Lost On The Track At Richmond International Raceway


Driving down Laburnum Avenue on Saturday to Richmond International Raceway for the postponed start to the weekend’s NASCAR Toyota Owner’s 400 was like driving through an obstacle course blindfolded. Regular routes were closed off with cones or flashing RPD cruisers blocking intersections. You have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing.  
Most people don’t know where they’re going or what they’re doing on any given day. The man driving the Hyundai Sonata in the lane next to you. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. The people who live in the row house across the street from you with the middle schoolers. They don’t know what they’re doing, either. Somehow, most of us just make it; and most of us don’t know what we’re doing, which is probably why we’re still here.

A lot of people just appear to know what they’re doing. You can spot people who are out of their element because they get in the way. They’re unorganized. They ask too many questions. They’re dressed wrong. They fidget. In a catastrophic event, usually these are the first people to die. Or they get everyone else killed. 

For the rest of us, it makes the most sense to just get out of the way. Or walk around. Find a bench somewhere. Locate the bathroom. Become a wallflower. Friends use this as an excuse to step outside for a cigarette. This is where they figure out what they are going to do next.

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Photo by R. Anthony Harris @majormajor____

In instances like these, people watching has its merits. Observing is the fast track to knowing. For instance, there is a yellow line in the Fangrounds behind the pit crews at Richmond International Raceway. Stand back and you can observe a person with an expensive hobby camera and a $100 VIP badge on a lanyard being asked by a NASCAR Official not to cross that specific yellow line. 

You walked down the pedestrian lane behind the 37 different pit crews and saw two young dudes smoking cigarettes inches behind the yellow line. You hadn’t expected smoking in public here. You assumed there was a corral somewhere behind the bathrooms with people huffing down Marlboros out of the sight of second graders, but not at Richmond International Raceway

You can smoke right there in front of everybody.

“They let you smoke cigarettes out here?”

“I think so” one of them said.

“There’s jet fuel lying around everywhere.”

“That’s why we’re keeping them low” said the other one “just in case.”

“Shit yeah” you said and went looking for a place out of the way to have a cigarette. 

This was to figure out what you were going to do next.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by R. Anthony Harris @majormajor____

You know close to nothing about NASCAR. It doesn’t come from any particular dislike for high-performance machines maxing out at 200 mph around a roughly mile long, oval track, crashing into walls and other stock cars and crossing finish lines at Daytona or Talladega or Bristol, etc.

NASCAR just isn’t something you think about when turning out the light or pulling a yard of hair from the shower drain. This is partially due to having only the bare minimum of the required knowledge when it comes to doing routine maintenance on an automobile. 

You can change the oil. Change a tire. You can add window washing fluid and coolant. Replace a headlight. You can also remove your credit card from your wallet and hand it to the person behind the counter at Midas.

You can drive a car, but you don’t spend Saturdays watching other people drive cars. You can kick a ball, but you don’t play soccer.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

On most Sundays when you were a kid, your stepfather watched NASCAR. He also went skeet shooting. Even though you didn’t watch NASCAR or shoot, you knew the names of the drivers and the brand of shells he used. This is similar to the gas station job you worked where the same 15-20 Country songs were played on repeat every night. You knew the words, regardless. You knew the driver’s names too but that was about all you knew about them. 

Dale Earnhardt. Rusty Wallace. Mark Martin. Jeff Gordon. Brett Bodine. Sterling Marlin. Dale Jarrett. 

Neon Moon. Where I Come From. Chattahoochee. Dixieland Delight.

Winchester 20-gauge AA Target Load

The drivers you remember were different than the drivers of the seventies and early eighties. Drivers with hair styles like Jimmy Swaggart or Rick Flair. Some of them looked like rhinestone cowboys. Drivers in the nineties wore Oakley M Frames and had business mullets. Tom Cruise played this new breed of driver in Days of Thunder.

But that was a long time ago.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

In August of 2020, in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, your stepfather died after a short battle with cancer. Your stepsister didn’t tell you what specific cancer it was, just that it was everywhere like confetti. Like glitter. 

If you allow yourself, you’ll get stuck in a memory loop. It’ll spark off into different directions, and you’ll move from one thing to another like a crackling bolt of lightning in an otherwise clear, blue sky. These sparks will ruin any hope you had of enjoying even a sliver of the day. Memories like clay pigeons, launched. Each pigeon exploding neon orange in your mind’s eye. Each leaving you like an exposed nerve. A live wire next to a puddle of rain. 

You began walking again down the pedestrian lane behind Pit Road to stop the loop. 

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

Tire Carriers wearing full fire suits sponsored by Rheem and Love’s and Mahindra Tractors and Shell each rolled handcarts stacked with four freshly run 18-inch Goodyear Eagle Radials through the constant flow of foot traffic. Prior to this the Tire Carriers went over the tires with torches and paint scrapers. This was to reduce the risk of tread blistering, which happens when too much heat bubbles the tread, and it tears off. 

There were also the Gasmen for each individual team carting around large, red Sunocogas cans that jutted from their carts like long necked, prehistoric birds. Some Gasmen announcing firmly “Excuse me” as they rolled through the spectators like servers carrying vats of hot coffee.

You took photos of as much of this as you could with your mostly broken Droid. Photos of crew members at work. Officials and drivers in bipedal motion. Spectators taking a break against a stack of tires. Tire Changers relaxed in their hurry-up-and-wait positions. For the majority of Saturday, you walked up and down the pedestrian lane at Richmond International Raceway taking pictures with your broken phone. 

The sounds of the race were much the same as being inside a powered-up Boeing 777-9 jet turbine. 

A garbage disposal filled with a handful of crushed stone gravel. 

