NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Richmond’s Dennis Bickmeier Implementing Fresh Ideas

Richmond International Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier is on a mission to make fans enjoy race weekends as much as possible. The man who took over operations at the 3/4-mile track in 2011 has since spearheaded an effort that makes fans the VIPs during its two NASCAR weekends.

As Bickmeier, who formerly worked in baseball, transitioned from serving as Vice President of Consumer Sales and Marketing for Michigan International Speedway to his current position, he has since made several changes to how race weekends are conducted at the speedway. We spoke with Bickmeier before the Federated Auto Parts 400, discussing social media, Richmond’s new and improved fan access,  why racing at Richmond has improved and more!

Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: How important of a role does social media play to help promote this and races in general?

Dennis Bickmeier: I think it provides a great connecting point to the fans. It seems like we’re in constant dialogue with them now via social media. To us, it’s been a great place for us to produce some original content and be able to push that out to the fans.

More than anything, it’s the interaction that we’re able to have, whether it’s real time with our fans or if they have a question, we’re monitoring it. If they have an issue, which some of the social media has become a customer service tool as well, we can respond and help them.

It’s become a great promotional tool for all of us to talk about our events. For us, it’s become a key part of our business. We have dedicated staff around social media to be our voice on it, and it’s definitely a key part of our marketing strategy.

Wolkin: What were some of the new ideas you guys are implementing for this past weekend’s race?

Bickmeier: The biggest thing centers around the fan appreciation. Part of that is a signature event on Saturday afternoon called “Gridside Live.” Anyone who has a ticket to the Federated Auto Parts 400 can come onto the track starting at two o’clock on Saturday. We have a number of drivers that will be coming out as part of the “Gridside Live” stage. They’ll be having a Q&A with fans, some of the drivers will be playing games with them on the video board, so that’s kind of the signature event for Saturday.

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)
Fans are a big part of the weekend in Richmond, but putting on a great race is obviously most important. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

In addition, we have a lot of activation from our sponsors. Sprint is doing an amazing job this weekend with giveaway items and providing some unique experiences for fans. Mars is literally rolling out the red carpet for fans right at the frontstretch gate. The whole theme is the fans are the VIPs. We have a lot of giveaways this weekend, from us at the racetrack to a number of sponsors. The other piece of that is for those not at the racetrack, they can still participate in fan appreciation. There will be a lot of social interaction. There will be some cool visual elements during the race that will be a surprise everyone.

Wolkin: How do you feel like a new title sponsor will work with all the different tracks next year?

Bickmeier: I think they’ll handle it equally as well as Sprint – well, Nextel – did when it came into the sport, or as we’ve seen with Nationwide and now XFINITY. I think it’s a great opportunity for a new sponsor when they come into the sport to bring in new ideas and innovation as well. A lot of it will go back to what are their strategic goals, like what do they want to get out of a partnership with NASCAR and racetracks to drive business?

They have to make the determination as to what the interactions will be. From the racetrack side, this is that meeting point between the sport and the fans. This is where things happen.

They happen at the track. For us, we’re all about providing an unbelievable customer experience and putting these fans into an experience that adds value to our race guests. The race is a culmination of the day, but all the interaction they can have on the mid-way with music, food and engagement with sponsors adds to their experience. We’ll see who the new sponsor for the new series will be, but any opportunity to improve that race day experience is what I’m excited about.

Wolkin: According to a lot of fans, the racing was better at Richmond this year. What do you feel like was the biggest difference maker?

Bickmeier: I think it definitely has something to do with the package and the tires. I know everyone was really pleased with the tire Goodyear brought in April. We saw some four-wide racing here, which is pretty amazing at our little short track.

It’s going to be a bit of a different experience this weekend because we’re back under the lights. I think everything the drivers have spoken about publicly or told me personally leading into the April race in regards to racing in the daytime, the rubber on the track and how the cars and tires would react really played out as I heard a lot of drivers talking about. The cool thing is we’re back under the lights, so things will be different, like the air temperature and its impact.

There are a lot of factors that play into that. I’m excited about what happened in April. I love hearing the fan comments about the action on the track as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of our first night race this weekend.

We haven’t done anything to the track. It’s aged really well. I ask drivers from time-to-time, ‘hey, what do you think about the track or surface?’ One of the first things I get is how I better not repave it because it has a lot of character. At some point, we’ll have to, but we just want to get their reaction of what we think of the surface. They’re very pleased with how the track has aged.

Wolkin: The sport has been experiencing some ratings and attendance issues. What do you expect the attendance to be like come Saturday’s race?

Bickmeier: We feel strongly about our attendance for this weekend. We’re running pretty well compared to last year, so we’re excited about that. We still have tickets to sell. We’re almost out of camping. We added over 400 camping spots over the last couple of years, and we sold out tent camping, which is about 175 spots. We’re seeing some indicators like that, showing things are still really strong in our sport.

For us here in Richmond with our renewal customers is a strong group and it’s been a strong group. We have to keep those guys happy and engaged. We’re always working on trying to win back some fans, as well as trying to find new fans out there. We focus on three different types of strategic priorities is what I call them. I like where we are and we’re working our way back.

Wolkin: What should a fan who’s never been to a race before expect at one?

Bickmeier: I go to a lot of other sporting events, and when I look at what a fan can do at a NASCAR race, there is no comparison. From free parking to the opportunity to bring your own food and beverages into our facilities are wins for fans right there.They don’t get to experience that at other sporting events. There are some venues where the cost of pricing might equal what our lowest pricing is

(© 2016, Nigel Kinrade NKP)
RIR president tries to make the experience at his track to be as family friendly as possible. (Nigel Kinrade /
NKP)

to get into a NASCAR event. I think we focus so much on the customer and guest experience from people being able to navigate through the facility very easily. We have tram systems from our parking lot into the facility.

I’m a parent with three kids, so I look at that opportunity when bringing my family out, it makes it easier for us to get from point A to point B. I think the mid-way experience and entertainment we provide as an industry – no one compares to that. No one provides that level of focus from sponsors at the racetrack for the fan activation area. I think that’s another win for our industry.

We’re always trying to find unique ways to get our drivers and stars of the sport closer to the fans, and I always think that I came from a non-motorsports background. I’ve worked in sports for my entire career. When I got into NASCAR, I looked at it as, ‘these guys define access.’ NASCAR defines access. To get that interaction between drivers and fans, you aren’t seeing that at another sporting event.

I’ll go back to ‘Gridside Live.’ The opportunity to come down on the racetrack right before the race? You can’t walk on an NFL field before the coin flip. Everyone who has a ticket – if they want to – can come down and experience ‘Gridside Live.’ We had ‘Track Takeover’ in April, when fans could walk the whole track before the start of the race. It comes back to us in the sport to find a unique experience for the people who love this sport and those who participate.”

Wolkin: And it sounds like it’s a great way to get fans involved.

Bickmeier: We’re always trying to find new ways. This sport was built on generations coming to the racetrack together. It’s great to see families with kids and parents introducing their kids to the sport. With that, too, as track promotors, we have to provide opportunities for kids to be able to enjoy the day as well. That’s why we have a kid’s zone, and it’s very unique.

The Science Museum of Virginia helps operate our kid’s zone, where the whole focus is trying to teach kids the science behind the sport. NASCAR has NASCAR Acceleration, which travels to some tracks. When they go to watch the racing, they understand it and appreciate it more.

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