Dennis Bickmeier and his staff are always evaluating — looking, measuring and questioning, trying to find the best answers. Such is life for the president of Richmond International Raceway.
And really anyone who works in NASCAR.
As the sport searches to recapture its onetime foot-on-the-floor popularity, those who run racetracks are constantly trying to figure out ways to draw new fans while keeping their longtime supporters coming back each and every time they have an event.
For Bickmeier, he’s got two NASCAR weekends per year to plan, market, sell … and stress over.
The fall Cup race at Richmond needs little introduction. As the final regular-season race, the hype is palpable. And now that it’ll be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race in Richmond before he retires from full-time racing, you couldn’t ask for a better last-race-before-the-playoff event.
It sells itself.
Bickmeier said RIR has already seen an increase in ticket sales for the Sept. 9 race. Thanks to Junior.
The spring race, however, is a different animal.
Especially since it’s been moved to a Sunday race during the day.
As the ninth race on the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup schedule, the season is just starting to warm up. There isn’t the same amount of buzz in the stands — or pressure in the pits — as the fall race carries at RIR.
It’s Bickmeier and his staff’s job to make sure today’s Toyota Owners 400 is a success, regardless of what’s happening on the track.
And with this being just the second regularly scheduled day race at RIR since 1997, there’s still a lot to evaluate.
“I think it’s still a little bit of a work in progress, to be fair,” Bickmeier said. “Last year was new for everybody — 18 years in the making, I guess.
“A portion of our grandstands, that’s all they knew was night racing. … I think we learned a lot in our first year during the day race, some things that we’ve improved on this time. I think some of it has just been that dedicated focus on marketing — to more kids and families. I think we’ll learn a lot more this weekend.
“I think what we’ll learn this week, and having two under our belt, will really kind of factor into where we go in the future.”
There are two goals that Bickmeier and his staff have been focusing on for the spring race: differentiate it from the fall race and attract more families.
The RIR president said they have seen a spike in the latter. The former, like he said, is still a work in progress.
The biggest difference between the two races at RIR is as obvious as, well, night and day. But it’s not that simple.
It’s not just trying to find fans who like to watch races both under the lights and under the sun.
A lot of it comes down to time.
There has been a focus on getting local fans to the track, and Bickmeier says that’s helped, especially the family contingent. A day at the track with the kids is a great way to spend a Sunday.
But the out-of-town fan is still elusive. That’s been more of a challenge, Bickmeier said.
Having a Sunday afternoon race and a Monday-Friday job is tough for anyone who has to drive any significant distance. A Saturday night race gives them Sunday to get home.
Bickmeier’s heard — and understands — both sides. So it’s more evaluating, measuring and questioning.
But is there an answer?
What about a Saturday spring race with an earlier start time? What about a 5 p.m. green flag with an 8-8:30-ish checkered?
Start the race in the day, finish it at night. The best of both worlds.
The families get out before bedtime, while the out-of-town fans get Sunday to head home. And all race fans would get a race that would be super intriguing — not only the day/night race atmosphere, but there’s also the day/night competition factor on how the track changes as the sun sinks lower.
Sure, a lot goes into making that happen — not only from RIR’s standpoint, but there’s also NASCAR, TV and sponsorship wants and interests.
It’s just more to evaluate. Like always.