At that time, Darlington was a one-mile paved track created by Harold Brasington, a man who envisioned for South Carolina something close to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Darlington was never close to Indy, but it was unique, and remains so to this day.
Martinsville and Richmond started out as half-mile dirt tracks.
In time both converted to asphalt. Richmond did so in the fall of 1968, many years after Martinsville, which was paved in the autumn of 1955.
For many years, when it came to growth, modernization and additional amenities, Darlington and Richmond lagged behind Martinsville – which was always somewhat more progressive under the guidance of its headstrong owner, the late H. Clay Earles.
But, in time, Richmond metamorphosed into something few could have expected, and on a scale that few could have imagined.
One who did was Paul Sawyer.
As I grew to know him, I learned that the late Sawyer, the man who directed Richmond’s fortunes, was always forceful and passionate about his track.
He once threatened to whip my butt after I wrote that his speedway, with steel guardrails instead of concrete walls, was little more than a death trap.
But Sawyer was smart enough to know that his track, and as humble as it was, could not survive without changes.
Many of us wondered what he could do. We assumed – again, assumed – he was still supervised by the authorities of the Virginia State Fairgounds.
Perhaps it was the force of Sawyer’s will. Maybe it was Virginia’s recognition that a major, redesigned track on fairgrounds property would be far more lucrative than a bull ring.
It doesn’t really matter. In the fall of 1988, Richmond was dramatically altered. Instead of a 0.542-track, it became a 0.75-mile facility.
Seats and VIP boxes were added. The garage area, press box and media center expanded. Tunnels allowed vehicles and people to pass unimpeded.
In 1991, the second Richmond race of the season was the first held under new lights and was won by Harry Gant.
Eight years later both of Richmond’s two events were held at night, as they are to this day.
What makes all of this significant is this: While many tracks have grown and altered themselves over the years, Richmond went at least one step further.
It not only added amenities, but it also changed the length and shape of its racing surface.
Today, it’s the only 0.75-mile track on the NASCAR Cup circuit. It is unique.
And it has all paid off. Richmond races are popular among fans and competitors alike, simply because the style of racing combines short-track action with a sizable amount of big-track speed.
Competitors will tell you there’s room to race, room to pass.
Here’s a piece of Richmond – and NASCAR – lore.
The first race at the “new” Richmond track, now 0.75-mile, was held on Sept. 11, 1988. That was the year of the “tire wars” between Goodyear and Hoosier.
After qualifying for the Cup race, crewmen turned out in force to see what would happen in the Saturday 200-mile Nationwide Series race – and for a good reason.
Every car in that event was shod with Hoosier tires. The Cup teams wanted to know how they would hold up.
The answer was: not much. Tire wear was so obvious that Cup guys dashed into the garage area and wheezed, “We gotta run Goodyears!”
Which the teams did. However, those that changed after qualifying on Hoosiers had to drop to the rear of the field, per NASCAR rules, before the Miller High Life 400 began.
It looked like a massive exodus from front to back.
To give you an idea of the enormity of the transition, Alan Kulwicki, who qualified second, started the race in the 31st position. He was part of what looked like a retreating army.
Davey Allison, then driving for Harry Ranier, was cagey. He started the first six laps on Hoosiers, built up a sizable lead and then pitted for Goodyears.
He led most of the laps and won the race by 3.37 seconds over Dale Earnhardt.
That race was, at the least, a most interesting debut for the new Richmond.
Much has happened since, of course.
We can expect more from a track that has altered itself, perhaps, more than any other – and for so much the better.