This story was originally published on June 2, 2022:
NASCAR returns to Sonoma Raceway for a June 10-12 weekend of racing, with a packed schedule awaiting fans visiting California’s wine country. The three-day festival includes events for the Camping World Truck Series, ARCA Menards Series West and a Cup Series main event — the Toyota/Save Mart 350 — on June 12 (4 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM).
The weekend marks just the second road-course event of the year for the Cup Series so far, plus a return to a semblance of normalcy for the track after two-plus years of pandemic-related uncertainty. But it also marks a spot worth circling on the schedule as summer travel season approaches.
To preview the race weekend, Sonoma Raceway executive vice president and general manager Jill Gregory sat down with NASCAR.com to discuss what to expect at the popular Bay Area facility.
Q: Just for starters, this appears to be the first event back at Sonoma minus restrictions and COVID protocols and things of that nature. For those coming back, what’s new, and how ready are you guys to host fans back in earnest this year?
A: Well, I would say we’re not only ready, we can’t wait. I think that we all saw this in the past couple of years, that being in the live-event business whether you’re on the track side or on the NASCAR side, we missed that excitement of a full race weekend. And so for us, it will be the first one since 2019. So no events at all in 2020, and then at reduced capacity last year, and then the schedule itself was reduced even when we did have reduced capacity with fans last year. So we really haven’t gotten to take a crack at a full NASCAR weekend, and with all the kind of excitement and the fan experience focus this year, I think us being able to show off Sonoma Raceway to the fans and to the industry, we can’t wait. I mean, there’s a lot to do in the next several days, depending on which day you’re circling, but we can’t wait because it’ll be great to see everybody back here.
Q: When people do come back to Sonoma, they should be able to expect some familiar surroundings, but what’s new as well in terms of fan amenities? What else is kind of blending in with what’s existing?
A: So what we’re really trying to do is keep the things about Sonoma Raceway that everybody loves, which obviously is the setting, where they get to stay nearby and maybe taste some wine. But I think that we’re also kind of shaking the dust off a little bit, not having raced here for a while. There’s some things that needed some attention. So we’re going to bring back a lot of things that fans really loved about being here like the Patriot Jet Team air show, but we’ve got a little bit of a smaller footprint to focus on here. So we want to maximize everything that fans are going to get. We’re not only going to have a pre-race concert that has not been announced yet, but we’re going to have a concert each night. So we’ll have entertainment throughout the property.
We’re going to create different areas, so you know, if you’ve been out here before, you know that we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. So if you’re up on the hill in Turn 3, or you’re on Turn 9, it’s much different than what you see in the paddock. So you know, fans want to roam the whole facility, and they definitely can, but we’re also going to have entertainment and food and drink in each of those neighborhoods, if you will, so that if they don’t want to come down and they’re happy kind of hanging with their friends and having a cold one up on the Turn 9 terrace, that they have everything that they need right there. So I think we’re really trying to create an entire experience and not just have activities limited to the frontstretch or the grandstand. And I think that fans will see that probably as a big point of difference.
Q: Road-course races tend to have a festival atmosphere, but some of what makes Sonoma a little bit different from other races seems to be how much of a destination event it is. There are a lot of surroundings to take in, but how do you describe it for someone who may not have been and is thinking about going?
A: It’s kind of the best of both worlds. You can have a racing-themed or a NASCAR-themed vacation, blended with what you might do on a normal three-day weekend. And you know, you get the best of both worlds because you can get your NASCAR fix on Saturday or Sunday, but then when you kind of return to your hotel or wherever you’re staying within the local community, you have amazing restaurants, you’ve got wine tasting, you can jump on a bike and ride around town in Sonoma or Napa, so I think that the race isn’t the only thing going on, which I think kind of gives fans a reason to circle it on our calendar, let alone the kind of the beautiful surroundings. What happens on track is always pretty exciting, but you also can kind of check two boxes by having a really nice non-racing experience.
Q: The Camping World Truck Series is back for the first time since 1998. What factored in to having that series make its return to Sonoma?
A: Well, we’ve always had a pretty standard schedule out here at Sonoma Raceway, and it did allow for a little more wine tasting during the Saturday afternoon hours. But we wanted to provide the fans with more content. We have a really robust group of fans camping who are very passionate, and they camp across the street in our campground called 50 Acres or up on the sides of the hills, which is great. So you know, they’re looking for content, and cars on the race track is what they want. So the Truck Series, the DoorDash 250 will be the first time that the Camping World Truck Series returns here since ’98 as you mentioned, but there are a ton of West Coast ties to the Truck Series and names like Hornaday and Harvick. Maybe some people don’t think of that immediately, but I thought when I got out here, wow, how great would it be to have the trucks out here. The racing would be incredible because a lot of those drivers — if not most, or all — probably were toddlers when this race was run here before. They’re gonna have to learn it on iRacing, and so how exciting is that going to be just kind of seeing them navigate this track.
Q: Another returning feature is that the track is going back to the shorter 1.99-mile course layout with the chute there connecting Turns 4 and 7 as well. What went into that decision, and what also do you expect from that on the racing end?
A: It’s the fans, and we had a lot of feedback from them about running the longer course with the carousel. I think generally speaking, it was good, it was a novelty, it was something different. But overwhelmingly, there were requests for us to bring the chute back, and then we coupled that with some feedback from drivers. You know there will always be a differing opinion of each driver, depending on who you ask, but generally speaking, the drivers were interested in having the chute back also. So I think it’s something that provides more laps around the track, which means more opportunities for action in Turn 11, and action in Turn 4 with the new car going to test the limits up there at the top of the hill.
Q: Sonoma typically has some kickoff events in downtown San Francisco, and this has been a tradition since before your tenure started there. Why is it important to keep that going, and how has the city of San Francisco has really embraced Sonoma as a sports neighbor as well?
A: I think that was one thing that I looked at, having been an attendee at many of those San Francisco-based events in the past. I think that the connection, while Sonoma seems far away when you’re out here, we’re just 30 miles or so from San Francisco. I think being a part of the Bay Area sports community has been important for us. We’ve always been kind of a fixture on this weekend in the city, whether it’s been at Fisherman’s Wharf or at other key iconic locations. So we want to make sure to take advantage of that. and I think it’ll just be a great chance to kind of soak in the Bay Area before we head up to the track and the track surroundings.