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NASCAR and Sonoma Raceway Continues Push for Diversity and Innovation

Steve Phelps, Jill Gregory, Brandon Thompson, Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez gather in San Francisco. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

SAN FRANCISCO – Two years ago, NASCAR was in a unique position as the sanctioning body shifted toward a more diverse and inclusive sport.

Dignitaries from NASCAR, Sonoma Raceway and press gathered Thursday morning at the ATwater Tavern in San Francisco to discuss about the innovative changes surrounding the sport.

From NASCAR exploring different markets like the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum to companies supporting the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a transitional period where the sport is thriving more so now prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Phelps, President of NASCAR, noted that before the pandemic, ratings and attendance were on the upswing. Once the sport was on hiatus for 71 days, the motive for change captivated their attention.

In June of 2020, the series took a stance on social justice which included banning the Confederate Flag prior to the midweek Martinsville race. While a noose at Talladega Superspeedway was in a garage stall for six months, Phelps noted that the sport stood with Bubba Wallace during those difficult circumstances.

Now pushing the halfway mark of the seventh generation Cup car, Phelps has been pleased with the sport becoming more welcoming than ever before. It’s shown in the people’s interest in the sport, including the team ownership side of things as Michael Jordan (23XI Racing) and Pitbull (Trackhouse Racing) coming along.

“That was the events of 2020 that led to us getting a full season in, kind of getting back in a COVID world to competing, and then what happened from a social justice standpoint,” said Phelps.

“Fast forward to 2022, I think one of the most significant things that has happened is a number of new owners that have come into this sport, largely due to our Next Gen car, which I couldn’t have dreamed that it would go as well as it has. The racing has been simply extraordinary.

“It’s been a journey. Our ratings are up, our attendance is up. We have a whole new set of race fans who are coming to the racetrack, watching on television, participating in digital and social. It’s working. This is a welcoming environment, and we want different people to come to our racetracks and feel special, feel welcome.”

Phelps discussing about the sport’s positive direction over the last two years. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Vice President of NASCAR’s Diversity & Inclusion, Brandon Thompson, noted that having a welcoming work environment.

It’s part of the reason why the Employee Diversity Council was formed following the events involving Kyle Larson when he was suspended throughout 2020 for using a racial slur in an iRacing live stream.

Thompson said that Phelps and EVP & GM of Sonoma Raceway, Jill Gregory, were involved in council’s formation.

“The first thing we had to do was make sure NASCAR was a desirable place to work, that the employees felt accepted for who they are and felt like they could show up,” said Thompson.

“The other thing that we knew we had to do from that point was to start to get the industry on board. One of the things that both Steve and Jill tasked us with was forming an Industry Diversity Council, which is literally inclusive of every stakeholder in the sport, be that broadcast, drivers.

“Daniel (Suárez) is on that council as well, really making sure if there was anything we could do to make sure the industry was completely involved and that we could start to work the different connections that Jill spoke about, the different sponsor relationships and all those types of things to really galvanize the industry.”

Thompson commented that the Drive for Diversity Program has had some pretty good fruit of representation.

Among those include Cup drivers like Suárez, a Hispanic, and Larson, an Asian American, who’ve been competing in the series for lengthy period of time.

Larson became the first person of color to win the Cup title last year with a 10-win campaign, something that hasn’t been seen since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.

In the Truck Series and ARCA, the sport has Hailie Deegan, the only full-time female in the national touring level, Rajah Curth, an African American racer who’s leading the points in national ARCA, and Nick Sanchez, a three-time national ARCA winner.

“In terms of a pipeline, we’re certainly building that. We’re looking to continue to expand that pipeline certainly through the efforts with Max Siegel over at Rev Racing,” said Thompson. “I think we’ve got the right things and the right people in place and the right structure in place to be able to continue to do that.

Caruth leads the National ARCA standings over teammate Sanchez by five points. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

“Another driver I’d call out is Lavar Scott (no relation to NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, but runs the No. 34 in honor of him) who was also in the Drive for Diversity program, he has a late model win early in his career.

“We’re excited about the future. We’d like to expand the pipeline. Actively working with Steve and the drivers to be able to do that. We feel like we’ve certainly got a good crop now and want more.”

For Gregory, this weekend will mark the first time Sonoma Raceway will be open to everyone following the cancellation of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in 2020 and having a limited crowd capacity last year.

This year will also mark the return of “The Chute,” something drivers and fans have been wanting to go back after two running in “The Carousel” layout.

At the end of the day, her goal is to have people excited about coming to the track, more so when there’s new people coming to the track for the first time.

“I’ve been able to really take all of the experiences, all the relationships that I was able to build at NASCAR and bring that to Sonoma,” said Gregory. “We really have been trying to make sure that Sonoma Raceway lives up to the billing of Steve circling on his calendar, Daniel and Kurt (Busch) wanting to be here. It is one of those weekends that we all want to come to, but we want to make sure that the track is doing everything we need to do to make sure we are a premier venue to host an event like this.

“I think that’s doing a lot of the things that we know fans love. Obviously, we’re in Sonoma Valley, so the wine tasting, the scenery and all that is accepted and expected,” Gregory continued.

“When you get out there this weekend, I really hope that we see you all there. It’s going to be different. It’s going to feel fresh and new. We really tried to take a fresh look at everything.”

Sonoma also holds sentimental value to Gregory as it’s a homecoming of sorts because it was the track she attended her first NASCAR race.

