Sadly there are just three short tracks left on the contemporary NASCAR Cup schedule; Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond. I cherish all three of these racetracks and am blessed to have attended races at all of them, some of the finest races I’ve ever gone to. While all are short tracks obviously each of these venues has its own distinct personality.
For some fans Martinsville is too flat and too slow. On the other hand, some feel the banking at Bristol is ludicrously steep and the cars are moving far too fast to allow for much side-by-side racing. Prior to the ill-considered reconfiguration side-by-side racing was all but unheard of at Bristol. That leaves Richmond; not too fast, not too slow, not too steep, and not too flat. In fact many find it “just right.”
Richmond joined the schedule for NASCAR’s top Cup division in April of 1953. It was a dirt track back then and remained that way until after the spring race of 1968. By the time the Cup circus returned to Richmond in September of that year the track had been paved. Originally listed as a half-mile track, it grew to .542 miles in 1969. (for some bizarre reason lost to time Richmond was listed as a .642 mile circuit for one race only, September of 1969). It remained listed as a .542 mile track until the September race of 1988 when it debuted its new D-shaped three-quarter mile configuration it retains today. About 60,000 fans attended that race which was won by crowd favorite Davey Allison. Richmond sold out 33 consecutive races before having a few tickets left unsold in 2008 when Tropical Storm Hannah came calling during race week and left much of the area blacked out. With all the discussion about crowd sizes lately I thought that was worth noting.
While NASCAR Cup racing didn’t venture to the Richmond fairgrounds until 1953, racing had actually begun at the track shortly after the end of World War II which had ended auto racing across the US. In that era the track actually went by the rather charming name of Strawberry Hill well before Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote a song with the same name. In 1946, Richmond or Strawberry Hill, your choice, hosted an AAA Indy car style race, one of the few automobile races in that era. From 2001 to 2009, the IndyCar Series had an annual date at RIR.
Some interesting stats have been scored by NASCAR drivers at Richmond. Richmond is the only track where all generations of the Petty family; Lee, Richard and Kyle won a points paying NASCAR race. Richard Petty has the most NASCAR wins at Richmond with 13. In the period from 1970 to 1975 the King won nine of 10 races at the track (and finished 2nd in that tenth event after having led 163 laps). Dale Earnhardt Sr. won five times at Richmond, while his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. won three times at the track. Kyle Busch has won six Cup races at Richmond while his brother Kurt Busch has collected two trophies at the track. Bobby Allison won seven times at Richmond while his son Davey won twice. The younger Allison’s last career Cup win occurred at Richmond in March of 1993 just months before his untimely demise.
Unless I’m forgetting about some guys like Dave Daytona, Tony Talladega or Wally Watkins-Glenn, Richmond is also the only track where a Cup winner shared a name with the track. Tim Richmond won at Richmond on September 7, 1986, in one of the best Cup races I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend.
NASCAR was on a roll in 1986, coming on the heels of the incredible 1985 season. In that era Dale Earnhardt the Original was in his prime. After winning Rookie of the Year Honors in 1979, Earnhardt had won the championship in 1980. After that it seemed the yet to be dubbed “Intimidator” went into a bit of a slump driving Fords for Bud Moore in 1982 and 1983. In 1984 Richard Childress put Earnhardt in his Chevy and it was “off to the races” so to speak.
Newer fans who can only recall Earnhardt at the wheel of a black Chevy bearing the No. 3 may be surprised to learn that in 1986 Earnhardt’s race car was blue with yellow accents and carried sponsorship from Wrangler Jeans. Wrangler just happened to be the presenting sponsor of that race in Richmond that Sunday afternoon in September 1986 (officially the Wrangler Jeans Indigo 400), so there was a lot of pressure on him to do well.
Other short track legends on that era included Rusty Wallace (still driving an Allugard sponsored Pontiac owned by drag racing legend Raymond Beadle in 1986). Terry Labonte was normally strong at Richmond as well. And one could never count out reigning Cup champion Darrell Wallace particularly on the short tracks back then. (Waltrip didn’t do so well in that race finishing 29th, dead last after a transmission failure. Labonte retired his Oldsmobile with wreck damage on lap 378. Wallace also got caught up in an incident and was credited with a 19th-place finish. With those favorites, as well as Kenny Schrader and Ricky Rudd, both sidelined by crash damage, Earnhardt’s chances at a victory were looking pretty good as he was steamrolling his way towards a second title. (Earnhardt already had three wins and was on a streak of four consecutive top 10s heading into that Richmond race.)
