Ridgeway, Martinsville and surrounding areas have shifted gears in preparation for the annual NASCAR race that could make this coming weekend the biggest of the year.
This is according to local and race officials who for the past several months have been preparing for the race this Sunday at the Martinsville Speedway (which is actually in the town of Ridgeway, just south of Martinsville).
The event is a weekend-long affair, with a truck race scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday and a stock car race at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, leading up to the NOCO 400 — part of the NASCAR Cup Series — at 3 p.m. Sunday. Race fans will converge on Ridgeway and surrounding areas to take part.
Since the 1940s, when the Martinsville Speedway first started hosting NASCAR races, they’ve been one of the region’s biggest draws, swelling Ridgeway’s population well beyond its usual 746 residents.
This year, as the first in some time without significant COVID-19 restrictions, officials anticipate record attendance at the 45,000-seat facility.
For the folks at the Speedway who host a handful of NASCAR events throughout the year, preparation is a year-round undertaking, while the other participating agencies begin preparing several months in advance.
For the town of Ridgeway, preparation entails accommodating the influx of people coming to camp and watch the races. Ridgeway Mayor Craig O’Der and Martinsville Speedway President Caly Campbell said it’s a good problem to have.
Campbell said race weekends have a $180 million impact in the region.
“We roll out the red carpet for all of the visitors,” O’Der said. “There is a lot of action, tempers flare, the races are always action-packed.”
Ridgeway is one of several Virginia locations with ties to NASCAR. Richmond and South Boston are both home to tracks, while tourism from Bristol’s track, which is located on the Tennessee side of the city, spills across the border into Virginia.
While Ridgeway is smaller than any of those places, there isn’t an enthusiasm gap, especially come race day.
“It’s a great race and it brings a lot of people into town,” O’Der said, adding that the area has become a sort of hub for race-based entertainment.
This, according to Campbell, was the vision of his grandfather, who founded the track in 1947. After he’d been operating for a year, NASCAR, still in its infancy, called in the hopes of making the track one of the company’s first.
These days, track staff works around the clock on maintenance and upkeep. While NASCAR races are the track’s only revenue-producing events, it periodically hosts community and charity events.
“We work long hours and we have a great operations team,” Campbell said. “A lot of work goes into putting these races on.”
Work includes maintenance, upkeep and putting up trackside advertisements. On race weekends, staff numbers around 2,000 people.
In 2023, Martinsville Speedway will be the venue for two additional races, in September and October: the Valley Star Credit Union 300 and the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. The latter is expected to draw as many attendees as the upcoming weekend race.
Preparation for them, especially among law enforcement agencies, is already underway, according to Chief Deputy Wayne Davis with the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, which heads up a multiagency security operation at each race.
“We are the primary security agency,” Davis said, adding that other agencies, from the state police to the FBI, participate on race day.
The sheriff’s office takes the lead by overseeing security at key points. These include the parking lots, entry gates, VIP suites and other areas.
“Generally we’re concerned about getting traffic in and out safely,” Davis said. “We’re prepared for all aspects of safety.”
Davis said this requires weeks of prep work. All aspects of security, from the scheduling to the deputies that will be on site, are considered as Davis and others draw up a security strategy.
They do this while trying to coordinate with other agencies.
“We’ve been very careful and we do these events without incident,” Davis said, adding that most big races happen without arrests.
“When we do have to make an arrest, it’s for people who have consumed too many alcoholic beverages,” Davis said, adding that he wants to keep the races as controversy-free as possible. He suggests patrons follow best practices, like limiting alcohol consumption, staying clear of restricted areas and arriving early for hassle-free parking.
Ultimately, Davis, O’Der and others involved in putting the race together want their work to remain behind the scenes so patrons can just enjoy the show.
“When you go into a restaurant and you order something nice, they bring it out and you are pleased with it, you don’t really care what goes into making it happen,” Campbell said. “It’s the same thing here. That’s what matters. When people come here, they want to see a race, it doesn’t matter how long it took us to do it.”