News & Features » Miscellany

The Sawyer family returns to its grass roots with a dirt track.

Pay Dirt


With millions of dollars freshly tucked into his pockets, Bill Sawyer had enough money to live out his dreams and never work another day.

Sawyer, 51, could buy a yacht and sail the seas. He could hunt and fish. Or just play golf every day. Sawyer, his 57-year-old brother Wayne and his 84-year-old father, Paul, struck gold last November when they agreed to sell the family business, Richmond International Raceway. The buyers — International Speedway Corp., controlled by NASCAR's founding family, the Frances — paid $215 million in cash. Most of it went to the two boys.

So which of Bill's dreams did he choose to follow?

The one in which he buys a dilapidated racetrack out in the middle of cornfields near Saluda and works as hard as ever to turn it into something special.

That's what you'll find him doing these days on U.S. 17 near the Rappahannock River. The half-mile dirt track, known as Saluda Raceway and Mid-Bay Raceway in the past, had passed through the hands of several promoters over the last 30 years without producing enough money to keep it in good repair. The splintered wooden bleachers were shaky and the ugly boilerplate guardrail a liability.

"It really was just an ugly ol' outhouse," Bill Sawyer says. "They wouldn't draw 2,000 fans all year. There usually were 30 to 40 fans and no more than 25 racecars. When I brought Dad out to see the place, he wanted to know if I had lost my mind."

The elder Sawyer doesn't think that anymore.

Since purchasing the track in February, Bill Sawyer, with the help of his brother and nephews Sean and Clarke, has widened the track, raised the banking in the turns and installed new guardrails, lights and sound system.

It has a new name, too: Virginia Motor Speedway. And it's attracting drivers and fans from Richmond, Hampton Roads and southern Maryland.

"I think it is going to be a success," Paul Sawyer says as he watches more than 100 racecars squeeze into the track's infield pit area for a hot night of racing. Clearly, the vision is big.

"It might not happen right off the bat, but I think it is only a matter of time before we will have 10,000 seats or more and nationally televised races with some of the touring series coming here."

It will take many days of hard work and more money from Bill Sawyer for that to happen, but he says he's committed to getting it done.

That's why when his dad challenged his thinking during that first visit to the site, Bill had a ready answer:

"I remember what Chinese Corner (in Norfolk) looked like when I was a little boy," he said, "and what Wilson looked like, and I remember what Richmond looked like when I came to work for you.

"It wasn't all what it is right now, and racing isn't what it was back in the '50s and '60s. It all went through a growth process, and this here is no different. We are literally starting from step one. We have to rebuild it, haul this dirt out of there and bring in some good clay to get a good surface down, and we are going to do some logging to expand for parking and camping."

The Sawyers can see the irony in that they are back into dirt-track racing.

That was how Paul Sawyer got started some 45 years ago, promoting dirt-track events in Norfolk; Wilson, N.C.; and Richmond.

"We have gone full circle," Bill says. "We have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse and back to the outhouse. But we are going to rebuild the outhouse here."

What won't change is the face of the track. The dirt surface is one of the things that attracted Bill Sawyer to it.

"There is a nationwide resurgence in dirt-track racing," he says. "The asphalt guys have kind of priced themselves out of business. More and more people are going back to dirt because it is so much more affordable. There has not been a good dirt facility anywhere around here for years and years, and we want this one to be one of the best on the East Coast."

Paul Sawyer says he really was not surprised that Bill wanted to stay in racing, even at the lowest level, or that Wayne, a businessman, moved back to Virginia Beach, where the family has its roots.

"They are two different types," Paul says. "Wayne has a lot of interests and can do a lot of things. Bill wanted to stay in racing. It really is in his blood."

Once the papers to sell the Richmond track were signed, Bill said he knew he wanted to do something to stay in racing, "whether it was to go somewhere and build a new facility or go buy one that already was in operation."

"I could play golf and fish, but how much golfing and fishing can you do?" he asks. "Racing is all I had done for the last 20-some-odd years, and there wasn't anything else I was interested in doing."

Both Paul and Wayne offered to invest in the track to help out, but Bill insisted on doing it on his own. He did, however, welcome advice from his father and construction assistance from Wayne.

And he's kept the operation a family project.

Nephew Clarke is general manager and race director, and twin brother Sean is in charge of media relations and marketing.

"Dad is here every Saturday night, putting his nickel's worth in, too," Bill says. "He enjoys it and it gives him something to do."

The elder Sawyer was one of NASCAR's most trusted promoters, by fans and competitors, for 45 years. His tracks promoted a family atmosphere.

That is something else Bill has brought to his new track. The first race at the remodeled facility in May was rained out, but instead of telling fans to hold on to their rain checks, he refunded their money. Drinking and fighting in the stands no longer are tolerated, either.

"People know us well enough to know we are not going to run a facility like that," Bill says.

Bill says the transition from NASCAR Winston Cup racing to a dirt track in the country has been enjoyable.

"Yeah, we don't have the media coverage and all the things that come along with bringing the circus to town like Winston Cup does," he says. "But this is a pretty good challenge and besides that, it is a lot of fun." - Landmark News Service