Regarded as one of the most powerful women in motorsports, Jill Gregory, looks like what it means to be perfectly aligned with the universe. Her journey through sports marketing and innovative leadership brought Gregory, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Sonoma Raceway, back to her Northern California origins in 2021.
In the brief moments she takes to fix her gaze upon the hillsides of wine country from her office, it is apparent Gregory deeply senses where she fits in NASCAR’s continuum. It is evident in the self control she has to just be.
With Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at full capacity on the horizon, Racing Refresh sat down for a one-on-one chat with her to see what she’s been up to, also what fans can expect this weekend and beyond at Sonoma Raceway.
RR: AdWeek has you listed as one of the most powerful women in motorsports not once, but twice. How did you get to this point when growing up, NASCAR wasn't even really your thing other than a time to bond with your family?
Gregory: I think if you would map out the path that I thought I would take, you know, having a long career in NASCAR probably wasn't the prediction. But I was really lucky to be able to get into sports marketing, in general, after I got out of college, and just kind of continued to follow a path of opportunity. I was willing to jump around and move to new cities to follow different career paths, and I was able to work for a lot of really great companies like Sprint and Bank of America, and it just led me to NASCAR.
NASCAR was on a really strong path and the opportunity kind of presented itself. Fourteen years later, I woke up and I was still in the industry. That was because of the great people and the momentum that the sport had.
So waking up in Sonoma, I had been on the east coast for quite some time and, during COVID, I kind of thought a lot about coming back to California at some point. Then kind of out of the blue, there was an opening at Sonoma Raceway to run the track out here. So it kind of seemed like a dream come true to marry up my previous NASCAR experience with this new opportunity.
RR: As far as your sports marketing career goes, what is it that brought you into that?
Gregory: You know, I always liked sports growing up. We were a really athletic family: I play tennis, my sisters played, and my dad and uncles were really into sports. And I thought, wow, this would be really fun to have a career in, and I wasn't quite sure how to go about it.
So I ended up finding an entry-level job in an agency in San Francisco. And just networked and built relationships, one opportunity led to another. Those agency jobs early on in your career kind of give you a little bit of a taste of everything so I knew that sports was a place I wanted to stay.
Once I got in, I kind of just tried to build my network. You keep building strong relationships, then you can kind of fall back on those when you want to make your next leap and I was able to do that when I joined NASCAR.
RR: Knowing that there's no place like home, you said you wanted to return at some point - was this a long-term goal of yours that you'd always wanted? To come back home and stay for a long time? Or maybe retire at home?
Gregory: I honestly don't know if I put as much thought into it. I'm the type to set goals, but not that far. I think honestly, COVID, like it did for many people, kind of made me look at the lifestyle, which is amazing at NASCAR, but you're always on the road and we weren't able to do a lot of that in 2020.
So, usually in a typical year working at NASCAR, we would be in California for the Sonoma race, in California for the Auto Club race and out to Phoenix, where I was always able to kind of tack on some days here and there to visit with my family, interact with my college roommates, go on girls’ weekends, and all of that. It just allowed for that.
When COVID hit, it was like wow, some of that flexibility kind of seems counterintuitive but was taken away because we were really locked in Charlotte and Daytona Beach, trying to figure out if we were going to continue racing and kind of keep the sport afloat. It brought it to the forefront a little bit more prominently that, hey, this might be a chance and a time to go back to California. I always love coming back here but you would have had to bid for the right opportunity and this was the right opportunity.
RR: Going back to what you said about not planning so far in advance, your predecessor stayed at Sonoma for three decades. Are we to somewhat expect you to be there that long, or just until the work is done?
Gregory: I don't know about that. I think that was probably a different time. You know, he was here for quite some time. And look, I am looking out on the track right now. The hills are starting to turn from green to gold. I live in the town of Sonoma, where I can kind of ride my bike around. I mean, it's a beautiful setting. Right now, I'm just getting my feet wet, just getting started. So, not sure I can commit to being here in 30 years but, I'm enjoying it while I'm doing it right now, and it's everything I hoped it would be.
