Here's one of Gillian Zucker's favorite stories from her days on the Hill, and it's hard to decide whether it says more about her or her alma mater. She never swam competitively before arriving at Hamilton, but "we had a swimming pool in the back yard at home, and I had decided that that was close enough," she says. She went to Coach Dave Thompson and told him she wanted to be on the swim team. "He looked at me like I was crazy," but he put her in the pool and had her swim some laps. "I thought I would die," she says. "I can only imagine what he must have been thinking."
When Zucker finally crawled out of the pool, Thompson was kind but less than enthusiastic, she recalls. "He said, 'Look, I don't know if you are really prepared for the rigors of being on a collegiate swim team. But you're welcome to come to a practice, and if you can hang in there, fine.'" Zucker indeed hung in there, and Thompson met her more than halfway. "I'm sure he thought I'd never make it, but he was fantastic," she says. "I got in extra practices, and he worked with me on my stroke to the point where I was actually able to swim on the team for two years."
The lesson, she believes, is the value of a sports program and a college where attention and encouragement are personal: Hamilton "is a place where, if you have the heart and the dedication and are willing to work hard, you can accomplish what you set out to do."
As president of the vast Auto Club Speedway — a two-mile oval and 92,000-plus seats on 568 acres in Fontana, Calif. — Zucker says her career is not so far removed from that college experience. It's about hard work, attention to detail and personal commitment. And while the speedway is in the headlines for major events such as the two annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekends and the drag races it hosts, it's busy more than 300 days of the year as a setting for commercials and films (Iron Man and The Bucket List), a training facility and more.
However quick it might have been, the road from Hamilton to Fulton was hardly a straightaway. An analysis of Zucker's skills at the Career Center suggested that she might enjoy sports journalism, so she caught up with a reporter at the Utica Observer-Dispatch who took her along to cover a Utica Devils hockey game. "But when we got there," she recalls, "I started watching the person who was director of PR or communications, and I thought, 'That's the job I want.'" She ended up serving an unpaid internship with the Devils, then, after graduation, wrote Neal Pilson '60 (see page 33), at the time president of CBS Sports, to ask for guidance. "He sent me a fax back — I'll never forget this, I think it was the first fax I ever got — and it said something to the effect of, 'I'm happy to help anyone from Hamilton. I'm in the midst of some very complex NFL negotiations, but here are a few names. Feel free to use my name when you call.' I called the first name on the list, immediately got an interview and had a job within a week."
Zucker still values the memory of that gesture from Pilson. "Without question, I owe my career to Hamilton," she says, and she maintains that professional network as well; she now works with Tim Renyi '00, corporate sales manager, who joined the track in 2006. "He's fabulous," Zucker says, "and most definitely having Hamilton College on his resume was the key to our interviewing him." Her personal ties to the College run even deeper. "My very best friends in the whole world and for the rest of my life are the friends I made at Hamilton," she says. "We still stay in touch, and they mean more to me than anything I can imagine, and that's part of what made my experience at Hamilton so special."
That first job, with a public relations firm that handled NFL properties, was followed by a job helping to start the World League of American Football (now NFL Europe), a year in sales with Sports Illustrated and a stint in minor league baseball with the Durham, N.C., Bulls before joining International Speedway Corp. and eventually moving to the top post at Auto Club Speedway three years ago.
Zucker concedes that it was an unusual career turn. When she attended her first race a decade ago, "I'd never been to a NASCAR event and didn't think it was something I'd be interested in," she says. She was wrong. She found herself transfixed by the fans' intensity — "It redefines what tailgating is," she laughs — as well as the creativity of the drivers' sponsors and, well, the sheer racket. She still rarely wears earplugs. "It is loud, but that's a huge part of what makes the event so exciting," she says. "The sound is so powerful that it's visceral. You can feel the motion. It's like nothing else."
She was hooked, and in retrospect it makes perfect sense, she says. "I think that what has always attracted me to sports, since the first time I went to a Yankees game with my dad, is the experience of a sporting event. Not necessarily just what goes on on the field — though the competition can be very exciting — but I remember sports as something that we did as a family, whether it be watching the New York Giants on television on Sundays or actually going to events. It was that magic that drew me to the idea of running a sports franchise. I wanted to be the one who was creating that experience for people."
As for the unlikely scenario of a dual creative writing and religion major ending up running a racetrack, she laughs. "I use them every day," she says. She talks about the power of major sports spectacles to "forge a community" among people, and about the power of the written word in the modern world. "The things that I learned at Hamilton," she says — "how to communicate, how to create a position and be able to write about it in a way that's convincing — they set you apart in today's business climate because of how important e-mail is." But "the unique benefit of a liberal arts education" also lies beyond particular skills, Zucker says. "What Hamilton teaches you is to be well-rounded, to think for yourself, to be creative and to look at problem-solving in a different way. I like to think that was my major at Hamilton."
What she does: As president of Auto Club Speedway in Fulton, Calif., she manages the day-to-day life of the track, overseeing operations, budgeting and finance, marketing and ticketing, and guest services. “I actually worry about everything from whether the grass is trimmed properly to whether the broadcast teams from Fox and ESPN have everything they need to do their job to whether the hot dogs are hot and the beer is cold.”