Last May, Richmond International Raceway celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of hosting NASCAR's top division. In April of 1953, Lee Petty became the inaugural winner of the first event NASCAR sanctioned at the famed short track. Since that time, the track has endured three name changes, four configurations, added lights, and has become one of the hottest tickets in all of motorsports.
Known primarily for its stock car racing, the history of facility pre-dates it's relationship with NASCAR and its origins are vested in the American tradition of open wheel competition.
Ted Horn won the very first event at the facility, then known as Strawberry Fields, in October of 1946, driving an open wheel champ car. Returning to its roots, RIR welcomed back open wheel racing in June of 2001, and has become one of the top tracks for the Indy Racing League.
Every May RIR hosts Winston Cup and Busch series events, and then again in September that also includes the Craftsman trucks. Sandwiched in between is IRL weekend.
Track public relations director Keith Green discussed the logistical aspects of hosting such different types of racing.
"One of the biggest things is we have to take down all the "Winston Cup" logos". Noted Green, who indicated that the man-hours required re-painting the facility is substantial.
Competing brand, Marlboro is heavily invested in the IRL. In addition, Marlboro's parent company, Phillip Morris is based in Richmond, making the event a show case event for one of the series' largest sponsors.
But the change the facility must endure to welcome the open wheel series is way beyond cosmetic: it must change attitudes.
With stock car racing being the most popular form of motorsports in the country, many fans think of Richmond as a classic Saturday night bullring, where "rubbin is racin", and fenders are those things that leave the track with wheel marks.
Arguably, the IRL puts on such a great show at the track, that any fan, regardless of loyalties will immediately recognize that open wheel racing at RIR is something special.
The key then becomes getting fans in the stands, and letting nature takes its course.
The raceway begins the process by keeping ticket prices low. The cost for a reserved seat at the IRL event is about one third that of the Cup races, that combined with heavy promotion is beginning to pack the grandstands.
"We do not market either of the cup races, but we heavily promote the IRL event", explains Green, realizing that many long time raceway fans may not be aware of the event, or simply do not follow other racing series.
Green has found that after the two previous events, many ticket holders have renewed their seats, and attendance figures have been respectful by league standards.
Although NASCAR remains the mainstay for the legendary track it is making every effort to cross promote the Indy cars to its larger fan base -- efforts that are being successful, because the quality of racing is unparalleled.
Richmond's action track is returning to its roots proving once again that everything old can be new again. With empty grandstands throughout the country, Richmond is proving that quality competition never went out of style.
-By: Thomas Chemris