RR: I'm going to move on to talking a little bit about you coming in during 2021, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and some of those restrictions. What improvements and accommodations were made to prepare for the 2021 return, given the restrictions and limitations that you did have?
Gregory: It was down to the wire at a couple of points whether Sonoma County was going to allow us to have a race at all with fans. So we were doing at this point last year, a ton of contingency planning. Planning for no fans, planning for reduced capacity. Even at one point, talked to NASCAR about, if California says we can't have the race at all, what would we do? That was never really on the table, but you had to plan for it.
I think it made, although we had a reduced capacity, it made the planning probably a little more challenging just because we didn't know which way it was going to go. When we did get the nod that we were going to have a reduced capacity, we needed to work on all the protocols. All the protocols that NASCAR had put in place to make sure an event is safe, all the state of California protocols: entries, exits, screening for fans, mask policy, social distancing. It seems like such a long time ago, but, decals, stickers and signage, and all the things that we had to do to make sure that we were in compliance.
So there was a level of complexity probably to it that we don't have this year but on the flip side, we have full capacity for the first time in four years. So that's a different set of circumstances, that's us going to all the different areas of the property that don't get used all the time. You know, we're busy at this track almost 365 days a year, but not all of the areas of the track are in use. We need to make sure that all of the areas that fans are going to interact with, where the competitors are going to be, that we're ready, that we've blown the dust off, that we're ready to host people. So that's really what we're in the thick of right now.
RR: Now that you are welcoming fans back at full capacity, what is the fan expected to see?
Gregory: Well, there's gonna be a couple of things that we want to make sure that fans can see. One is, a lot of on-track action. Sonoma is one of the premier road courses on the NASCAR circuit. There's always an exciting race here. On Sunday with our NASCAR Cup Series drivers, there's a ton of action. So that's a given.
But on Saturday's events, we have a full jam-packed day full of racing. Not only did we have reduced capacity last year, but for NASCAR, none of the series had practice and qualifying so that will be back. Fans will be able to see the cup drivers on-track on Saturday and we also have an ARCA Menards series race in the morning starting at 11:30. That's our local series where we have a ton of local stars that participate ,and then to cap off the day, we have the Camping World Truck Series here for the first time since 1998. The race fans in California love the truck series. We have a lot of history here but we haven't had that series in quite some time.
Saturday will be an amazing day of racing but we also kind of owe our fans the best experience possible. Do they have all of the activities? Entertainment? We're doing a camper appreciation party, we're having concerts each night or afternoon, different fan amenities sprinkled throughout the facility rather than just in one area of the paddock. Fans are going to see activity across the entire spectrum of the facility, which I think will be something different than in years past.
RR: Last year, there were the TransAm races that Mike Joy participated in and that was really fun but will we ever see that again in the same weekend? Is that something that you might consider bringing back on the same weekend?
Gregory: We definitely would look at that. It didn't quite work out, just the way the scheduling worked but we talked to the organizers of that and the fans love it, seeing the cars out there, Mike Joy in a driver suit instead of a suit in the booth is always fun, it was a huge fan favorite.
We just couldn't work it out with all of the on-track activity this year but we may look at tacking it onto an early part of the weekend and kind of keeping that going. Nothing's off the table in terms of bringing them back. We loved having them here.
RR: As an outsider looking in, Sonoma isn't exactly synonymous with NASCAR,… so is Sonoma a stop on the schedule to entertain a specific demographic or reach out to a newer demographic that maybe people aren't thinking about? There's this idea of the generalized fan base, but people don't typically think of Sonoma, wine country and then, that idea of who the NASCAR fan is. So who is the target market for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 weekend in Sonoma and what does this fanbase want?
