SONOMA, California — Have you ever attended a NASCAR race? Better yet, when did you last tune in to a motorsport event on television? If you are anything like me, it was probably that time you were cruising through the channels in search of another sporting event. With that being said, I recently had the opportunity to spend a weekend at NASCAR event and the experience altered my perception of the sport.
When Toyota extended a special invitation to a handful of women automotive journalists (myself included) to attend a weekend of NASCAR in Sonoma, I decided to give it a shot and signed up. There were two races taking place at Sonoma Raceway: the Carneros 200 of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West on Saturday and the Toyota/Save Mart 350 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday—the latter included entry to the Toyota Racing suite for a total VIP experience.
The exclusively planned program granted us access to behind the scenes of NASCAR comprised of a FOX Sports studios guided tour with producer Pam Miller, a Q&A with Jill Gregory, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for NASCAR, and a garage tour with Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson. We were also treated to a meet and greet with Kyle Busch, a hot lap in a pace car with Erik Jones, and dinner with the fierce and up-and-coming Hailie Deegan.
I had never considered attending a NASCAR race prior to the invitation from Toyota. To me, NASCAR had always been that sport from another planet that I merely caught a glimpse of from a flat-screen mounted on the wall of a pizza parlor or sports bar. I could not fathom how any person had the attention span to watch a televised NASCAR race in its entirety.
Jeff Gordon was the only name I knew of in NASCAR. When I was growing up in the 90s, there was a plethora of commercials that featured Gordon promoting some product or just being a heartthrob. I can still vividly remember seeing his DuPont racing uniform on TV. A classmate that wore his DuPont jacket almost every day in eighth grade also helped reinforce it. Gordon dominated in the mid 90s, winning the Winston Cup Series championship in 1995, 1997, and 1998, and finishing in second in 1997
Though do not qualify as a loyal racing fan, I decided to give NASCAR a chance to shift my opinion rather than drag my feet to Sonoma Raceway in utter apathy. In doing so, I hoped to learn more about this motorsports’ culture, gain some general racing knowledge, and enjoy a sport I normally don’t watch. The fact that there was a 16-year-old female driver competing against 25 men also struck a chord with me.
We arrived to the 2.52-mile road course tucked away in the Sonoma Mountains on a blazingly hot Saturday morning. As we entered the venue, the onslaught of activities playing out caused my eyes to wander wildly. The air smelled of a mixture of exhaust fumes, hot dogs, and funnel cake. I felt like I was at a county fair, rock concert, and on the set of a movie all at the same time.
After a brief perusal of the grounds, we were taken on a tour of the FOX Sports broadcast compound. Have you ever been curious about what it takes to broadcast a live motorsport event? Neither had I, but if you were there to witness what I describe as a group of tech-savvy scientists working magic in mobile facilities, you would be intrigued.
I learned that nothing in a live motorsport broadcast is scripted. The production team goes by instinct and experience to produce the live broadcast in a spontaneous manner. Those on-screen graphics and statistics that inform us of the latest developments are handled entirely in one room. The tape room is responsible for replays, features, camera angles, and has access to all the cameras on the track. Then there is the onboard camera room, which controls the angles that are transmitted from a race car’s four cameras.
That monumental amount of information put me in the mood to watch drivers duke it out on the racetrack. The sound of rumbling engines, impact wrenches removing tires, and scent of deteriorating rubber seemed very appealing.
There were 26 drivers competing in the 64-lap Carneros 200, a total of 127 miles. I was given a pair of ear plugs but opted for the raw and deafening noise coming from the snake of cars turning right on the track. The stock cars trailed one and another within inches. By the time the qualifying race ended it was outrageously hot in wine country. Fortunately, we had seats in the shaded area of the grandstands. Deegan was the only female participant in the race and qualified third; she finished the race in an impressive seventh place. Will Rodgers took home the victory, making his first win in Sonoma.
Deegan is the youngest of nine drivers in NASCAR’s Next class. This teenage phenom from Temecula, California received her high school diploma at the racetrack before the start of the race. Deegan is the type of driver this sport needs more of. Women are uncommon in professional racing and an increase in their participation has the potential to attract a broader audience and increase viewership. It was both empowering and inspiring to witness this young driver step up to the challenge and compete against veteran Cup drivers.
On Sunday I was instructed to hop into the back of a Toyota Camry pace car for a ride on the track. I had no idea who the driver was and minutes later I realized it was Erik Jones, an up-and-coming 22-year-old that won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in 2015 and was the Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2017. The value of the thrilling hot lap skyrocketed. My cold pit pass placed me in the fan zone where I saw several professional race car drivers walk on the red carpet. Caitlyn Jenner also made an appearance, as did Guy Fieri and MC Hammer.
Following our meet and greet with Kyle Busch and Q&A with Jill Gregory, we made our way to the Toyota Racing suite for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 main event. With all the amenities the suite had to offer, I felt like royalty. I did my best to survive watching the entire 218.9 miles of the race in one setting and inevitably broke somewhere in the middle of the 110 laps. Going for a walk in between really helped. When I returned to the suite, Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 78 Toyota Camry had a strong lead that he held on to, going home victorious.
For all of my life I had assumed that going to a NASCAR race would be boring. However I was wrong. What you get on a flat-screen does not compare to what you see in person. A live race is a totally different experience—one worth having at least once in your lifetime.
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Additional photography courtesy of Toyota Racing and Deegan Family