By Julia Forneris
NASCAR lost a visionary on Feb. 26. Paul Sawyer, the former owner of Richmond International Raceway (RIR), was the man who made Richmond a regular stop on the NASCAR circuit.
Sawyer was born in Norfolk, Va., on June 26, 1916. He worked at the city's Naval Air Station from 1939 to 1965, when he opted for early retirement to pursue full-time his interest in stock-car racing.
In 1955, together with renowned racer Joe Weatherly, Sawyer invested in RIR. A year later, Sawyer bought out Weatherly and began promoting the raceway, previously known as "Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds." Although he owned two other tracks – one in Wilson, N.C., and another in Virginia Beach – he focused his energy entirely on the Richmond facility after the North Carolina site burned in 1958 and plans to expand the Virginia Beach facility were thwarted.
Sawyer brought much to RIR. He thought of Richmond as the "fan-friendly track" and was proud of the fact that he never expanded without also adding restrooms and parking. He figured correctly that a good experience would keep fans coming back. Famed driver Richard Petty said of Sawyer, "If you showed up, no matter how many fans came, he made sure you had enough money to get back home."
In 2001, Sawyer received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Richmond in recognition of his "dramatic impact on the economy of the Metropolitan Richmond area and all of Virginia."
Doug Fritz, current president of RIR, said that "Paul Sawyer's vision and dedication helped make Richmond International Raceway one of the top facilities in motor sports."
Paul C. Sawyer remained chairman of Richmond International Raceway until his death, working hard to keep NASCAR, and Richmond especially, "right on track."