Gregory: Yeah, so it's really great. It's not completely unique to us, but our setting makes us - it's probably more acute or more of a focus - but I think what NASCAR and all tracks are doing is trying to get as many people to enjoy NASCAR as possible. That's always going to be a great mix between your core fans who love you and come to every race, and we've got our fan database where we know that certain fans have bought tickets for the last 20 years, we love them.
We want to keep them engaged but we also have the opportunity to build a bigger, larger, more diverse, younger fan base. San Francisco and the Bay Area market is a great place to do that. What we have to do from a marketing standpoint is cater our communications to both audiences. The great thing about the rise of social media and digital is that it really gives us the tools to do that.
While NASCAR and Sonoma might not be synonymous, we're actually a great beneficiary of the fact that it's a destination where you can get your racing fix, and enjoy that if you're a core fan. You can also have an amazing dinner or a great wine tasting tour on the front or back end of your weekend, like you said. It's a place where a fan in the Bay Area, maybe San Jose or in a market north of here might not be as familiar, and it gives them a chance to try it in a market where, hey, I'm gonna go to the race, but I'm also going to tie in some wine tasting too. I think it kind of gives us a little bit of a leg up because we've got the ability to offer a little something different to each of the segments of fans we want to reach. I think that's really what we're going to be focusing on.
RR: What does the emerging new era of NASCAR look like to you?
Gregory: Well, it's a great question because it's something that we worked on and I know are still being worked on at NASCAR over the past several years and it was definitely a stated goal: o get the fan base younger, more diverse again, and like I said, to expose as many fans to NASCAR that we all love and show how great it is.
I think you mentioned being at this race last year. When you see it, it's very hard to describe if you're not here in person. S, it's just how do we continue to expose NASCAR to as many fans as possible?
I think there's been some really good progress in that area. NASCAR launched the NextGen car, which has put the team ownership and the competitiveness of the sport at the forefront. You've got new teams and established teams competing week in and week out, which adds to the excitement. You've got different levels of talent on the racetrack, which is fantastic. You've got diverse drivers that are running up front that are winning.
I was involved in a group called driver services. It was driver star power at that time, but we did a ton of research on what makes a fan attracted to a driver. And yes, it's hometown, or geography, or hey, I like their personality, but almost always it was winning. If more drivers win, then there's more chances and opportunities for a fan to start following them.
I think what NASCAR has been doing the past couple years has expanded the field, the competitiveness, and the younger drivers are making their move. This core of talent that NASCAR has is really positioning everybody for success. That is bringing new eyeballs to the sport and when you have Bubba Wallace running a race or Daniel Suárez in on a competitive team, and there's a chance for drivers to look like the rest of the population that's just going to be great for NASCAR's growth.
It's really fun for me to see the fruits of all of that labor come to bear this year, because the momentum is really high, the racing is the best it's ever been. All of these different drivers are running up front and have a chance to win. So I think everything is aligned for a great year for NASCAR.
RR: There's been much talk about demand for short tracks in the past amongst a lot of most loyal fans, and it looks like it's been remedied for the most part, along with a host of other aspects. With what we've witnessed during The Clash at The Coliseumall went well, but the popularity of road courses seems to have emerged too. First off, what are your thoughts on the success of the Clash and can you tell me more about the emergence of road courses on the schedule?
Gregory: That was another great thing, to see it move from a bullet point and a PowerPoint deck on here's an idea to transform that facility. I was there and saw, talk about fans that had never experienced NASCAR before. There were so many new fans that were 'eyes wide open' looking at the spectacle of NASCAR and trying it for the first time, and understanding kind of how cool it is. And hey, this is such a great event, and yes, the racing was good and it was different, it was just a great buzz.
That's what people are looking for. They're looking for an experience and something that they haven't done before. I think that kind of flows in a little bit to the second part of your question, which is road courses and variety. I think that some years back, there was kind of a thought that the schedule should be very similar and very predictable. And there should be these set days, or dates for each track and the fans wanted to rely on that. I think that, with the rise of social media and short attention spans, your fans want variety and excitement.
