Sawyer happy in return to racing roots

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005

 

  Bill Sawyer directs Late Model race cars to the inspection are prior to the race at the Virginia Motor Speedway in Saluda, Va., Saturday July 9, 2005. Bill Sawyer, son of a NASCAR racing pioneer and track owner, is completely at home as the owner of this half-mile dirt track. It's more fun, he says, now that the track has been transformed from a dump to a Saturday night showpiece. AP Photo/Steve Helber

Bill Sawyer directs Late Model race cars to the inspection are prior to the race at the Virginia Motor Speedway in Saluda, Va., Saturday July 9, 2005. Bill Sawyer, son of a NASCAR racing pioneer and track owner, is completely at home as the owner of this half-mile dirt track. It's more fun, he says, now that the track has been transformed from a dump to a Saturday night showpiece.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

SALUDA, Va. — The warmup laps are underway at Virginia Motor Speedway, and the burly man in the shorts with the bushy white ponytail seems to be everywhere.

One minute he's chatting with a driver and his family, the next he's directing traffic as cars head to the garage to make way for others coming onto the track. He also spends time standing along the backstretch, watching the cars go by, then inspecting the moist clay racing surface, making sure the track is ready for racing.

Bill Sawyer, son of NASCAR pioneer and track owner Paul Sawyer, is content as the owner of this half-mile dirt track, where the racers mostly do it as a hobby and their dented cars have been prepared in a backyard or someone's garage.

''It goes back to when life was a little simpler,'' he said as he watched the first of four races on a Saturday night. ''It makes you want to throw rocks at asphalt.''

Sawyer drinks it all in, from the aroma of tailgaters grilling up their specialties to the anxious eyes of competitors and the excited faces of children and families.

''A lot of people thought this was just going to be a whim — 'Old Sawyer, he's just wants something to do,''' he said, without a hint of a smile. ''Uh-uh. I couldn't be more serious.''

And after years when the tension of being involved in stock car racing's top series wore on him, the small, rural track he rebuilt has made Sawyer love racing again.

Racing and the Sawyer name have been linked for more than a half-century.

Paul Sawyer bought three race tracks in the mid-1950s and eventually settled on the half-mile dirt circuit he had in Richmond as the place to make a lasting mark.

In the years and decades that followed, Bill and Wayne Sawyer joined their father's business, learning the sport from one of its pioneers and being groomed to someday take over the gem he built: Richmond International Raceway.

But in 1999, after more than 50 years in racing and 44 years as a track owner, Paul Sawyer sold RIR to International Speedway Corp., yielding to the constant pressure to offer bigger purses and to keep a step ahead of the exploding popularity of NASCAR.

''I knew at some point the way of doing business was going to get us,'' Bill Sawyer said.

NASCAR's rapid growth had turned a family business into big business. The price tag was $215 million, and Paul Sawyer shared the bounty with his boys, handing them the means to buy what they want, do what they want and retire young.

Wayne Sawyer, 62, moved to Virginia Beach, bought a huge sport fishing boat, hired a crew and set off in search of sailfish and tuna.

Bill Sawyer, 56, bought a rundown track in the middle of nowhere, tore down the rotting bleachers, dug up and rebuilt the racing surface, ran off the riffraff all too common on weekends and created a family track.

''It was basically a place for people to get drunk, party and watch some cars wreck,'' said John Marshall, an attorney who represented Sawyer in the purchase.

Besides a choppy surface that produced a bumpy ride, the track had safe seating for only about 500 fans, a dilapidated all-purpose building and a bathroom with a septic system that routinely overflowed.

Sawyer and nephew Clarke Sawyer, the track's general manager, gave themselves five years to complete the turnaround, but finished in half that time.

Paul Sawyer was skeptical at first, but became a key part of the team, too, offering his son advice and lending his connections to help make it happen.

Before long, the makeshift light posts were replaced by real lighting, the wooden bleachers were replaced by 5,000 aluminum seats and the track began to look like one.

''I wasn't bashful about talking to him about it, or asking him, and he came down here a bunch of times when we were rebuilding it, him and Wayne both,'' Sawyer said.

Now, there's a building for the track offices, another to store all the earth-moving equipment used to resurface the track and clear most of 1,200 acres surrounding it, and luxurious suites where Sawyer welcomes sponsors, family friends and others.

Sawyer smiles warmly, knowing that somewhere his father is smiling, too.

''Now that he's gone, I don't think I could think of a better remembrance of what he did for 50-some-odd years being involved in motorsports,'' he said. ''Really, it's all a reflection on him.''

Paul Sawyer died in February at 88 of complications from pneumonia, and was remembered as one of the reasons for NASCAR's steady rise in popularity. On the day he died, NASCAR president Mike Helton told drivers at a Nextel Cup race to watch the papers and read about why they should thank Paul Sawyer.

Shrewd and fair, the elder Sawyer was known to make sure drivers in the early days had enough cash to get home, and to spend time in the garage and among fans on race weekends, figuring that treating everyone right would make them more likely to come back.

Bill Sawyer has adopted the same policy, which is why he spends time making the rounds before a race, giving others a chance to let him know what they're thinking. He welcomes feedback, good and bad, with the confidence of a man who learned from the best how to run a race track, and who knows he's doing it the right way.

It is 10:15 p.m. when the final checkered flag flies for the night, and Bill and Clarke Sawyer are pleased to once again have finished before 10:30 p.m., the goal they set to ensure that neighbors won't have to listen to the roar of racers too late.

There's still cleaning up and other work to do, but it has been a good night. The racing was clean, the schedule was followed and fans filing out seemed happy.

''It's the field of dreams. That's what I call it,'' said Mike Hubbard, who brings his 14-year-old son, Austin, to the track every Saturday from their home in Bethel, Del. ''If Mr. Bill stays the course, there's no way he won't succeed.''



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