Richmond International Raceway (RIR) is the centerpiece of a 1,000 acre multi-use complex known as the Richmond Raceway Complex, formerly Strawberry Hill. RIR purchased the property in its entirety from the Virginia State Fair in 1999. The complex is home to a varied assortment of exposition halls and other buildings, including an amphitheater just behind the start/finish line. The complex continues to host numerous fairs and festivals, including the Virginia State Fair, country music festivals, and food fairs.
The raceway itself is a 3/4 mile, D-shaped oval, which seats just over 94,000 spectators, and hosted its first races in October of 1946. The first NASCAR Grand National Series race at the now RIR occurred on April 19, 1953 with Lee Petty emerging victorious with an average speed of just over 45mph. Lee's son, Richard, the King, would wind up with 13 victories at RIR during his driving career, by far the most wins at the track by a single driver. Two other retired drivers, Darrell Waltrip & Rusty Wallace, both now broadcasters, are tied for second on the all-time list with six victories a piece.
The track, for most of its early life, was a half-mile oval, before being enlarged to its present 3/4 mile configuration in 1988. Perhaps the magic moment for this track occurred when lights were installed in time for the Fall NASCAR race in 1991. The lights helped lend even more of a Saturday night short track feel to the place. It was this short track vibe which led to RIR using the motto "America's Premier Short Track" and when combined with the exciting, tight-quarters, racing often found here would eventually lead to a string of 33 consecutives Sprint Cup Series sellouts.
The track, which now uses the motto, "Racing Perfection", would see its sellout streak come to an end with the fall race of 2008, partly attributable to the floundering economy, but also due to the effects of Tropical Storm Hanna which moved through the Richmond area. Nonetheless, attendance remains high and the percentage of seats filled continues to be among the upper echelon of the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
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Richmond International Raceway appeared to provide an above-average number of concession stands and quite a few kiosks of varying sorts to accompany. One thing that immediately struck even this most die-hard attendee of the NASCAR experience was the level of tailgating which was occurring outside the track. I had heard that tailgating was taken very seriously at Richmond, in large part due to the presence of so many colleges in the Richmond area and around the neighboring regions of Virginia. Just outside the frontstretch at Richmond is a very large gravel & grass parking lot. I was told that the best view of the tailgating scene would come from high above so up I went. After reaching the highest point of the tallest grandstand at Richmond, the Commonwealth Tower, I turned to face a sea of pop-up tents, of all colors and variety, as far as the eye could see, and this was at Noon on the day of a night race. Smoke from grills could be seen drifting high from near and far, the sound of bean bags hitting wooden boards faintly playing in the distance, a sure sign of a few mean games of Cornhole taking place. The great thing about a vibrant tailgating scene is that you know folks are taking advantage of the cost-savings that can be realized by prepping your own food and enjoying the camaraderie before passing through the track's gates.
If you decide that you would rather just show up and take part in all the tailgate festivities without the hassle of assembling a tent or cleaning off the grill, then you are in luck at Richmond. Just off the fairgrounds midway, between Turn 4 and the start/finish line is Amphitheater Hill, home of the Miller Lite Ultimate Tailgate. This area features live music, the aforementioned Cornhole (along with other tailgating classics), lots of smoked barbeque, and of course, plenty of Miller Lite. This area is open from 10am up until just before the green flag drops. One area of note once inside the gates is the Caribbean Beach BBQ area near gate 40. New for the 2011 season, Caribbean Beach BBQ offers up a laid-back, tropical vibe, complete with a steel drum band, palm trees, and sand. A variety of island influenced beverages are available for sale to wash down the tasty tropical bbq.
NASCAR at night is just different. It's hard to put a finger on just one reason why this is the case, but if you've attended many NASCAR events you will probably agree that when the sun goes down, the lights come up, and 43 NASCAR racers take to the track, the feeling is electric. Richmond made the decision a few years back to move all their events to evening starts and ever since the atmosphere has been ramped up. Granted, the ability to partake in the all day tailgating scene probably helps gear up the gearheads even more than usual, but the action on the track is what really makes night racing special. The glow of brake rotors, the light reflecting on special paint schemes, the smoke wafting through the air from the concourse below all combine to make a night race at tracks like Bristol, Charlotte, Texas, and Richmond different.