But as Glenn Frey would grow fond of singing, “There’s a new kid in town.” If Earnhardt was the face of the sport and Waltrip was the reigning champion it was Tim Richmond who was lighting things up and grabbing the headlines that summer. Between June and September that year Richmond had won four times at the wheel of Rick Hendrick’s Folger Chevy, including the previous weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington, a remarkable race that deserves a column of its own. Richmond also finished second four times in that period.
While fierce competitors Earnhardt and Richmond were good friends despite being as different as night and day. They were very different fellows indeed but shared one commonality. They both raced hard and still found that little extra reserve of talent as the races roared towards their conclusion.
That afternoon Richmond and Earnhardt put on quite the show. They ran side-by-side for laps at a time as the afternoon wore on. Over his radio Earnhardt told Childress he was giving it everything he had but couldn’t pass Richmond. On a brighter note, Dale added, Tim couldn’t get away from him either. Earnhardt was not fond of running second, but that afternoon it was clearly evident he was having fun racing his friend.
A lot of us in the stands, myself included, assumed that in the waning laps Earnhardt would catch Richmond and dispatch him with his front bumper. I have no doubt Earnhardt tried but that afternoon he never got close enough to “rattle his cage.” After just over three hours of good hard racing (slowed 12 times by yellow flags), Richmond beat Earnhardt by about a car length. Richmond left the track that afternoon 118 points behind Earnhardt in the standings with Waltrip and additional 90 points behind Richmond after that transmission fiasco. For newer fans that might sound like a insurmountable gap and it would be under the current points system but back then a race winner who led the most laps earned 185 points while Waltrip’s last-place finish earned him just 76 points that afternoon
Other notables who finished in the top 10 that magical afternoon included Richard Petty in fourth (no, the King didn’t forget how to drive after 1979) and Bobby Allison in eighth. Handsome Harry Gant grabbed a seventh-place finish in the Skoal Bandit. Bill Elliott was a huge draw in that error but short tracks were not his forte. He finished ninth that day. Many folks reading this have never heard of him but Buddy Arrington, the King of the Independents, had a decent result in that race finishing 12th.
In this era of lookalike cars, some of you might be surprised to learn that the top 10 finishers at Richmond that September Sunday drove four Chevys, a pair of Pontiacs, three Buicks and Elliott’s lone Ford. This was before GM put all their eggs in the Chevrolet basket to compete better with Ford for manufacturer’s titles. And yes, you could tell a Chevy from a Pontiac from a Buick at a glance back then. And after the race we all headed off to our cars or pickup trucks (SUVs, mini-vans, and crossovers weren’t a thing yet) usually our daily drivers matching the make of vehicle our favorite drivers ran. Japanese cars in the parking lot of a NASCAR race were about as common as virgins at a bikers’ picnic back then when an argument over whether Ford or Chevy made a batter pickup truck could often lead to fisticuffs or estrangement within families.
When my youngest sister took up residence a half hour (every weekend but race weekends) in Richmond both Richmond race dates were circled in red on my colander annually even before I found a way to get various sites I wrote for to pay for the trips. The first year I went with Kat to a stock car race she thought inviting me and my then brother-in-law (not her husband) down for the race would be a good chance to catch up. In her innocence in that era, she thought that getting a ticket to the race just meant dropping by the Ticketmaster at Sears and buying them before finding out the race was sold out. A friend suggested she call the track as they held back a certain amount of tickets that hadn’t been renewed. Emboldened she drove to the track and proceeded to scale the fence wearing a skirt and business suit no less. She was told she could apply for the lottery to get tickets she eventually charmed the lady in the office to let her buy four tickets that morning. In addition to being good at climbing fences Kat could be very charming and persuasive.
