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'He's a race fan': Michael Jordan was in Richmond on Sunday to enjoy the NASCAR action

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Michael Jordan did not show up at Richmond Raceway on Sunday merely to make an appearance. He came to watch some racing.

One of the greatest athletes of all time took his seat atop Bubba Wallace’s pit box at the start of the Federated Auto Parts 400, put on the driver communication headset, and took in all three hours.

Commanders star Chase Young walked pit row, as did former NBA standout Jared Jeffries. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, in a break from his usual approach, came out to cheer left turns.

It wasn’t quite Monaco, but the buzz was real, and will do just fine until we’re picked to host the Streets of Shockoe Grand Prix.

A race at Richmond hasn’t felt this special in years, and it was noticeable.

NASCAR at Richmond Raceway

Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan (center) left Richmond Raceway after the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Sunday. Jordan and driver Denny Hamlin own 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace joined Mooresville, N.C.-based 23XI in 2020 as its inaugural driver.

The pit road crowd hovered around Wallace’s No. 23 car, three days after he hosted a well-received “Block Party” event at the track.

Driver Denny Hamlin, along with Jordan, co-owns Wallace’s car, and has big visions for what it will mean to have a successful Black racer at the highest level.

“It’s part of a long-term plan we have to change the landscape of NASCAR racing, and I think it’s starting to work,” Hamlin said. “You look in the crowd, we’ve got a more diverse crowd than we’ve ever had at these events.

“Michael’s passion for racing is the No. 1 reason why he shows up. He’s a race fan. He loves it. And obviously this sport is lucky to have him as a fan and someone who’s willing to come here and travel and come watch.”

Wallace’s legion of fans weren’t the only ones experiencing the track fresh. New track president Lori Collier Waran slipped away from her duties at the start of the race to sit in the stands for the full Richmond experience.

“I got to smell the smells, hear the sounds, enjoy it all,” she said. “And I think that was pretty awesome and special.”

Now, the tricky work begins. How to turn casual onlookers into regular fans?

There are two ways to look at what’s happened at the raceway over the past decade.

It’s reasonable to lament the good old days, with 110,000 fans packed on top of the drivers on a short track Saturday night. It’s also important to note that something new and exciting is happening on Laburnum, a rebirth for the sport and the city after a tumultuous stretch for both.

NASCAR’s corporate overlords will play a big part in seeing this through. The track got extraordinarily lucky on Sunday with cool, dry weather. But a race that used to be run on fall evenings under the lights will have a hard time surviving in a 3 p.m. mid-August time slot.

In its quest to milk every last dollar out of its rolling billboards, NASCAR now gives broad latitude to television networks to set race dates and times.

Taking a short-term hit and bringing Richmond back to a night race would be a wise long-term investment for the sport. Fans have to get hooked live before they become long-term viewers.

Sunday’s winner, longtime driver Kevin Harvick, waxed nostalgic about the good old days, with a measure of realism that they can’t be re-created.

“Today’s sports are different than they were as far as live audiences,” he said. “It’s just a different landscape that we live in. But I’m glad that I got to experience racing and being competitive in front of those fields, and having 105,000, whether they’re rooting for you or against you.

“It was neat because they’re close here, right? It’s like Bristol. The boos are louder; the cheers are louder. At that point, nobody had phones, so their cameras would all flash, and that was always one of my favorite things coming to the green flag was all the light bulbs and the flashes.”

You had to be there. But you’ve also got to be here now. The track and its infield are transformed, the racing is as good as ever, and the rumble of the first lap is still way better live than on television.

Before Sunday’s race, Alex Bowman was doing a fan Q&A in the infield.

A Cup Series driver has been programmed to never offend with an answer. But when asked if he preferred day or night racing at Richmond, Bowman didn’t hesitate.

“Night, absolutely,” he answered.

You listening, NASCAR?

(804) 649-6546

Twitter: @michaelpRTD


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