On this evening I would estimate the crowd at the track to be approaching 90,000, or just over 90% of capacity. This was a very solid crowd, especially given the nature of our economic times, the fact that Richmond hosts two NASCAR weekends per season, and the fact that a number of other tracks which hosts Sprint Cup races are located within a day's drive of this part of the Commonwealth. Ultimately, the good crowd is most likely a testament to the racing that Richmond frequently provides.
As mentioned earlier, Richmond International Raceway is located just a few miles from the heart of downtown Richmond, and occupies the same space that is home to the Virginia State Fair. As such, the facility is used to hosting a number of large events, though I doubt any of the other events this facility hosts rivals the large single-day crowd that the Sprint Cup Series ushers into the neighborhood. The property is surrounded by a mix of residential and commercial properties. I'm sure that a number of bars and the like are available within walking distance of the track but I must note that the neighborhood immediately around the track is very blue collar in nature. After speaking with a few individuals, they advised against seeking out a restaurant or pub in the immediate vicinity of the track, especially given the fact that Richmond proper has a number of very unique dining/shopping areas in which to partake.
One of these areas which I can personally recommend is simply known as Carytown. Located just a few miles from the track this area has it all. This area is home to great bars, wonderful restaurants, boutique shopping, plenty of parking, and just a wonderful overall vibe. Google Carytown if you are headed to a race at Richmond and take an evening and visit, you'll be glad you did.
Richmond International Raceway has been around this sport for a long time and its fans are now multiple generations into their NASCAR obsession. This is not a "Johnny-come-lately" to the NASCAR schedule and the fans here have their favorites and they are not afraid to let it be known. On this evening alone I witnessed three individuals walking about with the number 11 shaved into their head, count em', three individuals. By the way, the 11 is in honor of the driver of the FedEx Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is a local boy, from nearby Chesterfield, and thus RIR is considered to be a "home" race for him. That, my friends, is fanatical and it is one of the many traits that make going to a NASCAR race unlike that of any other sporting experience.
The roads directly around the track are also mostly residential in nature, and it can be somewhat easy for a first-time visitor to get turned around. If you desire an easier arrival and exit from the race, or what at least might appear to be easier, then you can opt to park in the front yard of a home, or the side lot of a warehouse. Every possible parking space within a reasonable walk of the track appeared to be available to rent for the evening. I noticed rates ranging from $10 at a further distance, to upwards of $30 just across the street from the speedway's grounds. I will note that since spectators are walking towards the track from all directions and many roads are residential in nature, and congested, it is imperative to pay close attention to pedestrians and cars parked along streets. More than once on my approach to Richmond I witnessed what was close to being a hood-to-pedestrian encounter.
RIR has plenty of parking on the property and plenty of experienced folks to point you in the right direction upon arrival to the track. I must also say that RIR has done a very good job devising a traffic plan. I also would applaud the staff of RIR for doing a great job of creating a readable and informative traffic map, which can be found on their website, downloaded & printed, to accompany your trip to the track. The Virginia State Police are also some of the best around when it comes to controlling traffic and when combined with the Henrico County Police Department (as well as the numerous other public entities that provide support) you can rest assured that you will not be sitting in a lot waiting to leave any longer than need be. Basically, it all comes down to the standby mentality when preparing to attend a NASCAR race: arrive early and stay late. Take full advantage of your day at a Sprint Cup event and make it a memorable one.
Once on the grounds a tram system can assist in shuttling those around, should the need arise. RIR also offers reserved RV parking. Consult the tracks website for more information. As far as the seats themselves Richmond offers an average NASCAR experience. Most seats are bench style with backs, most with no cupholders. The seating sections are angled towards the action, all the way around the track, to provide optimal sightlines. This is a nice feature.
The Commonwealth Tower, located between the start/finish line and the first turn offers the most luxurious accommodations at the track. The seats in this tower are of the chairback, armrests, & cupholder variety. It is a very tall tower and offers an amazing view of the entire track. Located within the Commonwealth Tower is the Torque Club, offering a premium experience for those seeking something "above-and-beyond" the status quo. A three-tiered escalator system is in place to move patrons with seats in the tower's upper level to their concourse. An elevator is also available for those needing a more accessible ride to the top. Speaking of accessible, RIR offers accessible seating options at many price points and the seating locations for these areas is top notch.
The concourses are wide and flow quite well. 42" inch televisions are scattered around the concourse to assure that you do not miss a minute of the action while waiting in line for a cheeseburger or slice of pizza. Some of the restroom facilities appeared to be starting to show their age but they were adequate, and clean. Stairs are in good shape, railings are present where needed, and spacing between rows is adequate. Over this past off-season the width of seats was widened to 22 inches, on average, thus reducing the physical capacity of RIR, but greatly increasing fan comfort, kudos to RIR on this improvement.
