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Julie Giese embraces challenges, guides Phoenix Raceway into new era

It was this time last year when Phoenix Raceway president Julie Giese was painstakingly preparing the facility for its upcoming NASCAR Cup Series race. Later in the 2020 season, the newly remodeled facility was scheduled to host the all-important season-ending Championship Weekend – a first for the track – and it felt appropriate for everyone to raise their game in anticipation.

Giese remembers the atmosphere was palpably upbeat. Phoenix Raceway was ready. The springtime race weekend played out to packed new grandstands with Joey Logano edging Kevin Harvick by a blink of an eye – .276 seconds – to win the NASCAR Cup Series race on March 8.

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Giese and her team’s work at the facility drew rave reviews, as did the racing on the track. The race teams, the fans, the industry – most everyone was looking forward to the potential of deciding a title at the historic desert oval later in the year.

And then COVID-19 hit. Hard.

NASCAR took bold, unprecedented steps in pausing the season, and the sport’s racing reality was altered when competition began again. Even so, the Championship Weekend in November was a huge success competitively – with multi-time Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott earning his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series title.

This weekend, as the country continues its medical protocols and vaccine distribution, Phoenix Raceway will welcome a limited number of fans to the track. For Giese, it’s another significant opportunity – her facility is hoping to fortify a NASCAR example for more normalized times ahead.

It’s been that kind of hit-the-ground-running tenure for Giese, who was named Phoenix Raceway president in October of 2018. But her confidence in her team and optimism about the future is unmistakable.

“I joke with the team that I missed the class in college on how to plan a championship during a pandemic,’’ Giese said.

“There’s a lot of things we want to accomplish out here and had hoped to accomplish already. You think about last year’s championship and that first championship in this market, in the state of Arizona, and we had such big dreams and big plans. They are still in play and we will do that down the road. We’re excited to have the opportunity but given the pandemic and the way the city, community and state rallied around this event last November was tremendous.’’

Christian Petersen | Getty Images
Christian Petersen | Getty Images

The Phoenix Raceway team worked that Championship Weekend as if it were fully normalized – from track preparation to raising the profile locally. And they did it with the full blessing of the community, which has recognized what a significant event this is.

“I still hear from people about the minute you stepped off the airplane into the airport, and we were allowed carte blanche from a signage perspective and then you get in the car and all the highway message boards and message boards about NASCAR championship weekend,’’ Giese said. “You get off onto Avondale Boulevard [by the track] and all the crosswalks are in checkerboard pattern. They put championship decals on the roadways.

“That excites me because we did all that during a pandemic with limitations. So, you think about, once we get past that what this community can do.”

As unforeseen as the circumstances were, Giese was as prepared as anyone could be. The Wisconsin native grew up on a family dairy farm, but her sights were always set on finding a career in racing – a sport that her whole family long loved.

Her second job out of college was with International Speedway Corporation, which quickly discovered that Giese was highly motivated, multi-talented and willing to take on any project. And projects she got – major ones from the “reimagining” remodel at the sport’s marquee Daytona International Speedway to a similarly massive $180 million project overseeing the Phoenix Raceway makeover immediately afterward.

The hard work and great potential was rewarded. At just 43 years old, Giese and former NASCAR executive Jill Gregory (now executive VP and general manager at Sonoma Raceway in California) are the only two women heading up the operations of major racing facilities on the NASCAR premier series schedule.

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“Honestly in my 20 years now in this industry, I cannot think of one moment where I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I was a female in this sport,’’ Giese says emphatically. “I grew up in this sport. It was my second job out of college. I was raised a race fan and I wanted to just do anything I could, starting at Watkins Glen then Daytona.

“I don’t think I ever encountered someone that didn’t want me to be successful. Instead they are all standing beside me and cheering me on and supporting whatever I needed,” Giese continued. “And I think that goes across all cross sections of our industry. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many different people and create those relationships that I’ve felt nothing but support. People that want to see me succeed and Phoenix Raceway succeed. There’s a lot of good people in this industry.”

This week, Phoenix Raceway again takes center stage in NASCAR. And the facility is primed and ready largely because of Giese’s leadership and attitude. It’s been an unprecedented tenure already, but meeting the challenges of the past have only magnified the possibilities ahead.

“I think we’ve all embraced it,” Giese said. “The team here is absolutely tremendous and everybody rose to the occasion.”