I’m not sure if it was the first time I went to the races with Kat, but it was one of the earlier ones that I wound up on crutches a week prior to the race courtesy of a dirt bike mishap. Going to Pocono or Dover near me on crutches would have been an invitation to wind up shoved to the ground in full face plant mode and getting trampled on as you tried to get up but life moved a much slower and more genteel pace down south in Richmond than it did up here in Philly and its far-reaching suburbs.
Of course driving a stick-shift F250 4×4 wasn’t possible with a damaged ankle so Ken agreed to serve as chauffeur. The trip was not without its challenges. Ken always considered using a map an assault of his toxic masculinity. I finally had to break out the road map (they were printed on paper in those dark ages before GPS was a thing and satellite navigation standard even on some Hyundai’s) as I pointed out that I’d seen the Washington Monument out the driver’s side window and 45 minutes later I was seeing it again outside the passenger side window. Yes, we’d sailed into the Twilight Zone of the Washington loop.
Those first few races we joined the slow-moving parade down Henrico Boulevard nervous we might arrive late. Fortunately, we’d left plenty of time because way back then no visit to the track was complete without taking a walking tour of the souvenir trailers in the lot. Yes, that was a thing. And no you couldn’t jump on the internet and order your race driver themed T-shirts, caps and diecast because the internet wasn’t a thing yet either.
We did luck out that one race in that with me on crutches Kat decided we could probably get away with parking in the expansive lot of a business across from the track’s main entrance. While we were gathering our things an employee of the business happened by and Kat asked sweetly if it were OK if we parked there until after the race given my mobility challenge. He said he felt that would be OK as long as we didn’t leave any trash behind us when we left. We didn’t of course. But we did sort of parlay that invitation for the next seven or eight years, which knocked a lot of time off getting to the track. I don’t know if the place is still in business so I wouldn’t recommend you try it today for fear you’ll holler at me if your car gets towed and for the same reason I won’t name the business but if you stumble across it, Matt’s Been there Already.
Similarly, Kathleen decided that there had to be some quicker way to get home after the races and asked some of her neighbors and other locals. If you’re nice, locals can often offer such good advice just so long as you’re not leaving beer cans on their front yard or peeing behind their garage. Exiting that parking lot, and winding our way through neighborhoods we were often able to arrive home an hour or so before other fans made their way back to Kat’s neighborhood.
While I loved the Richmond area and how nice folks typically were down there, I did in fact almost get myself arrested one night leaving the track. I had no idea it was against the law to have an open container of beer out in public. It just seemed natural to me. You’re leaving the race and heading to your car. A fresh beer seemed in order to celebrate a fine evening at the track. So I was surprised when a female police officer pointed at me then a trash can and told me to throw away a half can of ice cold Coors Light. Naturally I did as I was instructed without protest. I just sort of paused to slug down the rest of the beer in one gulp before I tossed the can. I stood there with my jaw hanging wide open in full fly-catching mode as she read me my rights. Fortunately an older officer, perhaps her superior caught wind of what was going on and intervened. She explained she felt I had disrespected her and defied her order by finishing the beer.
“I told you to throw it away. I didn’t tell you to finish it,” she snapped at me. “You didn’t tell me not too either,” I noted. The older cop looked around and I’d say conservatively every third person had an open beer can. Knowing he had bigger fish to fry he asked me if I was planning on driving home. I told him I’d be a rear seat passenger in my little sister’s car and that while she was doubtless looking forward to a nice glass of little red kangaroo white wine when we got back to her place she had no taste for beer. I apologized to the female officer and we were on our way.
That’s the only incident I ever had at a race in Richmond. Over the years I saw some great races there. Tim Richmond won that race but tragically never raced at Richmond again. He was the original candle that burned at both ends not destined to last the night, but ah, what a beautiful light.
In subsequent races I attended Earnhardt was usually a contender as were Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace. I remember watching them (and others) running side-by-side lap-after-lap for dozens of laps at a time without making contact. My guess is it’s not allowed anymore, but Ken and I used to like to get down on the walkway just inside the fence that separated the track from the grandstands a few laps going clockwise so that the cars were barreling at us. It really gave you a feel for how fast the cars were going and how close together they were (And how quickly the tires wore as we were constantly pelted with little balls of hot rubber as we strolled).
