SONOMA, Calif. (KRON) — NASCAR returns to the Bay Area this weekend for the Toyota Save Mart 350, and with it comes the new next-generation NASCARS. KRON4 spoke to 2004 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch and Cup Series driver Ross Chastain about the new cars and how they’re preparing for the upcoming race.
Next Generation NASCAR
The Next Gen NASCAR – also known as the Gen 7 car – is the latest version of the sport’s race car and is currently used in the NASCAR Cup Series. This version of the car was originally scheduled for release in 2021; The pandemic caused the races to be delayed and it was decided to wait until this year. The car debuted at the 2022 Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles in February.
Next-gen NASCAR has bigger wheels and a new rear-view camera. One of the most notable changes in the Next Gen is the use of a diffuser on the race cars for the first time. A diffuser allows the car to have better aerodynamic performance, reduces drag and increases the car’s speed.
Ross Chastain told KRON4 that the latest race cars are more airtight than before and therefore run even hotter than previous iterations: “The drivers back then couldn’t handle the temperatures like we did, they had a lot more airflow. Chastain learned that lesson personally when he had a cramp during a Truck Series race in Texas and had to be put on two bags of IV fluids due to dehydration.
One of the goals of the new cars is to level the playing field and keep the sport competitive. Kurt Busch says the cars have been a challenge since their launch: “I’m a 22-year veteran, but I feel like a rookie because so many things are different.”
Diversity at NASCAR
KRON4 spoke to Jill Gregory, General Manager of Sonoma Raceway and a Bay Area native, about how racing has changed her life. “I actually got to my first NASCAR race at Sonoma Raceway, then known as Sears Point,” said Gregor. “My cousins dragged me to a race and I wasn’t a fan. I have to say don’t tell anyone… I was struck by the sights and sounds and the excitement and also the sense of community.”
Gregory later worked as an executive for NASCAR, notably leading the brand through various diversity initiatives that came to the fore after a rope apparently tied into a noose was found in Bubba Wallace’s team garage amidst the already racially charged 2020. Wallace’s one of only a handful of black drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history. The incident was later investigated by the FBI, who determined that the tied rope was not a hate crime as it had been in the garage since 2019.
Following the Wallace team garage incident 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 raising of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events:
The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events contradicts our commitment to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love of racing and the community it creates is what makes our fans and our sport special. Displaying the Confederate flag will be banned at all NASCAR events and sites.
Gregory knows that NASCAR’s value lies in its ability to build a community. “I want as many people as possible to understand, love and participate in the sport that I love.” She believes Sonoma Raceway is a good place to help the sport grow and diversify. “I think what we’re trying to do here is be a leader,” Gregory told KRON4.
The goals for diversity and inclusion are particularly important to the survival of the sport of NASCAR. According to Statista, about 91% of NASCAR fans identify themselves as white and the average age of the viewer is 58 years old. In a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse, NASCAR could miss out on that growth if it doesn’t make efforts to reach new audiences.
According to Nielson Scarborough, the NASCAR fanbase is becoming more diverse, albeit slowly. In 2011, 1 in 5 NASCAR fans identified as some race other than white, and in 2021 that number rose to 1 in 4.
A major hurdle many families face when exploring racing is the financial cost. Some drivers propose simulators for young drivers to gain experience in the sport without having to take on such a large financial burden.
Although NASCAR Cup Series driver Ross Chastain fell in love with driving while operating tractors on a watermelon farm, he told KRON4 that there are opportunities for new and young drivers to get involved in the sport: “There are entry-level classes on most short trips. You can get a Chevy Camaro. Mine was a Monte Carlo… You could race every week and have fun with it.”
One outreach program that is getting great results is Daniel’s Amigos. Daniel’s Amigos is a group formed in support of Mexican NASCAR Cup Series driver Daniel Suárez. Suárez will bring 300 to 400 race fans to Sonoma Raceway to enjoy their first NASCAR race. ‘ Suárez said of the program.
NASCAR drivers are also seeing the benefits of growth. Kurt Busch told KRON4 that NASCAR is seeing results from their outreach efforts: “I’m hearing that easily 60-70% of the fans on the track are new fans now.”
NASCAR Cup Series Rankings
At the start of the Sonoma race weekend, Ross Chastain spent the latter part of the season battling young wild Chase Elliott for first place, but that all changed last weekend. Kyle Busch had a great Sunday at the Enjoy Illinois 300, finishing 2nd and slipping to 2nd in the Cup Series standings with 498 points. This knocked Ross Chastain down to 3rd place with 490 points.
Kurt Busch and his younger brother Kyle are a couple of spots away as Kurt currently sits 17th in the Cup Series while Kyle sits in 2nd. Kurt Busch told KRON4 that racing with his brother is a big part of the fun: “When I finish 14th I’ll check the stats to make sure he’s behind me… He’s fun to race with but at the same time it is fun to beat him.”
The Toyota Save Mart 350 on June 12 isn’t going to be your average oval track. Sonoma Raceway features a twisting, 2.5-mile stretch of road that Gregory describes as “a high-consequence racetrack…means you can get into trouble pretty quickly if you’re not careful.”
Kurt Busch says street courses are “challenging… the body goes through a lot more with cars on street courses.” But he also says they’re among his favorites: “I just said to myself, it’s like a weekend off.”
If the street course sounds exciting and you feel the need to test your own skills on a circuit, you’re in luck. This weekend, Sonoma Raceway is offering the opportunity to drive your own vehicle on the racetrack. If you feel the need for speed but would rather drive a shotgun, you can also ride in an open-wheel supercar while a professional driver takes you on hot laps of 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. At Sonoma Raceway there is a herd of sheep that maintain the racecourse by feeding on the grass, which can serve as tinder for wildfire. “It’s just fun raising money for Speedways Children’s Charity Sonoma. All proceeds will be donated to local charities here in Sonoma at the end of the year through our scholarship program,” said Gregory of the program.
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