NASCAR returns to the Sonoma Racecourse for the June 10-12 weekend of racing, with a busy schedule awaiting fans visiting California’s wine country. The three-day festival includes the events of the Camping World Truck Series, ARCA Menards Series West, and the main event of the Cup Series – Toyota/Save Mart 350 – on June 12 (4pm ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM).
The weekend marks the second road event of the year for the Cup series so far, as well as a return to semblance of normality for the track after more than two years of pandemic-related uncertainty. But it also represents a place worth spinning around the schedule as the summer travel season approaches.
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For a race preview this 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.
s: Just for starters, it looks like this is Sonoma’s first event minus restrictions, COVID protocols and things like that. For those who return, what’s new, and how ready are you to seriously host fans this year?
a: Well, I’d say we’re just not ready, we can’t wait. I think we’ve all seen this in the last couple of years, being in a live event whether you’re on the track side or on the NASCAR side, we’ve missed that excitement of an entire weekend race. And so for us, this will be the first since 2019. So there were no events at all in 2020, then at reduced capacity last year, and then the schedule itself was reduced even when we reduced capacity with fans last year. So we haven’t really been able to get in on a full NASCAR weekend, and with all that kind of excitement and focus on the fan experience this year, I think we’re able to showcase the Sonoma Racetrack to fans and the industry, we can’t wait. I mean, there’s a lot to do in the next several days, depending on what day you roll, but we can’t wait because it’s going to be great to see everyone here.
s: When people return to Sonoma, they should be able to anticipate some familiar surroundings, but what else is new in terms of fan amenities? What kind of merging with what is also there?
a: So what we’re really trying to do is keep the things about Sonoma Racetrack that everyone loves, which is obviously the place, where they can stay nearby and maybe sample some wine. But I think we’re also kind of dusting off a bit, and we haven’t raced here for a while. There are some things that need some attention. So we’re going to bring back a lot of the things fans really loved about being here like the Patriot Jet air show, but we have a slightly smaller footprint to focus on here. So we want to maximize everything fans will have. We won’t be having a concert before the race yet to be announced, but we will be having a concert every night. So we will have entertainment all over the property.
We’re going to create different areas, so you know, if you’ve been here before, you know we have a lot of ground to cover. So if you’re on the hill in Turn 3, or you’re in Turn 9, it’s very different from what you see at the track. You know, fans want to roam the entire facility, and they certainly can, but we’ll also enjoy the entertainment, food, and drink in each of those neighborhoods, if they so desire, even if they don’t want to come downstairs and are kind of happy to hang out with their friends and enjoy the cold in Turn 9 balcony, and that they have everything they need there. So I think we’re really trying to create a complete experience and not have activities that are just limited to the front extension or the runway. And I think fans will probably see that as a big point of difference.
s: Road races tend to have a festive atmosphere, but some of what makes Sonoma a little different from other races seems to be the amount of destination event. There is so much surrounding to take in, but how would you describe it to someone who has never been and is thinking of going?
a: It’s kind of the best of both worlds. Enjoy a racing-themed vacation or a NASCAR-themed vacation, mixed in with what you’d do on a regular three-day weekend. You know, you get the best of both worlds because you can get your NASCAR fix on Saturday or Sunday, but then when you get back to your hotel or wherever you’re staying within the local community, you have great restaurants, we have wine tastings, you can jump on Bike and ride around town in Sonoma or Napa, so I guess racing isn’t the only thing going on, which I think gives fans reason to put it on the calendar circle, not to mention the kind of beautiful surroundings. What happens on the track is always very exciting, but you can also check two boxes by having a really great non-racing experience.
s: The global camper van series is back for the first time since 1998. What counted that the series was returning to Sonoma?
a: Well we’ve always had a pretty standard schedule here at Sonoma Racetrack and more wine tastings allowed during the Saturday afternoon hours. But we wanted to provide fans with more content. We have a really strong group of campers who are very excited, and they camp across the street on our campground called 50 acres or higher on the hillsides, which is great. So they are looking for content, and the cars on the racetrack are what they want. So the truck series, the DoorDash 250 would be the first time the Camping World Truck series has been here since 1998 as I mentioned, but there are a lot of West Coast links with Truck Series and names like Hornaday and Harvick. Maybe some people don’t think about that right away, but I thought when I got out of here, wow, how cool would it be to get the trucks out here. The race is going to be amazing because many of these drivers – if not most or all of them – may have been little kids when this race was held here before. They’ll have to learn it on iRacing, so how exciting it is to just kind of see them navigate that path.
s: Another comeback feature is that the track returns to the shorter course layout of 1.99 miles with the chute connecting Turns 4 and 7 as well. What was made in that decision, and what else do you expect from it at the end of the race?
a: They’re the fans, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from them about running the longer track with the carousel. I think in general, it was good, it was new, it was something different. But significantly, there were requests from us to bring back the chute, and then we linked that to some feedback from the drivers. You know there will always be a different opinion for each driver, depending on who you ask, but in general, drivers were interested in returning the chute as well. So I think it’s something that provides more laps around the track, which means more opportunity to work in Turn 11, work in Turn 4 as the new car will test the limits there at the top of the hill.
s: Sonoma usually has a few opening events in downtown San Francisco, and this has been a tradition since before you even began your tenure there. Why is it important to continue with it, and how did the city of San Francisco really embrace Sonoma as an athletic neighbour, too?
a: I think that was one of the things I looked at, as I’ve been present at many of those San Francisco events in the past. I think the connection, while Sonoma seems far away when she’s here, we’re about 30 miles or so from San Francisco. I think being a part of the Bay Area sports community has been very important to us. We’ve always been kind of a fixture this weekend in town, whether it’s at Fisherman’s Wharf or at other popular spots. So we want to make sure you take advantage of that. And I think it’s just going to be a great opportunity to have some fun in the bay area before we head out onto the track and the surrounding track.