I recall a few spring races where it was really cold out (the temperatures made worse by the concrete grandstands we sat in), I recall some very hot races and there was an occasional rain delay and that one danged hurricane. When I hear people saying that ticket sales are down because of the weather it rather confuses me because weather wasn’t ever a factor in going to or not going to a race back then. The weather did its thing and you did yours.
Walking up to any NASCAR race back then even at a good distance from the track you’d be approached by scalpers offering you seats to the race albeit at greatly inflated prices but since that was the only way to get into the show people paid those prices. So no, I don’t think ticket prices have crushed crowd size either though my guess is the scalpers union has suffered massive layoffs. If the racing was still magic the fans would be there.
So to any of you who think the hoteliers in Bristol have priced you out of the market (and have you tried Airbnb?) perhaps it’s time to explore whether Richmond might be your “just right” alternative. The two tracks are 400 miles apart, but for a lot of you who call the northeastern Atlantic Coast home Richmond is actually closer to New York, Philly, Baltimore and DC than Bristol. And as the old saying goes “good seats are still available.” And you probably won’t have to climb a fence to get tickets nowadays either.
Editor’s Note: I’ve hinted at the debate of declining attendance at races above because it’s been a hot topic this week. Weather has always been an issue. Some races have always been better than others. (To quote our friend Mr. F Gump, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’ll get.) The issue of price gouging at hotels on race weekends goes back so far it coincides with one key concern with lodging for me was a hair dryer in the room. (Not an issue anymore.) But I think everyone is overlooking an issue that has historically affected race ticket sales….gas prices. As a nation we have by and large embraced overly large vehicles which must be equipped with four wheel drive even if it only snows a couple times a year where you live.
It was 1975 when some hapless Pennsylvania State Trooper decided that I’d passed my driver’s test. I’d aced drivers ed but must have been absent the evening they discussed the proper use of the gas pedal. For over a decade I considered it an on/off switch, either pressed firmly to the floor or released completely at red lights as you prepared to burn rubber when the light went green.
When I first became a bane to my fellow road-users gas was 50 cents a gallon. And that was for the highest octane stuff Sunoco or Texaco could offer, not a drop of ethanol in it. And it was a good thing too because I was driving a 428 Super Cobra Jet Mustang Mach One that got about eight miles per gallon. I long for those days but realize they are well and truly over. I’ve come to expect to pay about $2.25 a gallon. When the cost of gas drops to around or below $2.00 I am practically giddy. When it approaches $2.25 a gallon again I grow concerned. As gas prices crest $2.50 a gallon I start coordinating trips to the grocery store or other errands with neighbors. At that point there’s no more day trips down the Jersey Shore (as fond as I am of the “shore” not the beach. It’s a Pennsylvania thing. You wouldn’t understand.) Instead maybe I’ll hit Valley Forge Park, a 10 minute ride from here. When gas hits $2.75 a gallon I start muttering under my breath about a vast conspiracy foisted upon us by oil company executives, Arabs, the pipeline people and all the usual suspects. Right now gas in these parts is 2.89 a gallon up decidedly from about $2.20 a gallon this time last year. If it hits three bucks a gallon I’ll probably spent an afternoon getting the Yamaha moped I bought at a garage sale but haven’t touched now in three years running.
You’ll recall back when the subprime mortgage bubble burst in 2008 and set off the Great Recession gas was inching towards three dollars a gallon. A lot of my customers at the auto parts store I was running back then were builders, contractors or landscapers. And the price of gas was making them choose to lay off employees, decide not to bid on far off contracts or in some cases even shut down their businesses entirely.
It’s a psychological game. My Jeep has about a 20 gallon tank. An extra 10 or 12 bucks isn’t going to bankrupt me (though it might make me choose to have dinner off the grille here rather than go out to dinner one evening this week). But rising gas prices have always been the canary in the coal mine. When gas prices rise or gas becomes tougher to get, NASCAR ticket sales have always taken it on the chin. Perhaps some of you recall that the 1974 Daytona 500 was actually a 450-mile race as a token effort to save fuel during the first gas crises.