Since then, she’s established incredible relationships within the industry that’s allowed her to be a part of something bigger than herself.

“We’ve listened to the fans, what do they want. We know there’s things they love about Sonoma, but what can we add and improve,” Gregory explained. “To Steve’s point, we want new fans to come out. Like many of our other tracks, we see an increase in new fans buying tickets for the first time is through the roof. That’s because of some of the things we were able to do at NASCAR, us delivering at our end at Sonoma Raceway.”

Sonoma Raceway will mark the second Cup road course of the season. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kurt Busch is no stranger to success at Sonoma. He’s been victorious in “Wine Country” with the 1999 Southwest Tour and 2011 Cup races being his peak.

With the positive onslaught of changes, Busch feels the vibe this weekend to the point that he’s typically treated it as a weekend off, but still an important race to deliver a strong result.

“It’s fun to go up and down the hills, shift gears. Of course, it’s an important race. Of course, you want to get that trophy,” said Busch. “The whole atmosphere around Sonoma, it’s a different vibe. I think it’s just Northern California scene, the race fans that are up here.

“Growing up in Vegas, this was always a fun road trip where we would come up and race the Southwest Tour car on Saturday. In the ’90s, I won one of the Saturday races. This track will always be special in my heart because I believe it helped springboard my career to the Cup Series.

“It’s fun coming here and teaching new engineers, new crew members about the road racing scene. I can’t wait to see all of Jill’s additions to the track. With the way you’re seeing our sport collectively work together, this whole scene after COVID has taught us how to look at our sport from all different angles. We’re all doing it together in much more of a detailed way.

“Whether it’s the tracks, the team owners, the drivers, you’re seeing it in a newfound way. It’s just fun to be part of the sport right now.”

Kurt Busch looks to capture his second Sonoma Cup win this weekend. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

The current Cup car may have challenged drivers, owners and crew members, but without it, some concepts wouldn’t happen, which Daniel Suárez noted as Project 91’s goal is to provide opportunities for international drivers to compete in Cup.

It’ll begin with 2007 Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen this summer. However, without the sport’s current direction, any discussion about “The Iceman” and Project 91 as a whole wouldn’t exist.

“Without the Next Gen car, we wouldn’t be talking about Trackhouse Racing, probably most likely we wouldn’t be talking about 23XI,” said Suárez. “The Next Gen car has brought a lot of opportunities to current new teams. I’m sure it’s going to continue to do that in the near future. I think that has been extremely, extremely important factor. Justin Marks has mentioned this to me several times.

“From the first time we sat together to talk about partnering together, he said this project is around the Next Gen car. I feel like that’s an incredible idea that NASCAR and everyone in this group was able to put together to make it happen. Project 91, it’s been a journey.”

Suárez having a proper home at Trackhouse Racing has allowed him to grow as a competitor but also having weekly conversations with Pitbull allowed him to see the bigger picture in diversity.

“Right now, we talk every single week. He’s super competitive. He loves to bring people together,” Suárez on his relationship with Pitbull that’s grown over the past decade.

“He tells me this all the time, ‘Man, music, doesn’t matter if you speak Spanish, English, Portuguese. Music is one language.’ In racing, he says, ‘I’m seeing that, I’m seeing everyone is together.’

“That was his goal since the very beginning. He loved racing, but he wanted to make one. I’m very, very proud to be partnered with him.”

All smiles from Suarez. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

June is Pride Month and the Bay Arena is synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community. Last weekend at Portland International Raceway, there was a booth promoting NASCAR’s inclusiveness for the community. This Sunday, Alex Bowman’s primary sponsor, Ally, will sport the pride colors on their logo.

Gregory commented that being involved during Pride Month is another way of being involved with the community that’s becoming more accepted in the sport, but also in the Bay Area.

“It’s hugely important for us to participate in Pride. I’ve been working with Brandon and his team for a couple months now on what we can be doing as the visible piece of NASCAR in this marketplace,” Gregory commented.

“Sonoma Raceway for the first time last weekend participated in the Sonoma County Pride Parade in downtown Santa Rosa. A lot of our employees came out, were thrilled we were doing that. We’ll be doing something similar here in San Francisco.

“I think that we are kind of that front line representative of the NASCAR industry. If we want NASCAR to be welcomed to all, then making sure that the LGBTQ community is part of that is crucial. We’re going to make sure we’re at the forefront of that effort.”

When the green flag waves in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 for the 34th time, a new chapter will be created all across the board as NASCAR’s momentum is slated to blossom for years to come. All thanks to their push for diversity that began in 2020.

Live coverage of the Toyota/Save Mart 350, the last race of the FOX/FS1 portion of their 22nd season, begins at 4:00 p.m. ET. Larson is the defending race winner.

Throughout my young motorsports media career, my number-one goal is to be a personnel that can be flexible with my writing and photography in the world of NASCAR, INDYCAR and ARCA. Content delivery is vital because this is my main passion and what keeps me going. I've dealt with several challenges in my life, such as autism and making most out of trips despite relying on transportation. Even my quest of finding acceptance in my profession which has been my biggest challenge since graduating from college in 2016. Despite those hurdles with Motorsports Tribune and now The Podium Finish, I promise that you'll see excellence with my content. With two National Motorsports Press Association photography awards, I'm not slowing down anytime soon. Outside of media, I'm super vocal about my musical tastes that goes from Metallica to The Aces. Not only that, expect my social media filled with references nobody will understand, especially Licorice Pizza.

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