Former NASCAR executive ready for green flag at Sonoma Raceway

Jill Gregory, 52, is about as comfortable on a race car track as most Westerners are on a wide-open highway.

On Feb. 1, the NASCAR marketing executive crossed the nation from Charlotte, North Carolina, to replace Steve Page as the new general manager of the Sonoma Raceway on Feb. 1. Page served in that post for 29 years.

NASCAR is in Gregory’s blood. She worked as the organization’s chief marketing and content officer. Prior to that, she was the senior vice president of motorsports marketing for Bank of America. Previously, she served as the director of the NASCAR Springs Cup Series marketing program for Sprint Nextel.

With her decades of experience in motorsports and connection to the San Francisco Bay Area growing up in Modesto, Gregory comes into the Sonoma Raceway with a much-needed wealth of knowledge — especially coming off a year that challenged all entertainment venues. COVID 19’s specific impact is in Gregory’s peripheral vision, but financials of 2020 were undisclosed.

Still, Gregory appears geared up for another challenge in her life re-entering the West Coast arena.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Gregory said during her virtual press conference last month.

The industry was just as enthusiastic.

“Jill was the best candidate for this job,” said CEO Marcus Smith of Speedway Motorsports LLC, which acquired the track in 1996. The North Carolina-based company owns seven other raceways nationwide.

In the following interview from the Inside the C-suite series, Gregory shares some of her insights involving her personal and professional journey with the North Bay Business Journal.

What were the most significant challenges to rising to the top of your field?

I’d say (this is) the hardest part: the sacrifices that you make as you try to balance a highly demanding role and giving your best with the focus needed to keep your personal–family life a priority as well. I don’t think that is unique to my field, but it’s something that I have needed to keep in mind as my career has continued to progress.

Are your friends and family members supportive of your choice of industry?

Yes, I am very lucky to have had my family behind me 100% in any choices that I have made. Early on, I made career choices that took me to cities like Minneapolis, Houston, New York City and Charlotte, and they always encouraged me to try something new. Sports has always been a field that I loved, and when I had the chance to grow my career in motorsports, my family and friends were always supportive and now are some of the biggest race fans I know!

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in the industry and why?

I don’t really think about being a pioneer on a day-to-day basis, but I do get asked that question a lot so I know that others make that connection. I am happy to be called a pioneer if it sets an example or a goal for other women to follow. There is a saying that I really like that points to this: “If you can see her, you can be her.” And if being in my role at NASCAR or at Sonoma Raceway shows other women that there is a path to success at the highest levels of motorsports and sports, then I believe that is a good thing.

What advice can you give other young women hoping to thrive in this career?

I’d say the same as the lessons learned about. But also don’t be afraid to speak up or take your place at the table. Be confident in your abilities and your opinion; it is valuable and necessary, and your voice needs to be heard. You don’t have to have every answer, but be prepared, and be willing and able to share your point of view.

Do you have to travel a lot for business?

It depends on what role you have in motorsports and how willing you are to travel. I have had roles in the sport where I was primarily based in one office, and roles where I was traveling 25–30 weekends a year. I think a willingness to try new things and experience different locations can open new opportunities to people wanting to join the sport.

What is your management style?

I would consider myself to be a transformational and collaborative leader. I encourage my people to look for ways to be better and get out of their comfort zones, but do that while providing support and resources to help them get the job done and drive results. I also actively seek opinions from my team, and listen to their input. It takes everyone on a team to succeed, and success happens when people are invested in a common goal and feel they can impact change.

Nothing makes me prouder than to see a cohesive team come together to achieve a shared goal, or to see a team member achieve something we haven't done before or was previously thought impossible.

What are some of your plans for the Sonoma Raceway?

I think first and foremost we want to get events back going at the track and do so safely. Obviously, 2020 was a challenging year and getting events up and running and welcoming fans back is our top priority.

On Jan. 1, 2020, Sonoma Raceway officially acquired the onsite racing school, rebranding it the Sears Point Racing Experience, so we look forward to expanding programming and opportunities through the racing school both on the 12-turn, 2.52-mile road course as well as at the Sonoma Raceway Karting Center. Throughout the race season, we want to make sure we have a compelling product on-track as well as create opportunities for fans to come out and enjoy our beautiful Sonoma Valley facility.

What's the first thing on your agenda on the job here?

I’m looking forward to meeting with and getting to know the amazing team at Sonoma Raceway, they are world class. In addition, one of my top priorities will be getting to know the communities that we serve — local, regional, etc. — as well as the local partners we work with.

Sonoma Raceway has always been a community-minded organization both through programs hosted at the raceway as well as distributing more than $6.8 million to Sonoma County youth groups through the Sonoma chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities.

Leading up to the pandemic, what was the raceway's annual revenue?

Sonoma Raceway’s annual revenue in 2019 was $35 million.

How has the pandemic affected that, in whatever way you can quantify that?

Both the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup Series event as well as the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the raceway’s two biggest spectator events each year, were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19.

(Editor’s note: 2020 financials were undisclosed.)

What's the most important strategy a speedway chief lives by to ensure the financial success of the company?

The customer comes first, in our case that is the fan and the partners. If we serve our fans well, and give them what they want, we will succeed in all other areas of our business.

(As far as the chief executive’s role) ... there isn’t really a secret, it’s hard work, dedication and a passion for what you do. I am a firm believer that if you do a good job and treat people with respect, you can succeed.

How true to life is racing in the movies from "Days of Thunder" to "Ford vs. Ferrari?"

Movies are dramatic for a reason! I’d say that both of them were both very entertaining and used racing as a nice backdrop for compelling personal stories. One thing is true, racing has larger than life characters doing amazing things every time they strap into a race car. The unpredictability and drama happens every weekend, which is why fans love to come to the track.

Did you play with cars when you were young?

I did not, at least not that I can remember.

Describe your hot car in high school. Did you love that car, and why?

Toyota Supra. I did love that car. It was fast, probably a little too fast for my parents’ taste! It was a beautiful metallic blue with a black spoiler, and the headlights that popped up. And of course, it had a great stereo. Loved that. It just looked fast!

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