RICHMOND, Va. The crowd eyed the race while track and Indy Racing League officials eyed the crowd when the open-wheel series debuted in this corner of stock car country Saturday night.
The IRL’s Northern Light series brought its faster pace and different racing style to Richmond International Raceway with the SunTrust Indy Challenge.
“We’re selling a brand new product,” track president Doug Fritz said as the grandstands filled before the race. “We can’t expect a NASCAR-sized crowd, but we’re pleased with what we’ve seen in the stands.”
Fritz refused to say how many tickets were sold to the race, but the 100,000-seat track was less than half-full when the green flag dropped.
Saturday offered the first clue at how the series would fare in Richmond.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said RIR spokesman Keith Green. “People here are not as familiar with open-wheel racing, and we’re looking to build this event.”
To help drum up business, the track priced tickets at half the cost of a NASCAR Winston Cup event, and allowed fans to buy passes to the garage and pit areas for $30. Such access comes by invitation only during NASCAR weekends here.
The prospect of getting to where the action is was enough to attract B.W. Dunn, an auto-parts salesman from St. Stephens. It was the 41-year-old’s first time in the pits, despite a lifetime of being a racing fan.
“I’ve always wanted to be down here,” he said, stamping his feet on the ground for effect. “I can’t believe I’m standing here, to tell you the truth.”
Many fans said they came out of curiosity, and to see the racing.
“For years, IRL racing was a rich man’s race, and NASCAR was for rednecks,” said Chris Erwin, 38, of Chesapeake. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
Saturday’s event was a welcome change for Ed Myers, a life-long open-wheel racing fan who moved to Richmond from Upstate New York 16 years ago.
Myers said he had no other choice but to embrace stock-car racing when he got here: “It’s all about the Winston Cup in Richmond,” said Myers, 49. “There’s nothing else. You have to be a NASCAR fan here.”
Curiosity drew Richard Weber to Saturday’s race, but boredom sent him home early, he said.
“The driving skills are great, it’s fast and loud, but it ain’t down-home driving,” said Weber, 48, of Mechanicsville.
“I don’t know if I’d come back.”
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