Should you have purchased a pre-race pit pass, the point of access is a tunnel venturing underneath the track just before the entrance to turn one. The tunnel is quite narrow and dark, which leads to a slow and congested walk to and from the infield. This is one area I see for possible improvement.
Ticket prices for a Sprint Cup race at Richmond are currently offered in the $45-$95 price range. Tickets are available at a discount to children under 12 and RIR does offer a few family sections, where alcohol is prohibited. You might also want to check to see if any local sponsor affiliated promotions might be taking place, allowing you to purchase a ticket(s) at an even deeper discount. All grandstands are now smoke-free, though smoking is allowed underneath the stands, in the concourse area. A number of ticket packages are available, pairing the Sprint Cup race with the Nationwide (think AAA baseball) race the evening before. Many, if not most, who attend a race at Richmond, attend both events and by purchasing a ticket package you are helping to reduce your overall average expenditure per ticket.
Hospitality packages are also available that include things like premium seating, pre-race pit passes, reserved parking, and access to special areas outside the track offering entertainment, food, drinks, and more. A number of tracks on the NASCAR circuit still offer seats well into the $100+ range so the fact that RIR is currently "topping out" below that number shows that this track is cognizant of the economy and is doing all it can to make sure seats do not go unfilled come raceday. Pair this with the exciting bumper-to-bumper action that short track racing usually provides and I have no hesitation in saying that Richmond offers a very strong return-on-investment.
One of the first things a fan will notice upon arriving at their seat and surveying the track is the large LED Video Board in the infield. Installed prior to the spring race in 2010, the four-sided board is the tallest in all of NASCAR. The board allows for replays of that caution, so you can determine just who was responsible for banging into whom. It also has boards on each side of its spine, allowing for the Top 5 in the running order to be constantly displayed, with the remainder of the field's running order being rotated. After the race has concluded the board will provide up-close viewing of the celebration in Victory Lane, as well as the post-race interviews with the Top 3 finishers which is conducted in the infield Media Center.
Race sponsor Crown Royal also offered up a pre-race concert at the Start/Finish line with country music star Rodney Atkins. Crown Royal also offered a limited number of fans the chance to come down onto the racing surface and witness the concert up close, merely for stopping by their booth, displayed out front along the midway. Another thing that RIR has done during the 2011 season to assist the fans is allow for larger coolers and backpacks to be brought inside the facility. The new maximum size is 14x14x14, which would mean enough space for 36 12oz beverages. The normal, circuit-wide, constraint of only one bag and one cooler, per person, does remain in place however.
One area to pay particular attention to outside, in the midway area, is the Virginia Industry Business Expo, or VIBE for short. This indoor display area features numerous displays and exhibitions from businesses located in the region, many of which are offering door prizes and freebies for merely stopping by and saying hello. Another plus of arriving plenty early is that you have the time to truly explore areas such as this, and nothing is more fun than getting your swag on while at the track!
I will end this review of Richmond International Raceway by mentioning one feature; small in nature, but helps to address an area I have long felt is overlooked at racing facilities. When attending a race it is common for fans to want to get down close, as close to the security fence as possible, to feel the speed and thunder as the cars race by, or to try and get that up-close photo of their favorite driver's car whizzing around the track. There is nothing wrong with that, just one of the many things that make NASCAR special is the sensory overload and no better place to experience that than up close. Still, when down near the security fence many fans forget that fans are often seated directly behind them, in the lower rows of the seating sections. By standing along the fence you are obstructing their view of the action, not to mention posing a safety risk should an accident happen on the track in the area you are standing.
All tracks station generous amounts of security personnel along this area, often-times in brightly colored attire. Yet, many fans still will find the urge to "fill the gap" and stand where security is not. The action on the track is so loud that it is virtually impossible for the fan to hear the security personnel urging them to move along. RIR has come up with a laminated placard, with the simple phrase "Please Keep Moving" in large, bold print to get spectators attention. All the security person has to do is get the fans attention and point to the sign and they quickly get the point. I was honestly surprised at how well the simple placards worked.
It's the little things like this that illustrate how Richmond has done a good job figuring out how to host a NASCAR event weekend, further proof that racing and Richmond, after so many years together, go hand-in-hand. I'm glad NASCAR continues to make this track a two event per season venue. NASCAR needs more Richmond's, not fewer.
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