That's what a road course provides, it's different from what they see. Week in and week out, it's different physically at the track, because every turn is not the same. There's more chances for action in different areas of the track. I think what you're seeing with the resurgence of the road courses is the drivers have gotten better at it, they embrace it. If they like it, then fans like it. I think the road course, where it used to be a track that a driver didn't want to come to, is now one that many drivers look forward to. I think we saw some great racing earlier this year at COTA in Austin, which really bodes well for the action that we're going to see here at Sonoma.
RR: The Clash was the first time that I had seen a hip-hop artist perform at a racetrack. Even coming to Las Vegas, it's pretty consistent with the entertainment that they have. There are names that I'm completely unfamiliar with because I don't necessarily listen to country. I've just wondered if you were part of having Ice Cube perform because I heard that you were also a huge fan of old school hip-hop and was that old-school enough for you?
Gregory: Oh, no. I can't say that I had a say in the final decision because I was already here by then. But I will say that the team at NASCAR better give me some credit for even considering it because I had said many times like, "Guys, let's bring in - let's just jazz this thing up a bit. Let's shake it up.” The fact that when one of my buddies that's still at NASCAR called and told me that told me,"We got Cube for The Clash!" and I'm like, "Oh, my God, finally!"I think that everything needs to work for that marketplace that they're in but I couldn't think of a better fit. It just was so fun to be there and see that come to life. Yes, I am an old-school hip hop fan and that was a proud day for me.
RR: We were talking about the road courses and COTA, and NASCAR visits World Wide Technology Raceway the weekend before Sonoma. Keeping in mind that they're adding all these new tracks, how do you maintain the presence of being in the hierarchy of road courses throughout the NASCAR schedule?
Gregory: A couple of guys here have said that on our team, and I said, well, look, here's the deal. We're in Sonoma, so I think we get a leg up no matter what. I mean, obviously, Austin's a fun town, Watkins Glen. I love that track and that area. But we have wine country, we have these activities, the setting. I mean, the view out of my window never disappoints. Every day, the sheep are grazing on the hillside.
We have a highly technical race track too, so you've got a lot of elevation in the turns. So I think that sets us apart but the fact that we're kind of sitting here, right in the gateway of Sonoma Valley and San Francisco and I see the Golden Gate Bridge in your photo, we're just uniquely positioned location-wise that even if we didn't have the best road course, I think we would be the best location.
I think we'll continue to leverage that and make sure that we get to the best of both worlds, which is Sonoma Valley and San Francisco combined with NASCAR racing, which doesn't seem like an obvious pairing, but when you're out here, it makes all the sense in the world.
RR: Are there any plans for an official wine for the NASCAR race at Sonoma? If not, and if it were up to you, what varietal would it be? What taste notes are you expecting and what would it pair well with?
Gregory: Ah, very good question. So there are no plans for an official line. I'll tell you the reason behind that is a couple of things.
One, there are some vineyards right outside the office here but, for whatever reason, this particular plot of land on these hills is the only one within eyeshot where my eyes can see that doesn't have vineyards on it. So we are kind of in a unique position where grapes don't grow very well on our side of the hill.
So one, if we wanted an official wine that was produced here, we just don't have the luck in order to do that, and two, if we wanted to, probably go to a partner and do that.
What we can do here, is go to a partner with all of the big-name wineries and even the small boutique wineries, and have all different wines served out here. I think we'll probably try to stay a little agnostic so we can have different winemakers and different varietals.
If I had to pick a wine as my personal favorite, I like California sparkling. There's a really nice Rose at Domaine Carneros. I do enjoy the bubbles. If I had to choose a more traditional varietal, I would go with a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And there's so many good ones to choose from here that I probably get myself into trouble every weekend if I do a tasting tour.
So, so many different ones. But you know, if I had to make one choice, it's going to be Rose bubbles with a great wine and cheese plate of Sonoma County cheeses.