These sounds were felt in your skeleton. 

It was blue skies and 70 degrees on Sunday, April 2nd

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by R. Anthony Harris @majormajor____

The day before was the NASCAR Xfinity Series 250. Saturday was a few degrees cooler, with a strong breeze that continued on through the evening – enough for a weather advisory to be issued to the City of Richmond. Friday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Virginia is for Racing Lovers 150 was postponed due to the rain which made Saturday’s event an unexpected double-header. 

Saturday’s winner of the Xfinity Series 250 was a 20-year-old from Talking Rock, Georgia named Chandler Smith. It was Smith’s first win for Kaulig Racing and his first NASCAR win overall. Present for the win was his wife, Kenzie, and their 8-month-old son, Chandler, Jr. They were also on stage in the Winner’s Circle when Smith was presented with the Xfinity Series 250 trophy. 

The Director of Track Communications for NASCAR, introduced you to the Smiths in the hallway of the Media Center after Chandler’s press-conference. You didn’t really know what to ask the guy. He’d just gotten his first win. He wanted to sit with his family and relish the victory. So, you just asked what he’d already been asked by sports journalists a dozen times within the last half-hour. 

“How does it feel to have just gotten your first NASCAR win here at Richmond International Raceway at 20?”

“It’s really cool” he said. “My old crew chief, Billy Venturini, always had an old saying that ‘After you get your first one, the floodgates open.’ It was kinda true in the truck series, so we’ll see if it’s true in the Xfinity Series. I’m just glad to be doing it for Kaulig Racing [and] Chris Rice. To drive the Number 16 is an honor. Having all of these [sponsors], everybody on that car that makes this thing happen. I’m just very appreciative of everybody.”

He answered how you’d expected. Somewhat of a Bull Durham answer but it seemed genuine. You shook hands with Chandler and watched him kiss his wife and child as they walked in the opposite direction down the hallway. 

Outside of the Media Center, back inside the powered-up Boeing 777-9 turbine, you thought about what you would’ve said to Chandler in a different scenario. You’d have told him to savor this moment. Every second of it. Look at the loved ones. Remember their faces and how it feels now. Remember everything about today. Things change. Even this moment will one day feel different. You know this now. You should’ve listened when people had given the same advice. 

But if you said any of that to Chandler, you’d have sounded like a crazy person.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

Another 20-year-old also secured his first NASCAR victory on Saturday. Austin Beers won the NASCAR Whelen Modified Virginia is for Racing Lovers 150 and you watched as the driver and his KLM Motorsports team put on several different sponsor hats for photos after accepting their trophy to enthusiastic applause in the Winner’s Circle. Beers’ pointer finger stood steady in the #1 position.

You didn’t talk to Beers. Knowing you didn’t have any idea what you would ask this young driver either, you left him to celebrate with his family and KLM Motorsports team. 

Across the track, the stands of Richmond International Raceway were mostly cleared out. The stadium looked like an open clam shell with the cheap seats reaching up to tickle the feet of Yahweh. RMC employees, here and there, looked like ants picking at whatever remnants were left of the once jostling palourde. The stadium seating sending out a nacre iridescence that was momentarily blinding but oddly beautiful coming from this renovated, but old speedway.

Sunday was the NASCAR Toyota Owners 400 and much busier than Saturday’s double-header and traffic was obviously worse. A bookstore owner in town told you “All the big boys race on Sunday.” He was right. Everything about Sunday was bigger. The Fangrounds had transformed into part CMT advertisement and part Wrestlemania. Pyrotechnics and leather pants and Underarmor and cowboy boots. The Boeing 777-9 louder and denser. Like a collapsing star. Anyone with common sense was wearing earplugs or the same noise reduction headsets that skeet shooters wear. 

The leaderboard and video screen showed the places of the driver’s and the quickly changing current lap. People stopped midstride to consult this enormous screen atop a 153ft tall structure which cast its watch over Richmond International Raceway like the Eye of Sauron.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by R. Anthony Harris @majormajor____

Your publisher met you for Sunday’s race to take photos with a real camera. 

By then you weren’t even paying attention to the race. 

From the Fangrounds, the majority of what’s happening on the track is missed, unless you just stare at the leaderboard. On the other side of the stadium, you could watch the entire race unfold and over there it’s a wildly different environment. Tattoos. No tattoos. Shirtless dudes swinging their shirts above their heads. Old people. Young people. Families. A lot of people really into NASCAR.

You walked back through the tunnel under the racetrack to the skyward stadium seats. Then walked from one end of the stadium to the other and back. You watched the drunken hordes in the stands file up and down the stairs with beer cans and concessions. 

The thousands in attendance looked to be having the best time.

Richmond International Raceway must’ve been electrified when Kyle Larson crossed the finish line after the final lap of the NASCAR Toyota Owners 400. You weren’t there for the checkered flag though. You left after lap 300 to skip the melee that would descend upon Laburnum Avenue from the parking lots.

richmond international raceway, Ryan kent, rva mag
Photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

Spend long enough trying not to think about something and eventually it’ll present itself in a way you can’t dodge. Either a section of drywall in your brain will fail unexpectedly or you’ll finally just give up and let the feelings roll out. This could take place one day in an elevator or during dinner out with friends. A crackling bolt of lightning in a clear, blue sky. 

Sometimes it’s a NASCAR race that does it. Sometimes it’s a country song. They’re all just clay pigeons.

Maybe you write about it in second person to keep it at arm’s length. Sometimes it sounds better if it’s someone else’s story.

The “I” makes it a reality. 

We win and we lose, and we move on.

The only loop worth staying in happens on race day.  

Main photo by Ryan Kent @poemsfordeadpeople

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)

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