Martin Truex Jr. (#78), Trevor Bayne (#6) and Chase Elliott (#24) during the Sprint Cup Series race in Richmond. (Photo by Nicole Cohen)
The weather was perfect for a day race, with mild temperatures and a breeze during the Saturday NASCAR ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 Sprint Cup Series race, on April 23 and 24. What was significant about this month’s races, beyond the fact that Richmond International Raceway at 600 E. Laburnum Avenue turns 70 this year, was its return to day racing after switching to night in 1991. Dennis Bickmeier, raceway president, said in a March interview that the goal was to draw more families. “We really need to focus on kids and families and generations coming to the racetrack together,” he said.
It seems that goal was accomplished, as there was a noticeable increase of families that came out both Saturday and Sunday. In fact, many families even traveled from out-of-state to come out for the races including Joey and Melissa Staubs from West Virginia, who brought their son, godson and niece. “It’s such a great experience for the kids especially when they have more things to do during the day. We got to do the Jimmie Johnson Q&A and [my son] loved that. He wants to be a driver now,” Melissa says.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag during Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. He
recently made headlines for revealing that his favorite sandwich was banana and Hellmann’s mayonnaise on Twitter, causing a massive reaction among fans and media nationally. Earnhardt Jr. says he was surprised by how much commotion was made over that. So he decided to start a two-week fundraising drive to fight childhood hunger in early April. The Dale Jr. Foundation raised funds to benefit the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack, which provides food to children who go hungry over the weekend. Both Earnhardt Jr. and Hellmann’s agreed to match the received donations of up to $50,000 each.
RIR joined in on the fundraising by selling the “Banana Blessings” sandwiches at select concession stands throughout race weekend. Sold for $2 each, $1 from every sale went to The Dale Jr. Foundation for Blessings in a Backpack.
This was Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth Xfinity series win at RIR. He says he has a history with short-track racing like RIR’s. “I started racing late models at Myrtle Beach and this place is almost identical to the beach — slick, wore out, same shape, same banking, same transitions and all that stuff … I’ve always felt pretty good here.”
Carl Edwards had his second consecutive win of the current season during Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race. Also his second win in Richmond, he says, “That’s the most fun I’ve had at Richmond, that was a blast. I don’t know what it looks like from the outside, but from the inside all the cars are out there searching for grip, crew chiefs are making changes and it really was about managing the Goodyears on the racetrack … it was a day race so the heat helped.”
Joe Gibbs, Edward’s team owner, says, “I know that Richmond made a decision too, that they wanted to have a day race so that they could invite families and have more family participation. I certainly saw that … I think if we have great races we know that we’ve got our fans support and certainly here at Richmond too, so I think we’ve got a lot to look forward to in the future. I really do.”
Even so there were mixed opinions on having a day race. Longtime race goers said they preferred the party atmosphere of a night race. Greg and Ryan Leister and Joe Dixon traveled from Pennsylvania to Richmond. While they say they did see more families, they personally preferred being able to tailgate all day and then attend the race in the evening. “We felt rushed,” says Greg.
Sunday’s race was the first ever for Bettina Moody who lives in Richmond. She says, “I like it better I think in the daytime. I’m just able to see where I’m going both inside and outside, so I guess just more for safety reasons.”
Barbie Arbogast from West Virginia seconds that sentiment. She and husband Ken Arbogast drove to Richmond for the weekend to do some tailgating and catch the races. Not being from the area she said it’s nicer to be able to see with the sun still out. “I personally liked it because it’s warmer,” she says.
Richmonder Ginny Travis came out to the Sprint Cup race with her son Michael Travis. Her brother, David Palko, drove in from Pittsburgh. This was their very first race and they said they made the decision to come simply because it was something they had never done before. “It was a lot of fun, very family oriented,” says Ginny.
They decided to spring for the full experience, obtaining pit passes and participating in the Track Takeover, where fans are allowed to walk the track prior to the race. “I would recommend garage and pit passes to anyone who has never done it before, that gave me the whole enchilada, it was absolutely terrific,” says Palko.
(Photo by Nicole Cohen)
Michael even received a lug nut from the Hendrick Motorsports pit crew as they explained what it was like being on the crew of a stock-car. Michael truly enjoyed his first experience at a physical track. “I thought you would just come and watch the cars go around in a circle, but we got to meet the pit crew and there were tons of things to do, everybody was really nice … it was awesome.”
James Jordan from Virginia Beach says he would rather have a night race. “I like the atmosphere of the track at night and it’s cooler. I don’t like the change to Sunday.” Having the race on Sunday as opposed to Saturday night, means he has to travel back home right away to get back in time for work the next morning.
So while the verdict is still out on whether fans prefer a day or night race, there’s still the best of both worlds available as NASCAR returns to RIR in September for the “One Last Race to Make the Chase,” the last qualifying event for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. That race will mark the 25th anniversary of night races at RIR.
Learn more about RIR's 70-year history and what's next for the track here.