Richmond Raceway’s brief romance with IndyCar racing could be rekindled.
The sculpted-for-speed racers that zoom around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway made an annual stop at the 0.75-mile Richmond track for a few years, and they might be coming back.
Emphasize “might be.” So far, there is no deal. There is no memo of understanding. There is not so much as a handshake.
“We are nowhere near a deal,” said Stephen Starks, IndyCar vice president of promoter and media partner relations.
“But we have had high-level conversations,” he added.
Ah — conversations. That’s how things get started. So, Virginia fans of open-wheel racing, there is reason for hope that the IndyCar Series could come back to the commonwealth.
In a phone interview earlier this week, Starks said his organization is impressed with Richmond Raceway’s leadership and is gathering information and discussing possibilities with the track.
“A lot of people have been asking about a possible return to Richmond,” he said. “It’s a great market — the Mid-Atlantic region is important to IndyCar. And a lot of people have fond memories of our races in Richmond.
“It’s not undoable,” Starks said. “In fact, it’s doable.”
Richmond Raceway president Dennis Bickmeier said the track is willing to consider hosting the series. As he put it: “We continue to look for more opportunities for programming on our racetrack.”
More opportunities. That’s an interesting phrase at a time of great fluidity in NASCAR’s plans. After years of only minimal changes to its schedule, the stock car racing series has jumbled its 2020 schedule and made it clear that 2021 is likely to see even more change.
That could mean some tracks will lose races. It’s not unreasonable to think Richmond Raceway could be left with just one annual NASCAR Cup event rather than two, as has been the case for decades.
IndyCars would qualify as an opportunity. The series had a nine-year run at Richmond — one race a year, 2001-09. Crowds peaked at maybe 50,000. The racing was better some years than others, with the best perhaps in 2002 when Sam Hornish took the lead for the first time with two laps to go and held on to beat Gil de Ferran.
The worst IndyCar race at Richmond Raceway? Unquestionably that 2009 race.
The IndyCar rules package at the time mandated cars that didn’t suit racing on the D-shaped Richmond track. Maybe the tires didn’t quite suit either. For whatever combination of reasons, passing was nearly impossible. The leader eventually settled in behind the last car in the running order and the whole field politely ran single file to the finish.
Postrace interviews were a chorus of apologies to the fans. Dario Franchitti, who finished second, called it “an awful, awful race.”
A month later came the announcement that the series wouldn’t be back at the Richmond track. The economy had tanked. Attendance had dwindled, that sanctioning fee of $1 million was too high. And the racing had gone sour.
So why think about returning now? Well, the series rules package has continued to change, and the cars have been running successfully at Iowa Speedway, a track very similar to the Richmond venue.
Designed by driver Rusty Wallace with Richmond in mind, the Iowa track is a 7/8-mile D shape with banking very close to Richmond’s all the way around.
In nine of the 12 races at Iowa Speedway since 2007, IndyCars have had nine or more lead changes. That’s entertaining action in 300 laps on a short track.
And Richmond fans haven’t lost interest in the IndyCar racing. This past Sunday, the Richmond region registered the ninth-highest TV rating among markets nationwide for the Indy 500 telecast.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR and IndyCar organizations have come to recognize each other’s strengths. They’re looking for new ways to cooperate.
It wasn’t always so. In 1954, when NASCAR was still a relatively upstart organization, NASCAR founding father Bill France Sr. visited Indy during preparations for the 500 and was escorted out of the track’s garages by security guards.
Things could hardly have been more different this year. Indy and its new TV partner, NBC, brought in NASCAR darling Dale Earnhardt Jr. to drive the pace car to start the 500 and to join the telecast’s commentators.
During the week leading up to the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there was talk of possible future doubleheader weekends, with IndyCar and NASCAR races on back-to-back days at the same track. Possibly the same day?
A weekend with two major league races is not likely to happen at Richmond Raceway.
While they didn’t rule out a double-dip, both IndyCar’s Starks and Richmond’s Bickmeier hesitated at the prospect of both series in one weekend. Both noted the logistical problems. For example, there’s room for only one series at a time in the track’s garage space.
Still, there have been conversations — high-level conversations, no less. And where there’s talk, there’s possibility.