DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (April 25, 2012) – Staging NASCAR Sprint Cup races through portions of seven decades, Richmond International Raceway is proof that changing with the times equals prosperity.
Since its first series race in 1953, won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Lee Petty in a Dodge, the track has had five different configurations as well as a pair of racing surfaces – dirt and two iterations of asphalt. Auto racing at what’s known as Strawberry Hill in suburban Henrico County dates to October 1946 and Ted Horn’s championship car victory.
Other short tracks have come and gone – only Martinsville Speedway, which hosted its first race in 1949, is older – but Richmond continues to thrive. Saturday night’s Capital City 400 Presented by Virginia Is For Lovers (7:30 p.m. EDT, live on FOX) marks the 112th time stock car racing’s premier series has taken the green flag.
Richmond, once a dusty, 0.5-mile fairgrounds operation seating no more than 10,000, is short track in measurement only. Reconfigured as a 0.75-mile D-shaped layout in 1988, Richmond International Raceway’s grandstands can accommodate 94,063. It was the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series facility to present both spring and fall races under the lights.
Twenty-two NASCAR Sprint Cup champions have won races at Richmond as well as 10 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame – as driver, owner or crew chief. Richard Petty won 13 races. His Richmond record included seven consecutive victories – and nine wins in 10 starts – between 1970 and 1975.
“You can sit anywhere in the grandstand and see action,” said Petty. “If you miss it in one corner just look in another. There’s action up there.”
Before former owner Paul Sawyer, who bought the track with two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Joe Weatherly in 1955, settled on Richmond International Raceway, the facility was variously known as the Virginia State Fairgrounds, Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds, Rural Exposition Fairgrounds and Richmond Fairgrounds.
Sawyer might well have named it Petty International Raceway.
An unprecedented three generations of Pettys – Lee, Richard and Kyle – won a combined 16 times in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition in Richmond.
“Richmond always was pretty good to the Petty crowd,” said Petty, who swept both dirt races in 1967, the season before the track was paved. He won 11 times on the asphalt surface. “I liked the dirt. You were sideways all the time. It was just a lot of fun.”
Lee Petty’s two victories came in 1953 and 1960. Kyle Petty, driving for NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, won in 1986. Video highlights of the race remain popular, showing Petty going from third place to victory when leaders wrecked in Turn 4 of the final lap battling for the win.
That race was one of the last in which the track was ringed by steel guardrails, which frequently were uprooted by the nearly two-ton stock cars.
Linwood Burrow, the track’s director of safety operations, drew his first paycheck from Sawyer in 1969 at the age of 16. Guardrail repair was among Burrow’s duties.
“Every race the drivers would tear down the guardrail and we’d have to fix it,” said Burrow. “Whether it was cleaning up the grandstand or cutting the grass, I was right there.”
Sawyer sold Richmond International Raceway to International Speedway Corp. on Dec. 1, 1999.
Winning races has come in bunches over the years: Petty for sure, along with fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip – a combined 19 wins – and Hall nominee Rusty Wallace, six wins. NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, a five-time Richmond winner, swept both races in 1987. Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson did likewise in 2007 adding a third victory in the fall of 2008.
Lately, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas have been the dominant cars winning all but one Richmond race – five in all – dating to 2009. Kyle Busch has won three consecutive spring races. His teammate, Denny Hamlin, added two fall victories before Kevin Harvick snapped JGR’s streak last September.
Busch said he and his teammate have worked together to maximize their performances at Richmond and the cooperation shows. Hamlin, a two-time winner in 2012, has a series-best Driver Rating of 117.6, two Coors Light Poles and an average finish of 7.6. The Virginian also will try to give the No. 11 its 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory – 10 of which have come at Richmond with Hamlin, Waltrip, NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Ned Jarrett and Bill Elliott.
Busch, looking to end an uncharacteristic 20-race winless drought, owns Richmond’s second-best Driver Rating (114.8) and in 14 races has never finished off the lead lap.
“We really work closely together and Denny and I have had a good relationship where we’ve been able to talk a lot about this place and where we can really help each other. Different lines, how our cars are driving and obviously being on the same team helps all of that,” said Busch. “We run a lot of the same stuff there and it’s a place that we always look forward to coming to. We kind of know the tricks of the trade, if you’d say, at what it takes to be good at Richmond.”