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RIR brings exposure, money to county

The construction of RIR ranks No. 21 on the list of 24 moments in Henrico history


It began 65 years ago as little more than a dusty oval at a rural fairgrounds. Today, it hosts more than a quarter-million visitors annually, is home to the only major league sporting events in Virginia and perhaps does more than any other single entity to attract national and international attention to Henrico County.

It’s the Richmond International Raceway, and its legacy has earned it the No. 21 spot on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico history.

The raceway holds an important spot not only in Henrico history but also in the history of its sport and NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). Only three tracks (in Daytona, Fla., Martinsville, Va. and Darlington, S.C.) have continuously hosted NASCAR races at their present locations longer than RIR. Unlike many of the now-defunct tracks that hosted races in the sport’s early years, RIR has survived – and thrived.

As a result, it’s help stamp Henrico County on the national and international racing landscape.

“We think this adds a lot to the quality of life in this community,” said RIR President Doug Fritz, who has been at the helm of the raceway since International Speedway Corporation purchased it from its longtime owners, the Sawyer family, in 1999. “We’re very proud to be part of Henrico County and the history of Henrico County. Our entire life has been here in Henrico County.
The last 50 years have been great years for Henrico County, and we like to think that we’re some of the reason for that success.”

The raceway, which hosts two race weekends annually, generates an estimated $417 million each year in total economic impact for the Metro Richmond region and helps employ nearly 7,000 people, according to the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even non-NASCAR fans who live in the county and have never attended a race feel the benefits produced by RIR.

“The economic benefit you can see both directly and indirectly,” said John Vithoulkas, Henrico County finance director, who said the county receives $1 million annually in direct real estate, business license tax and business personal property tax payments and hotel taxes. “And that doesn’t include sales taxes generated by all the fans.”

RIR and tourism officials estimate that the track’s events generate $75 million a year in overall tax revenue to the county, state and federal governments.

A changing landscape
It’s hard to say how Ted Horn would fare in a modern racecar at RIR today – where drivers exceed 120 mph and sometimes race three-wide – but it’s safe to say he was adequately prepared for its first official race, which he won on Oct. 12, 1946 in an open-wheel car that averaged nearly 46 mph. The track was then a half-mile dirt oval at the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds known to some as the Strawberry Hill Speedway.

The track held its first NASCAR event April 19, 1953 – a 100-mile race won by legend Lee Petty. Two years later, Paul Sawyer and driver Joe Weatherly purchased the facility, presiding over its growing reputation that led to a second NASCAR race being added to its annual schedule in 1959. The twice-yearly schedule has continued since, and today RIR is one of 13 tracks to host two Sprint Cup Series races a year and one of only 10 to host two Nationwide Series races annually.

In 1968, the track was paved for the first time, and in 1988, it was lengthened to its current and distinctive three-quarter-mile shape. It’s the only track on the NASCAR circuit of that length, and drivers and fans alike appreciate its unique elements that often result in exciting, competitive races rather than monotonous ones. RIR’s capacity has grown steadily from 58,000 in 1992 to its officially listed capacity of 98,000 today (though a number of races in recent years have attracted crowds of more than 100,000). The raceway’s 33-race sellout streak ended in Sept. 2008.

While many other tracks on the NASCAR circuit are located on the outskirts of cities, surrounded by asphalt and little else, RIR is clearly the product of humble beginnings, still sitting adjacent to modest neighborhoods and surrounded by industrial parks and suburban roads.

When ISC bought the facility, it was still sharing some “amenities” with its neighbor, the State Fair of Virginia.

“We still had chicken coops and horse stalls and hen houses and all that,” Fritz said.

ISC and RIR have added new amenities during the past 12 years, including the Torque Club, which sits high above the track and offers spectators what Fritz calls “one of the best fan experiences you can have in any sport,” and a new LED scoring tower and video screen that debuted last year, allowing every spectator to see the race leaders. Today, “we’re considered one of the most premier sports facilities in this country,” he said.

Fritz made a point to take advantage of the track’s unique setting to develop relationships with its neighbors. He opened the facility to the community, inviting residents of Essex Village and other neighborhoods to enjoy National Night Out cookouts and take pace-car laps around the track. He’s also involved track employees in a plethora of community initiatives through the years.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We wanted people to see that we’re not just the ‘Green Giant’ across the street. We do care about this community, and a lot of our efforts are focused on the youth.”

Wide-reaching impact
The overall impact that RIR has on Henrico County and Metro Richmond from a national and international standpoint may be difficult to judge specifically, but it’s clear that the exposure it provides to the region through a sport with an estimated 75 million fans is significant. For those who watch races in person, on television or who listen on radio, Richmond International Raceway is a familiar name.

“We are drawing fans on every NASCAR weekend from all 50 states, and that’s great exposure for Henrico County,” Fritz said. “Some of the fans come back to visit Henrico County. And this is a part of the country that they may not have seen if not for Richmond International Raceway.”

In addition to hosting two weekends of NASCAR racing every year – each of which makes the complex the eighth-largest city in Virginia for one day – the raceway complex hosts dozens of conventions, expos and shows in its expo halls throughout the year, bringing thousands more regional visitors to Henrico County.

When NASCAR switched to a new playoff system in 2004, RIR realized more good fortune as the host of the final race before the 10-race playoff began. Each year since, drivers on the fringe of the playoff chase have come to Richmond anxious to make one final push before the watchful eyes of NASCAR nation.

Late last year, the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a proactive effort to encourage businesses and fans to purchase tickets to both of this year’s races as a way to solidify RIR’s hold on its twice-annual schedule. This year, Atlanta and Fontana, Calif., each lost one of their two races, and Fritz said there’s no guarantee from year to year that any track will maintain two races.

“I feel pretty good, but we can’t be complacent,” he said. “This is very important for us as a community. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to take a lot of work on a lot of people’s parts, including mine, to keep two races here.

“But as long as people keep supporting Richmond International Raceway, we’re going to be here a long time”

Richmond International Raceway will host its 110th Sprint Cup Series race April 30, one day after it hosts the Nationwide Series race. For tickets or details, visit http://www.rir.com
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