Lots Of History Under That Richmond Asphalt

I am decidedly NOT objective about Richmond Raceway. Of all the more than 100 race tracks I’ve visited in my 58 years as a fan, it is home. Had my dad not dropped his young teenaged son and a friend off at the edge of the Virginia State Fairgrounds that Sunday afternoon in April 1963, I might be spending Saturday nights at a baseball field or bowling alley these days. Instead, there’s no place I’d rather be than the race track.

Richmond Raceway

Richmond Raceway is celebrating its 75th birthday this year, and the track has developed a list of its “75 Greatest Moments,” a list I had the tiniest of roles in helping to create. The cool thing about the place, though, is that it’s been around long enough to have all kinds of touchstones that you could turn into anniversaries:

  • NASCAR would probably argue that the renovation of a less than 10 years ago deserves mention here, but I’ll drop back to 1999, which was both the year former owner Paul Sawyer bought out the fairgrounds (which moved a few years later) and later sold the track and grounds to International Speedway Corp., now part of NASCAR. There’s a 22nd birthday to celebrate.
  • Another modern date is 1991, making this the 30th anniversary of night racing at the new track – but not a first for the fairgrounds track overall (see below).
  • This also marks the 33rd birthday for the track itself, which was rebuilt and enlarged from 1/2-mile to ¾-mile in 1988. That was the move that ensured the track remained part of the NASCAR Cup Series and is clearly worth noting. (The answers to the trivia questions, by the way, are that Neil Bonnett won the last race on the old track, and Davey Allison the first on the new.)
  • It’s the 53rd birthday of the track being paved. That happened in the middle of the 1968 season, and it also kept the track part of NASCAR’s top tier, since, as Sawyer knew, the days of dirt tracks at that level were numbered . . . (until 2021). (Trivia – David Pearson won the last GN/Cup race on dirt, and Richard Petty won the first on pavement.)

Harry Gant pits on the old paved track, while Richard Petty takes a checkered flag on Richmond’s dirt.

  • It’s the 68th birthday of the first Grand National (now Cup) race on what was then generally just called “the track” at the Atlantic Rural Exposition fairgrounds. (Trivia – Lee Petty won that 1953 race on a rough, muddy surface at an average speed of 48.465 mph.)
  • It’s the 73rd birthday of the first NASCAR race in Richmond, a modified event won by Red Byron in 1948. (Really confusing fact – Bill France promoted a stock car race at the previous Richmond fairgrounds track – before NASCAR – on Labor Day weekend of 1946. Buddy Shuman won that event.)
  • 1948 also is the birthday of night racing at the fairgrounds. Sherman “Red” Crise, who had promoted midget racing at Richmond’s City Stadium football field in 1946-47 (before the neighbors had it banned due to noise) moved his operation to the fairgrounds, which installed lights to make shows possible on weeknights. The lights remained in place until the track was paved, and rainouts moved GN/Cup races to nighttime completions twice in the mid-‘60s. (Real trivia – The winner of the May 19, 1949, midget race that inaugurated night racing at the fairgrounds was Shorty McAndrews.)
Ted Horn
  • The 75th anniversary is for the first race run at the original track at this site, the now-former Atlantic Rural Exposition/Virginia State Fairgrounds. That happened during the 1946 State Fair (first held after WWII) in October, and Ted Horn was the winner of a AAA Eastern Circuit race for what were then called “big cars,” the kind that ran at Indianapolis. Sam Nunis, who would become Bill France’s biggest rival in that era, promoted that event.

Now I’ll take you back just even farther. The State Fair was moved to the current track site – known locally as Strawberry Hill – after WWII, when the fair also changed hands. The fair had been held from 1906-1941 at what today is the location of The Diamond, Richmond’s minor league baseball park. The last State Fair race at the old fairgrounds was 80 years ago in 1941, but the track remained active after the war as a rental facility. I believe that its last race was a big car event in May 1948, again won by Ted Horn. Other “birthdays” associated with the old fairgrounds site and track:

  • First stock car race in Richmond was 80 years ago in July 1941, won by Jim Stonebraker.
  • First “professional” race in Richmond (for Indy-type cars of the day) 109 years ago in 1912. ( Louis Disbrow, the winner both days of the Thanksgiving weekend event, was scheduled to start on the pole at Indy that year but showed up late on race morning and was banished to the rear.)
Louis Disbrow and crew at Indy
  • Finally, this is the 114th birthday of what seems to have been the first auto racing ever in Richmond, held during the 1907 State Fair on what was then a one-mile track (shortened to one-half after WWI). Like a horse racing meet, it included multiple, relatively brief races, including a two-lapper pitting four physicians driving their personal cars. Average speeds were around 35-40 mph.

Is that enough history to make you feel dustier than you would have at a daytime race in the old days (a Richmond Times-Dispatch cartoon after the 1907 race poked fun at the dusty conditions)? Not everybody is as nerdy as I am about this stuff, but I hope you feel how much history will surround this weekend’s racing. Richmond Race is a great, ultra-modern track, but it has a heritage few can match.

By Frank Buhrman

8 comments

  1. In 1907, only the doctors had cars! (An expensive toy that needed to find practical uses.) What a fun fact.

    1. . . . and a lot of them didn’t/couldn’t have them, either. I have a pair of bearskin gloves that my great-grandfather, a doctor, used to hold the reins of his horse-and-buggy when he want to visit patient in the decades after that, before he got his Model T.

  2. Great article. Love the history. Not sure what time it was posted but I think the folks at SiriusXM read it too based on their comments. Thanks again

    1. Thanks for the kind words, David. Most of this history comes from the pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and its former afternoon counterpart, the News Leader, both of which were available through the State Library of Virginia.

  3. Here’s an “oops.” The date of the Shorty McAndrews win in a midget race that was the first ever run at night on the fairgrounds track should be 1948, not ’49. Sorry about that.

  4. Frank, absolutely great reading. The history of any track always intrigues me and I love learning about racing back then. The cars are so fascinating, as is what they wore when they raced.
    Thank you so much for this one! I will be re-reading it and waiting for the next one. You have a great way with words and hold my interest completely.

    1. Here’s an incredible postscript, Vivian. Today I went to the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing (mostly to volunteer in the research library) and found that the car Ted Horn drove to that win in the first race at the Strawberry Hill fairgrounds track 75 years ago has been restored and is on display. Today it looks like it did in 1946, but it actually was raced for another 20 years (more or less), near the end of which it was driven by Mario Andretti. Unbelievable just to stand next to it.

  5. Frank, I envy you for being able to see something like that. Thank you for adding that info in your response.

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