The first race at the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds (now Richmond International Raceway) featured open-wheel cars on a dirt, half-mile track on October 12, 1946. (Photo courtesy Joe Kelly)
Richmond International Raceway was a very different place when it opened in 1946. Known then as the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds, it was a 1/2-mile dirt track, and the first in the United States built after World War II strictly for car and motorcycle racing.
The now 3/4–mile paved track, built for stock-car speed, celebrates its 70th anniversary as NASCAR returns later this month. And more changes are in the wind.
After two decades of night racing, the raceway, on Laburnum Avenue in Henrico County, is reintroducing daytime races. Dennis Bickmeier, raceway president, says the goal is to draw more families. “We really need to focus on kids and families and generations coming to the racetrack together,” he says.
NASCAR race attendance is down nationally, and RIR has been no exception. After hitting a peak of about 112,000 in May 2008, RIR attendance started to drop, hitting 89,000 in September 2012, after which NASCAR stopped reporting attendance.
The recession thinned crowds, and coming out of it, Bickmeier says, “I think people were making some decisions on what to do with their disposable income.”
To woo fans, the track over the last several years has expanded the Midway, which features souvenirs, games, food and music. It also has renovated restrooms, built a video tower that displays live racing, and made parking easier. This year, the popular Track Takeover returns, so ticket holders can walk on the track before the race begins. More recently, the backstretch seating with its limited visibility has been removed.
“From a ticket standpoint we went through the downturn, we’ve stabilized it and we’re building our way back,” Bickmeier says.
International Speedway Corporation, which owns and operates RIR, as well as 11 other racetracks, just completed a $400 million renovation of its most famous track, the Daytona International Speedway, known for the Daytona 500. The company recently announced that its Richmond and Phoenix tracks will be renovated next.
Whatever the future holds for the raceway, one thing is certain: At 70 years in, it’s been quite a ride.
The Early Years
Meet Joe Kelly, a retired racing radio show host whom raceway staff calls the unofficial RIR historian. Kelly has been visiting the track since about 1948.
It’s Kelly who says RIR was the first track after World War II in the U.S. built for car and motorcycle racing. Existing tracks had been used for horse racing.
“Motorcycles were very big here in Richmond because the South didn’t have any major teams — no baseball, no football, none of that, everything was always minor, but when the racing came, that was big time and the motorcycles actually drew more than the cars,” Kelly says.
The first race here was on Oct. 12, 1946. The victor was Ted Horn, driving an open-wheel car (wheels outside the car body). Horn died two years later in an accident at the racetrack in DuQuoin, Illinois.
The first NASCAR Grand National Division race took place on April 19, 1953, and Lee Petty took the checkered flag. His speed averaged 45 mph, which is one-third the average of today’s top speeds. Thus began the Petty dynasty. Lee, his son Richard, and Richard’s son, Kyle, all have taken the checkered flag at RIR, but it’s Richard who holds the track record of 13 wins. Seven of those wins were consecutive, which is also a track record.
Seven-time winner at RIR and NASCAR Hall of Famer, Bobby Allison, recalls a stressful situation in Richmond. “There have been several good times along the way, but one of them was when I was driving for Mario Rossi, it was a Dodge and we blew our engine on Saturday afternoon,” says Allison. “We flew back to Spartanburg [South Carolina] and built us an engine … flew it back, put it in on Sunday morning and won the race that afternoon.”
In February, Denny Hamlin, a Chesterfield native, won the Daytona 500 in the closest finish in that race’s history. He credits RIR not only with making him a more strategic driver, but also with planting the seeds of his racing ambition.
“Sitting in the grandstands and smelling the fuel and the rubber and hearing the cars, I knew right there that racing is what I wanted to do.”
Virginia USA Federated Auto Parts 400 Race Weekend, September 2014. (Photo courtesy RIR / Harrelson Archives)
Racing Under the Sun
The news that day racing will return April 23 (with the ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity Series race) has been met with mixed feelings among longtime fans.
Richmond native John Murray, who says he’s only missed about six races since 1979, favors night racing because it’s easier for the family to load up the RV and make a weekend of it. Plus, day races mean sitting in the sun. “Maybe after this first race here at RIR, we’ll change our minds,” he says.
Steven Vanderploeg, 33, of Mechanicsville, has been attending RIR races off and on since he was 4, he says. Night racing allows him to enjoy the track’s pre-race Midway activities and tailgating all day, he says, but “NASCAR has always been on a Sunday afternoon so I think it will be a little more nostalgic.”
Night racing isn’t entirely gone. September’s “One Last Race to Make the Chase” — the last qualifying event for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competition — will run “under the lights.”
As the renovation is planned, Bickmeier says the owners want to hear suggestions from fans.
“We’re in the very early stages of looking at the RIR of the future,” he says. “We’re trying to think about what does the next 20 years look like or in this case, what does the next 70 years look like? It’s going to be a pretty long process just to go through a variety of ideas to get to a final vision, so, I would say we’ve just dropped the green flag on that. We’re far from the checkered flag.”
WEB EXTRA: See more historical RIR photos here.