Richmond facelift a barometer for NASCAR's growth strategy

AP Photo/Steve Helber

The Richmond Raceway infield was torn apart after last September's race and a new garage and pedestrian tunnel were added.

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond Raceway will serve as a host to a NASCAR Cup Series race Saturday and double as a construction zone.

The visuals can serve as a metaphor: The sport is virtually a construction zone, nowhere more evident than in Virginia.

While many people would look at Florida or North Carolina when determining the state of the sport, if any state could claim status as a barometer of NASCAR, it's Virginia. It has more Cup points races (two at Martinsville and two at Richmond) than any other state, as well as 15 oval tracks and a road course at Virginia International Raceway.

Richmond Raceway -- the track has even changed the name, dropping "international" in hopes of connecting to its Virginia base -- seats somewhere "in excess of" 50,000, according to track officials, a startling look considering it once sat 110,000.

The vibe of missing grandstands and the construction fencing mimics that of where NASCAR sits currently: Amid startling declines, construction projects reign.

"I am stunned," said Virginia native Jeff Burton, a winner of 21 Cup races and current NBC analyst, when asked if Richmond's capacity decline is stunning. "The lower downforce package has helped the races at Richmond.

"It's created that multiple groove. It's brought some of that energy and excitement back. ... When people started not to come, I think a lot of that was economy-based. I really do. But for whatever reason, a lot of those people haven't come back."

Richmond Raceway continues to transform trying to find the right elements to get those fans to come back beyond all the dirt being moved and new structures being erected. Whether it's a fence that separates fans from the new Richmond garage so they can get that personal, up-close feel or the quick switch back from a Sunday-afternoon race to a Saturday night race after just a two-year experiment or a date now in the playoffs instead of the regular-season finale, the changes continue to come at a dizzying pace.

Richmond has added a party deck in Turn 4 and it has added suites embedded between a couple of the garages in hopes of finding a company to buy a 50-person or 25-person unit. It all looks great, and similar in some ways to what is being built at Phoenix.

"I like what Richmond is doing to the inside of the racetrack to try to give them a niche," Virginia native Elliott Sadler said. "I think it's a niche. I think it's neat. Let's hope that fans respond. We don't want the fans not to respond to a $30-million upgrade."

This isn't just a Richmond issue. A few weeks ago at Martinsville, NASCAR competed at a track that also recently removed seats -- not so startling, but in the wake of an event in October with incredible drama, still a little bit of a head-scratcher.

Bob Pockrass/ESPN

The new garages at Richmond includes areas for fans to stand and watch teams work. The area will be part of a ticket add-on fans can buy starting with the September race.

NASCAR has made just as many, if not more, adjustments as the Richmond track. Whether it's teams using pit guns issued by NASCAR, a new inspection platform this year that attempts to level the playing field or an aerodynamic package with restrictor plates for the All-Star Race, NASCAR officials should wear hard hats and glowing vests to indicate they, too, are in a construction zone.

But before throwing in the towel or looking at the asphalt ahead as simply a toll road to nowhere, about 70 miles away from Richmond, Denny Hamlin played host Thursday night to his foundation event at Langley Speedway. About 5,000-6,000 fans created an encouraging atmosphere at a track dormant a couple of years ago, with questions whether it would ever re-open.

This was a place that had nine Cup races from 1964-70, 14 Xfinity races from 1982-88. It had its glory days. It won't ever return as the place for the top NASCAR stars to compete, but it could fit nicely as a niche for racing enthusiasts.

Langley won't sell out on a weekly basis, but it can have an impact on the health of the sport as a place where local drivers can shine and national drivers can race for special events.

The same is true for the other Virginia short tracks.

"[Virginia] is a huge barometer and the fact that the short track, if you go to South Boston Speedway on a Saturday night, there is not as many people as there used to be," Burton said. "That tells me there is something going on.

"We've got to continue to work to turn fans. And, oh by the way, went through a tremendous period of less car count when the economy crashed. ... The car count has definitely crept back up, and with that, I think the fans have crept back up."

That's probably all NASCAR can hope for: for interest to increase at a creeping pace. Maybe the new Richmond infield will accelerate the pace. Maybe the lack of Virginia's top talent racing in NASCAR's top series will stunt it.

Racing in the Hamlin event were Timothy Peters, Peyton Sellers, Phillip Morris, C.E. Falk and Danny Edwards, all drivers well known to Virginia racing fans. Peters will make his NASCAR Cup debut next week at Talladega after a career that has included 239 truck starts, with 10 victories. Morris, Falk and Edwards would have earned a chance in a national ride back in the days when talent alone made the difference. Sellers has 36 national series starts but not in stellar equipment.

With no Virginia drivers except for Hamlin and Gray Gaulding in the race Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox), is there enough of a Virginia connection to attract fans no matter how close they can get to the garages?

"The interest has always been good [in Virginia]," Sadler said. "Look, this was Earnhardt country. It's Earnhardt. I'm not going to lie. Which country is not Earnhardt country, right, in racing?

Bob Pockrass/ESPN

The new Richmond garage area also includes two corporate suites (a 50- and a 25-person) with views of garages and the areas where the haulers are parked.

"I think when Dale Sr. left us, it was a big hit to this area, and I think with Dale Jr. leaving it is a hit to this area as well. Hopefully they'll gravitate to somebody else and come to the racetrack."

Sadler thinks Richmond should have a late-model race following the Xfinity race. The idea probably would work at Martinsville, too.

"We're very blessed to have a lot of really good race-car drivers in this area that support their local tracks," said Sadler, who lives in Virginia. "We hope that support carries over to Richmond and Martinsville."

There's hope. But no confidence yet. Maybe that will come in September when the new construction at Richmond is complete. Maybe a playoff race will create an additional buzz.

Then again, maybe it will be hard to enjoy, kind of like the Hamlin race amid temperatures and winds that made it a very cold night. That just seems to be the way NASCAR rolls: Even the best ideas, the best opportunities, face headwinds.

Anyone who left Langley on Thursday night and headed to Richmond faced several construction zones with narrow lanes. It wasn't a smooth drive.

It should have bothered no one. That's life on the NASCAR road. And here's looking to Virginia to get its construction done sooner than later.

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