Gregory knows the number well, and “714” rolls off like it’s a round figure. In this case, it’s not the number best known by sports-trivia savants as Babe Ruth’s career home run total. It’s the number of days between Sonoma Raceway’s last NASCAR Cup Series race and the one that’s approaching.

“That’s a long time to be gone if you’re a NASCAR fan,” she says.

When fans return, there won’t be an “under new management” sign out front, but this weekend’s attendees can expect subtle improvements and accommodations on the track’s grounds. COVID-19 may have limited what Gregory and her team have been able to develop this season, but there’s already an eye toward next year and beyond, with hints that more substantial enhancements to the at-track experience are in the works.

“We’re doing a ton of research to find out what they want out here,” Gregory says. “We’re going to make some significant capital investments here in the facility, so even what you see in ’21 will probably look a lot different in 2022, just with some investments in suites and the hospitality area and fan amenities. So really the minute that we kind of turn the page on Sunday night, we’ll be looking at ’22 and how do really re-invent what happens here at Sonoma Raceway.”

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If nothing else, it’s an intriguing time to be a road course on NASCAR’s calendar. Gregory recalls when she made her first visits to Sonoma Raceway, the track was one of two road courses on the Cup Series schedule alongside Watkins Glen International. It was still the era of the “road-course ringer” and a time when some traditional oval-trackers didn’t exactly warm to the left-and-right racing discipline.

The number of Cup Series road races has grown to seven this season, with new circuits, historic venues and oval-road hybrids now dotting the schedule. Is it more of a crowded field now? Maybe, but Gregory believes the track she first experienced from a blanketed knoll still stands out as unique.

“As long as we’re racing here in the Sonoma Valley, I think we’ll always have a special place in the road-course hierarchy, just because we have a ton of tradition, drivers have been racing here for a long time and everybody seems to love road-course racing now, so we get the best of both worlds,” Gregory says. “I’m thrilled that there are more road courses on the schedule, but I still think we’re one of the best.”