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Bad weather has led to all-time attendance lows for NASCAR, but things are looking up in Richmond

Bad weather has led to all-time attendance lows for NASCAR, but things are looking up in Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — By Tuesday of this week, Jeff Hedrick was breathing easier. Nature’s vendetta against NASCAR, it appears, is coming to an end. Or at least taking a weekend off.

Hedrick is senior director of operations at Richmond International Raceway. Among other things, he and his staff deal with the problems weather can cause for a race track.

For Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400, the forecast is just about ideal — no precipitation, temperatures in the 60s as fans gather during the day, staying in the 50s from green flag to projected checkered flag while the cars race under the lights.

For a sport that has come to depend on fans checking their cellphone forecasts and making late decisions about whether or not to be part of the crowd, that’s a relief.

If you’ve been watching Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races on television, you can’t have missed how things have worked out the last three events.

At Martinsville Speedway in late March, it snowed the night before the race — four inches plus at the track, more than a foot in higher elevations less than 45 miles away. The race was moved to Monday. The stands were mostly empty.

At Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, it was cold enough — in the 40s when the green flag waved — to keep fans away in droves.

At Bristol Motor Speedway, the race was interrupted Sunday and finished in intermittent cold rain Monday with so few fans on the aluminum seats they looked like light sprinkles on a big cupcake.

Hedrick, on the other hand, is looking at a forecast that tells him things are just fine.

Hedrick isn’t just checking his cellphone, mind you.

“We’re plugged in with the National Weather Service,” he said. “Daytona (Florida headquarters for NASCAR and International Speedway Corp.) has a program that tracks weather with great detail. We talk to local meteorologists. Henrico County helps us prepare for any weather situation.

“On race weekend,” Hedrick said, “the National Guard will be on site with some of the best weather information possible. Their equipment is really terrific.”

In his 13 years at the track, Hedrick has dealt with a wide variety of conditions. He was there in September 2008, the race postponed a day when Tropical Storm Hanna prompted a state-of-emergency declaration, bringing a shuddering end to the track’s 33-race sellout streak.

He was there last spring when a no-rain weekend went sour as the heat soared into the mid-90s and limited the turnout.

“We saw that heat coming well in advance,” Hedrick said. “A thunderstorm can pop up on you and you have to be ready to act. But the heat gave us plenty of time to prepare. We worked with Henrico to have extra EMT squads. We had water stations and misting stations. We knew what the fans would need.”

Hedrick, who works with a year-round operations staff of 18, coordinates the efforts of upwards of 1,000 people on race weekends. He aims to leave nothing to chance. Early in his tenure at the track, he put together an Emergency Action Plan, and he refreshes the plan with the track’s partners in monthly meetings.

The gatherings include representatives from Henrico County police, fire and traffic engineering departments, private security teams, RMC Events staff, and sometimes State Police and officials from Hanover County and Richmond.

For this race, with the weather relenting, he has been able to put much of his team’s focus on what has to be done in the midst of the track’s infield renovation project, Richmond Raceway Reimagined.

The track’s new garage is ready to be occupied by race teams and the upgraded infrastructure is in working order. Still, much remains to be done.

“We’re holding a race in a construction zone,” Hedrick said.

With the weather finally cooperating, Saturday’s race is likely to draw a healthy crowd — a sharp contrast to the paltry gatherings that braved the elements to witness the events in Martinsville, Texas and Bristol.

At Martinsville, popular veteran Clint Bowyer ended a 190-race losing streak with a hard-fought victory.

At Bristol, ever-polarizing Kyle Busch made the winning pass in the closing laps with an aggressive move — essentially the only kind of move that works at that track.

That’s two galvanizing races run before largely empty stands and diminished Monday television audiences.

Richmond will no doubt have far more folks in the stands than were on hand at Bristol and Martinsville combined. Maybe those fans will be treated to a race to remember.

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