SONOMA, Calif. (KRON) — NASCAR comes back to the Bay Area for the Toyota Save Mart 350 this weekend, and with it come the new Next Gen NASCARS. KRON4 spoke with 2004 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch and Cup Series driver Ross Chastain about the new rides and how they are preparing for the upcoming race.
The Next Gen NASCAR — also known as the Gen-7 car — is the most recent iteration of the sport’s race car and is currently in use in the NASCAR Cup Series. This version of the car was originally meant to be released in 2021; the pandemic caused races to be delayed, and the decision was made to hold off until this year. The car debuted in February at the 2022 Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum in Los Angeles.
The Next Gen NASCAR has larger wheels and a new rear-facing view camera. One of the most notable shifts in the Next Gen is the use of a diffuser on the racecars for the first time. A diffuser allows for the car to have better aerodynamic performance, reducing drag and increasing the car’s capacity for speed.
Ross Chastain told KRON4 how the newest racecars are more airtight then they used to be, and therefore run even hotter than previous iterations, “The drivers back in the day were not dealing with the temperatures that we are, they had a lot more airflow.” Chastain learned that lesson personally when he cramped up during a Truck Series race in Texas and had to receive two bags of IV fluids due to dehydration.
One of the aims of the new cars is to even the playing field and keep the sport competitive. Kurt Busch says the cars have been challenging to handle since their rollout, “I’m a 22-year veteran, but I feel like I’m a rookie with how many things are different.”
Diversity in NASCAR
KRON4 spoke with Jill Gregory, the General Manager at Sonoma Raceway and a Bay Area native, about how racing changed her life. “I actually came to my first NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway, which was known as Sears Point at the time.” Gregory said. “My cousins dragged me to a race, and I was not a fan. I have to say, don’t tell anybody… I was struck by just the sights and the sounds and the excitement, and also the sense of community.”
Later, Gregory went on to work for NASCAR as an executive, notably guiding the brand through various diversity initiatives which came to the forefront after a rope that appeared to be tied into a noose was found in Bubba Wallace’s team garage amidst the already racially-charged 2020. Wallace is one of only a handful of Black drivers in the history of the NASCAR Cup Series. The incident was later investigated by the FBI, which determined the tied rope was not a hate crime because it had been in the garage since 2019.
After the incident in Wallace’s team garage and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020, NASCAR took a step into the national spotlight when it banned the confederate flag from being flown at NASCAR events:
The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.NASCAR
Gregory knows that the value of NASCAR is in it’s ability to build community, “I want as many people to understand, and love, and participate in the sport that I love.” She believes that the Sonoma Raceway is in a good place to help grow and diversify the sport, “I think what we’re trying to do here is be the leader.” Gregory told KRON4.
The goals for diversity and inclusion are particularly important to the survival of the sport of NASCAR. According to Statista approximately 91% of NASCAR fans identify as white and the age of the average viewer is 58 years old. In a country that is growing increasingly more diverse, NASCAR could be missing out on that growth if it doesn’t make efforts to reach new audiences.
According to Nielson Scarborough, the NASCAR fan base is growing increasingly diverse, even if slowly. In 2011 1 out of 5 NASCAR fans identified as a race other than white, and in 2021 that number grew to 1 out of 4.
NASCAR looking forward
One big hurdle that many families face when exploring racing is the financial cost. Some drivers suggest simulators for young drivers to get experience in the sport without having to take on such a large financial burden.
Though NASCAR Cup Series driver Ross Chastain fell in love with driving when handling tractors on a watermelon farm, he told KRON4 that there are ways for new and young drivers to get involved in the sport, “There’s entry-level classes at most short tracks. You can go get a Chevy Camaro. Mine was a Monte Carlo…You could be racing every week and have fun with it.”
One outreach program seeing great results is Daniel’s Amigos. Daniel’s Amigos is a group that grew out of support of Mexican NASCAR Cup Series driver Daniel Suárez. Suárez will be bringing 300-400 race fans out to the Sonoma Raceway to enjoy their first NASCAR race, “This is my way to bring more people to the racetrack and let them see how welcoming and just how much fun this sport is for everyone,” Suárez said of the program.
NASCAR’s drivers are seeing the benefits of the growth too. Kurt Busch told KRON4 that NASCAR is seeing results from their outreach efforts, “I’m hearing that easily 60-70% of the fans at track now are new fans.”
NASCAR Cup Series standings
Coming into race weekend at Sonoma, Ross Chastain has been fighting over first place with young gun Chase Elliott for the most recent part of the season, but that changed last weekend. Kyle Busch had a big Sunday at the Enjoy Illinois 300, earning a 2nd-place finish and sliding into 2nd place in the Cup Series Standings with 498 points. This kicked Ross Chastain down into 3rd place with 490 points.
Kurt Busch and his younger brother Kyle will have to battle it out from a few places away, as Kurt is currently in position 17 in the Cup Series while Kyle sits at number 2. Kurt Busch told KRON4 that racing with his brother is a big part of the fun, “if I finish 14th I check the stats to make sure he’s behind me…It’s fun to race with him, but at the same time it’s fun to beat him.”
The Toyota Save Mart 350 on June 12 won’t be your average oval track. Sonoma Raceway boasts a winding, 2.5 mile, road-course track that Gregory refers to as, “a high consequence racetrack… it kinda means that you get into trouble pretty quickly if you don’t pay attention.”
Kurt Busch says road courses are “demanding…the body goes through a lot more with cars at the road courses.” But he also says they are some of his favorites, “I just told myself it’s like a weekend off.”
If the road course sounds exciting, and you are feeling the need to test out your own skills on a racetrack, you’re in luck. Sonoma Raceway will be offering the opportunity to drive your own vehicle on the racetrack this weekend. If you’re feeling the need for speed, but would prefer to ride shotgun, you can also ride in an open-wheel super sports car while a professional driver takes you on hot laps around the track.
If you’re looking for a fun way to donate to a local charity, check out Sonoma Raceway’s Adopt-a-Sheep program. Sonoma Raceway has a flock of sheep that maintain the race grounds by feeding on the grass that can act as a tinder for a wildfire. “It’s just a fun way to…raise money for Speedways Children’s Charity Sonoma. All of the proceeds get donated back at the end of the year through our grant program to local charities here in Sonoma,” Gregory said of the program.