In this April 27, 2013, file photo, Matt Kenseth, front right, leads the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va. From 2-4:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 26, fans can walk the entire track, enjoy
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — They are calling it "Track Takeover" at Richmond International Raceway, and track President Dennis Bickmeier hopes allowing fans onto the racing surface a few hours before race time on Saturday night will not only improve their experience at the 0.75-mile oval, but bring more of them, or bring them back.
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"This is a way to give people that access and let them kind of see the sport up close, or a little closer," Bickmeier said Thursday. "This sport defined access, and we've got to keep that going."
At a time when most agree the racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series has been better than in several years, tracks are always looking for ways to bring fan support back up to the days when it sold itself.
In those days, Richmond was like most other places, selling out 18 consecutive races.
"They focused on selling the Friday night race," Bickmeier said. "We're not there."
Richmond has opened the front-stretch before, but only for a section off the front stretch. On Saturday night, fans will be able to walk the entire surface, take in live music, tour a NASCAR hauler and pose for pictures at key spots in the track's history. They also are encouraged to share those pictures on social media, a vehicle the track has used to try and highlight its status as an enjoyable place to visit.
Bickmeier, with a little prompting from Dale Earnhardt Jr., on Twitter, even used that vehicle to land Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III as Saturday night's honorary starter. Earnhardt suggested RG3 as Grand Marshal, Bickmeier offered honorary starter and Griffin was more than willing.
The idea for Track Takeover came from a more conventional source — a survey the track did with ticket-holders from the past who stopped coming when the economy tanked, ending the sellout streak.
"One of the things that really registered was they said they wanted more to do," he said.
"Ever since we've announced it, I've been to Martinsville and Darlington leading up to this race, and people are stopping me and saying, 'Hey, that track thing you're doing? That's sounds pretty cool.'" he said, adding that while the reaction has been good, he has no idea how many will actually take advantage.
"We don't know if we're going to have hundreds of fans, or thousands."
Bickmeier, who met Thursday afternoon with six campers, one of whom he'd been emailing back and forth with over one of her concerns, will be out on the track for the takeover, making sure it's running smoothly from an operations standpoint, but also interacting with the fans he's hoping to impress.
He's also considering sky-diving into the track with the green flag, perhaps in September.
"You never know," he said, "at what level you are going to engage with a fan."