Claim to Fame 

Does Richmond havewhat it takes to be NASCAR's Cooperstown?

Richmond and the other cities vying for the project — including Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Kansas City, Kan., and Daytona Beach, Fla. — have until May 31 to submit their proposals.

National media such as USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times have tended to downplay Richmond's chances, dismissing the city as a long shot. But proponents with Virginians Racing for the Hall of Fame say that's largely because plans have been kept relatively quiet, and there hasn't been a push to make the bid a popularity contest.

"From the start, we haven't tried to win this proposal in the media, but instead have focused our efforts on assembling the best professional team to put together a winning proposal," says Fred Agostino, the group's president and the executive director of the Henrico Economic Development Authority.

VRHOF maintains Richmond is the sleeper city. Most of NASCAR's biggest teams — Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs — anchor teams in Charlotte. And many of NASCAR's biggest corporate sponsors, such as United Parcel Service and Home Depot, are based in Atlanta — the biggest city in the race.

But Richmond has the most potential, VRHOF says. With interstates 64, 95 and 295, along with an international airport nearby, Richmond offers easy access, not only to NASCAR's sellout races at Richmond International Raceway but also for the 700,000 pilgrims who, speculators say, will visit in the hall's first year. More than half the U.S. population is within a day's drive of Richmond, and tourist destinations such as Washington, D.C., Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and the Blue Ridge Mountains are less than 100 miles away.

Gov. Mark Warner has said the importance of bringing the hall to Virginia cannot be overestimated, ranking it among the state's most promising economic efforts. Consider Charlotte. Authorities there estimate the racing industry, of which NASCAR is key, to be a $1.5 billion-a-year business.

It's also a commodity that's seeping steadily into other cities, such as Kansas City — a sign to many that NASCAR's popularity is headed west. Then again, NASCAR is also surging at RIR. Sellout crowds of more than 107,000 have attended 27 Nextel Cup Series races in a row.

So far, local support for the hall of fame has been voiced by everyone from local and state officials to CEOs of corporations. Behind the accolades is the work of VRHOF.

Nearly as soon as the Henrico County Economic Development Authority announced it would, along with backing of RIR, compete for the hall, the group was formed, led by Josh Lief, former Virginia secretary of commerce and trade. Its members include Economic Research Associates, an international consulting firm; Gallagher & Associates, a design firm whose projects include the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Fame and Jamestown Settlement; The Smith Group, architects for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History; and Davenport and Co., a financial-services firm headquartered in Richmond.

From the outset, the group had just 90 days to draft a bid. Now it has barely a week to put the finishing touches on its plan.

Much of it will remain quiet, Lief says, until the checkered flag is waved. But there are details to consider. The group is proposing two Henrico sites, one near RIR and another at an undisclosed location in an entertainment district. Planners say that offering alternatives will give NASCAR options.

The hall of fame will offer high-tech displays and 68,000 square feet of exhibit space in a complex totaling at least 129,000 square feet on about 20 acres of land. Its cost is estimated at $103 million. The direct tax impact could be $6 million — $4.7 million to the state and $1.3 million to Henrico.

Some ancillary efforts are being made to drum up public support. Supporters can fill out a postcard at area Fas Marts or sign online petitions at www.bringthehalltorichmond.com. The postcards and petitions will be sent to NASCAR to show local backing for the project. And the Web site's slogan promotes what VRHOF hopes to prove logistically: "Virginia and NASCAR — some things just go together."

The group's Web site depicts a convergence of Richmond's past with its future. Revolutionary figures carry flags, not guns, and wave them like banners. One image shows the statue of Robert E. Lee wearing a NASCAR racing helmet. Kristin Erwin, a partner with the firm freeRadical, which designed the site, says it's all part of a grassroots effort to get the word out, adding: "We figured we're talking to NASCAR fans, but we're also talking to all of Virginia."

Lief says the bid will speak for itself. And while few preferences for the hall have been expressed, he notes his group has had multiple discussions with NASCAR. Next, he expects, will be a site visit from NASCAR representatives this summer. A decision is expected by the end of the year.

"We've put together some neat, creative stuff. We believe we're going to make the final cut," Lief says. "We're going to give the people at NASCAR serious reason to believe that their hall of fame belongs in Richmond, Virginia." S

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