Dennis Bickmeier is a busy man. The Richmond International Raceway President has bounced around all season to promote several huge events at the track. However, none of them compare to what’s coming this Saturday.
The final race before the Chase begins used to be just another race on the calendar with most playoff spots already clinched. But with the Chase format overhaul a few years back, Bickmeier’s final race is a pressure-filled event with up to 17 drivers potentially hoping to earn a Chase spot with a victory.
Along with the adrenaline-packed race, Richmond is also the site for the inaugural Fan Appreciation Weekend. From Kyle Busch donning a special, “Thank You Fans” TV panel decal to “Gridside Live!” interviews open to fans with drivers like Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin beginning at 1 p.m., Saturday’s night race has truly been turned into a full-day event for NASCAR fans.
With so much action in one weekend, we wrangled Bickmeier away from his busy schedule to ask him about what fans should expect this coming weekend.
Chicken Bone Alley: What is the biggest change around the track heading into this weekend?
Dennis Bickmeier: The biggest change for us is the fan appreciation event NASCAR is launching. I think we all as track promoters do a great job week in and week out thanking the fans and doing our part. That won’t change for me. I’ll still be out there personally talking with the fans. But the one thing NASCAR has done is put a brand around this weekend to increase the importance. It’s really the entire industry coming together to wrap up a great season and let the fans know how invaluable they are to our sport.
What events are you most excited for fans to be a part of?
There’s so many opportunities for fans to interact with drivers in a way they might not have previously. Then there’s the interact, kind of giveaway piece of it that every fan should come away with a memorable memento and be a part of something that is truly about them before a great race. Getting to ask questions of your favorite drivers doesn’t happen every weekend. Thanks to NASCAR, we can provide that on Saturday.
How nice has it been to have the final race before the Chase since the format changed?
It’s a great spot to be on the schedule. (Laughs) Our fans recognize how important this race is. We’ve had racing here for over 60 years, so we have a strong, loyal fan base already here in Virginia and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. But traditional NASCAR fans also recognize this as a gem on the schedule. With that, this race has a completely different edge to it. You can feel that when you walk onto the property that this one is a little different.
Everyone follows the scenario for their favorite drivers and know drivers now have just one shot to get into the Chase. They have one job: win. It really gives a different feel and our fans are excited to be a part of something so important in the NASCAR schedule.
What went into eliminating the post-race party from years past and doing everything leading up to it?
We flipped the party to pre-race in favor of giving fans the opportunity for the “Gridside Live” event. Season ticketholders get to be a part of the first hour with Mike Helton, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards before every other fan can enter at 2 p.m. This also gives Sprint, Mars and several other companies are giving away all kinds of cool stuff to the fans. We’ll also be going around to surprise fans with giveaways of autographed stuff for being out there early.
We continue to add more and more to give fans something they’ve never seen before. It adds a tremendous amount of value for the price of one ticket to the race. Any way we can set ourselves apart from other sports is exactly what we want to do.
The final Richmond race last season unfortunately ended up being a rout by Matt Kenseth with little excitement. How has the new aerodynamic package changed the style of racing at short tracks like RIR?
I think you only need to look at our April race to get a feel for the action that we believe will be replicated this weekend. We had three-wide racing. We had a bump-and-run finish by Carl Edwards. I will tell you, that’s been the most discussion I’ve had around town since I’ve been here about that race and finish. Ever since that race, where ever I’ve been, that’s all everyone wants to talk about. Just how thrilled they were with what they witnessed on the track. I applaud NASCAR for the changes and Goodyear for the work they’ve done. We’re thankful for it and hope that the changing conditions makes for another exciting race.