Photo by Ash Daniel
When it comes to keeping his venue in the public eye, there's seemingly nothing Dennis Bickmeier, the president of Richmond International Raceway, won't do.
"Yesterday, I rode a camel in the camel races at Colonial Downs," the 46-year-old Ohio native groans over his creaking Monday bones. "I feel like I've been in a car accident today." It's all part of putting on what the seasoned sports administrator calls his "promoter's hat."
"We can't just be track operators," he says. "I've got to be out in the public."
When he's out there, Bickmeier is quick to remind people of his raceway's illustrious history. The track hosted its first NASCAR showdown in 1953; Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Denny Hamlin and Dale Jarrett are among the well-known drivers who can claim legendary races here. "RIR was very important in NASCAR's formative years, and it remains very important in its growth and in its future," Bickmeier says, giving his pitch. "We're the only three-quarter-mile track that the Sprint Cup Series races on. That's a huge advantage for us and gives us a unique brand element. And the race in September is the last to make the [NASCAR points] chase."
One of Bickmeier's goals is to keep his sprawling 1,000-acre destination spot in eastern Henrico County occupied and "top of mind" in April and September. That's when RIR hosts the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races. But in between the pit stops and checkered flags, there are crafts shows, horticulture expos, concerts, chili cook-offs and antiques fairs to navigate. According to a study conducted by the Washington Economics Group, the raceway is responsible for $467 million in total economic activity to the region anually.
Richmond International Raceway
Formerly known as:
- Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway 1969 to 1988
- Virginia State Fairgrounds 1964 to 1968
- Atlantic Rural [Exposition] Fairgrounds 1946 to 1963
Owned by International Speedway Corp.
Seating: 86,830 total seats and
40 luxury suites.
Tickets: 866-455-RACE (7223) or rir.com
- NASCAR Nationwide Series Race, Sept. 6
- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race, Sept. 7
- Central Virginia Celtic Festival and Highland Games, Oct. 20-21
*Racing dates for 2014 not available by press time
"We really wanted to clean up and refresh the facility," he says when asked about priorities. In his two years at RIR, Bickmeier has instituted a $10 million-plus tune-up of the raceway complex — revamping the midway, cleaning up the concourses and overhauling the bathrooms. "We never really had a main gate," says Tiny Dawson, the venue's manager of guest services. "Now we have this beautiful, gorgeous main gate where it's sort of the focal point for the food court, the merchandising tent, the trailers … all the amenities people expect." Bickmeier and his staff aren't shy about letting people know about the changes. He loves social media — his Twitter handle is @RIRprez — and he's been reaching out to NASCAR followers and the local community in innovative ways. "Since Dennis got here, they are listening to the race fans and taking action," says Frank Decker, a retired Navy officer and lifelong stock car enthusiast from Chesapeake who sits on the raceway's Fan Advisory Board. "Just about anywhere on the RIR track, you can see the action," he adds. "They've improved the view and changed the seating to give more room in the seats." Crews also have been more expeditious in clearing the famous D-shaped asphalt oval after an accident, he adds, "so you get back to racing again." It's all about pleasing the fan, says Bickmeier, who previously served as vice president of consumer sales and marketing at Michigan International Speedway. "At all of the racetracks, everyone is focused on the fan experience. We're no different. But when I got here, I found that there was no one person or department leading the charge for us in outreach." He was looking for "the voice of the fan." Bickmeier found him in Dawson, a retired Henrico County firefighter who had been in and around the racetrack for decades. "I worked this track back in 1968 when it was dirt, as a volunteer," says Dawson, 64. Since 2003, he'd been serving as a consultant during the months of racing, and Bickmeier coaxed him out of retirement to head up visitor outreach and volunteer training. "Paul Sawyer owned this racetrack [before International Speedway Corp.]," Dawson says. "It was basically run as a family operation. If you came in one day and knocked on the door out front and said, ‘I need to talk to Paul,' you'd just go back and talk to Paul. When ISC bought the track, it took on more of a life as a business. It had to be run that way." But many of the stock car diehards felt left out. Starting in 2008, NASCAR events failed to sell out at RIR after years of overflow seating. There was stagnation and uncertainty about the future. When Bickmeier came in, Dawson says, "things changed dramatically. This guy puts the fan first." "You can't miss the changes," the advisory board's Decker echoes. "If someone hasn't been to Richmond in the last two years, they wouldn't recognize the place." For Bickmeier, it's a tricky balancing act. "We have a lot of fans that grew up following racing or have some family attachment to it," he says. "And then we have a lot of fans where someone is bringing them to their first race and they get hooked." He falls into the latter category. The raceway president didn't grow up as a NASCAR guy, although sports management was a focus. He studied journalism and sports administration at Ohio University, where he won an internship with the Los Angeles Dodgers and moved to California. He ended up staying there for more than a decade ("I still can't believe that," he says) working in various public relations roles with a variety of sports teams — the Dodgers, the Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks, and the Los Angeles Rams. He can vividly recall his first stock car race. "It was June 1997, which was the first NASCAR race at California Speedway," he says. He was there to work the media tent. "I just fell in love with it. I was blown away by the enormity of the event. Our events really attack all of the senses, and that's what happened to me that day." He acknowledges that the culture of racing is different from other sports. "Our sport was built on families — the France family started it — so that aspect of it, that down-home tradition, that is a key element of our sport and why people love it," he says. "The values of the people in our sport and driving our sport equate to everyday people." Bickmeier says he's concerned about bringing in, and keeping, younger patrons. "How do you keep those generations of race fans coming — where a dad brought a son or daughter and then they are going to bring somebody?" he asks. "We've created family seating sections, we've got a Kids Zone now. … We didn't have that 10 years ago. It's a long day, and if you want to bring out families, you've got to give them something to do." Bickmeier and his wife, Erin, are passing along the NASCAR family values to their three children, Joshua, 9, Kaitlyn, 7, and Nathan, 5; his oldest learned how to count by watching the numbers on the race cars. So far, he gives Richmond a thumbs-up. "There are so many fun activities to do here," he says, giddy over the fact that "you can get downtown in minutes." He recently scaled the SunTrust building for the Over The Edge charity, netting $2,000 for the Special Olympics, and he says that people might see him out doing promotions at local events with the speedway's pace car. Thankfully, there are no more even-toed ungulates on the itinerary for now. "I placed fourth out of four, unfortunately," he says about his day on the camel hump, stumping for his facility the hard way. "I was racing two professional horse jockeys and last year's winner. I was, like, ‘Man, I'm already behind the eight ball here.' "