They race around the track at 200 miles an hour, their high-horsepowered machines covered with corporate sponsor logos.
The same can be said of the walls of the tracks and the events themselves, as Saturday nights Bank of America 500 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Charlotte, N.C., would suggest.
The reason for this column? No, Im not having an old sportswriter days flashback.
The executive who oversees the sponsorships, including the recruitment of the sponsors themselves, was born and raised in Modesto, attended local schools, and her family still lives here.
Meet Jill Gregory, NASCARs vice president of industry services. Its a vague title, but in fact it places her among the most valuable and powerful women executives in all of sports. She was among the first Game Changers: Women in Sports Business honorees by the Sports Business Journal and Sports Business Daily in 2011. This year, she was among the top women in business in Charlotte, N.C., where she lives and works.
Gregory has coordinated sponsorships with NASCARs racing teams and with the 25 tracks that host Sprint Cup and Nationwide events since she hired on with NASCAR in 2007. She came aboard at a time when the economy was in a downward spiral, but has done her part to keep NASCAR growing in sponsorships and popularity.
She also works with marquee NASCAR drivers to promote the sport, and is involved in developing the next generation of NASCAR stars through NASCAR Next. The program identifies potential star drivers at an early age 15 to 20 years old and schools them on how to develop their skills both behind the wheel and behind the microphone, in front of a TV camera or in a sit-down interview. Solid relationships with the media help grow the fans base and the NASCAR brand.
When drivers bump and crash on the track, and then rip into each other in the pits and press conferences afterward? Not a problem.
Theyre racing at 200 miles an hour just inches away from each other, she said. Its tense by nature. We want our drivers to have personalities and we want the fans to see that. We just have to be mindful of when it crosses a line.
A quick background: The daughter of Dennis and Judy Gregory, Jill graduated from Grace Davis High in 1983, spent a year at Modesto Junior College and then went on to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where she graduated with a degree in journalism. She went to work for a sports marketing company in the Bay Area, embarking on an odyssey that has taken her to Los Angeles, Houston, New York and other cities. She worked on the sponsorship side for companies including Texaco, Bank of America and Nextel (now Sprint) before joining NASCAR six years ago.
Im kind of old-fashioned, dad Dennis told me. I keep a regular phone (address) book. Ive got about three full pages of her (Jill) old addresses and phone numbers.
Gregory certainly embodies one of those local kids who goes off and becomes successful, not unlike filmmaker George Lucas, sports agent/team owner Jeffrey Moorad, and actors Jeremy Renner and Timothy Olyphant. Their common denominator? They all used their experiences growing up here as the foundation that enabled them to create and seize opportunities in their chosen professions. NASCAR wants its executives to receive the same kind of recognition in their hometowns, and embarked on a campaign to publicize them.
Gregory, as a Modestan, probably seemed like an unlikely person to become an auto-racing executive.
We played tennis and swam at the SOS Club, she said. My dad was very involved in the SOS, and we spent every hour of the weekend at the SOS. We were always outside.
Her family, along with several others, spend a couple of weeks camping each summer at Pinecrest.
Real camping, she said. You know tents, dirt, campfires. None of the trailer or cabin stuff. No iPhones or computer games allowed.
But there was a link to motorsports. Cousins Ross, Steve and Michael Bava, and John, Greg and Mark Largent were into racing. She went along with them to events in Stockton, Montereys Laguna Seca and Sears Point (now Sonoma Raceway). Sonoma hosts the Toyota-Save Mart 350, which has its own valley connection: the supermarket chain founded in Modesto and owned by Modestos Bob Piccinini. The sponsorship began years before Gregory joined the NASCAR team. They do visit when the race comes around each June, though.
So while she was only a marginal racing fan, she had been to some races and understood the atmosphere. That came in handy as her career progression took her deep into the sport and its industry. Her parents and surroundings also prepared her.
I grew up on Magnolia Street, she said. I always felt I wasnt afraid to go and try something else. I always knew if I needed to come back, to regroup, I always could.
Her sisters, Susanne and Jennifer, were raised the same way. Susanne worked for Coca-Cola in Atlanta before returning to California (she now lives in El Dorado Hills). Jennifer also went to Atlanta, where she is a personal trainer while also working for the family machining business in Modesto, Ejector Manufacturing, via online.
Were proud of all of our girls, dad Dennis said.
As they should be. After all, they were the original sponsors.