RICHMOND, Va. - Paul Sawyer, a maverick who was part of stock car racing's development from a regional sport to an international phenomenon as the owner of Richmond International Raceway, has died. He was 88.
Sawyer, who had been battling lung cancer since August and also had diabetes, died at a hospital late Saturday night from complications of pneumonia, his son Billy said.
"The entire family was with him, and we had been with him all week," Billy Sawyer said Sunday.
Starting with a small dirt track he bought with partner Joe Weatherly in 1955, Sawyer gradually turned the small "Atlantic Rural Fairground" short track in Richmond into a three-quarter-mile oval with more than 100,000 seats. Twice he tore up the surface, once in 1968 to pave it with asphalt, and then again 20 years later to create the unique oval that is among the most popular among Nextel Cup racers today.
"As NASCAR continues to grow in popularity and potential, all of us are continually reminded of our sport's roots, and the many people who were so important to laying the foundation for what we enjoy today," NASCAR co-vice chairman Bill France said Sunday. "Paul Sawyer was one of those people. He was most certainly an important part of NASCAR's history."
Ever cognizant of the pressure to increase purses and keep pace with NASCAR's exploding popularity, Sawyer sold the track to International Speedway Corp. in 1999, hoping to ensure its status as host of two Nextel Cup races per year.
He remained as chairman of the track's board, and was frequently surrounded by friends and well-wishers when he paid visits to the media center in subsequent years.
Richard Petty earned 13 of his record 200 career victories at Richmond and said Sawyer was a confident promoter who understood that the drivers were the stars.
"If you showed up, no matter how many fans came or whatever, he made sure you had enough money to get back home. And you have to remember that those were tough days," Petty said at California Speedway in Fontana, where the Nextel Cup Series raced Sunday.
"But the thing about Paul was that he was always fair."
Sawyer labeled Richmond the "fan-friendly track" and proudly boasted that he never added seats without also adding restrooms and parking, figuring that fans spending their hard-earned money were likely to come back if they had a good experience.
"There weren't many promoters or owners through the times that really made it for an entire era like Paul did," Petty said. "Sure, there might have been a few of them that were around for five or six years, but only superstars like Paul lasted through the times. He was really hard-nosed and worked hard to better the sport and Richmond."
Sawyer was honored with the NASCAR Founder's Award as part of the sport's 50th anniversary celebration in 1998. A year earlier, he received the Pocono Raceway Bill France Award of Excellence and the Buddy Shuman Award, which has been presented since 1957 to someone who has been vital to the growth and promotion of NASCAR's top series.
Sawyer was born June 26, 1916 in Norfolk. He was a veteran of World War II and worked at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk from 1939 until his retirement in 1965.
His second career as a NASCAR owner started when he and Weatherly, an early NASCAR star, bought tracks in Richmond, Wilson, N.C. and Virginia Beach. Sawyer bought Weatherly out in 1956 and turned his attention solely to Richmond when the Wilson track burned down in 1958 and there was no room for expanding the Virginia Beach site.
At the time, NASCAR drivers were running several races a week, most of them 100 laps, so Sawyer sought to be different by hosting a 250-lap event at Richmond.
"I saw what was coming," he said in a May 1997 interview. "So when they started cutting back the 100-mile race tracks, they let me stay. I got to keep my dates."
After building the half-mile asphalt oval in 1968 and seeing the sports popularity continue to grow, Sawyer took a chance in 1988. Immediately after the spring race, he had bulldozers ready to begin tearing up the track. By the time the series returned in the fall of the following year, drivers were racing on a new track with 47,500 seats.
"I wanted to build something no one else had, and evidently I did something right because I can't build seats fast enough," he told the AP in the 1997 interview.
The track hasn't stopped building since. It now has nearly 110,000 seats and is host to two Nextel Cup races, two in the Busch Series, one in the Craftsman Truck Series and one in the Indy Racing League, with all the races run at night.
"He's certainly one of the early pioneers for NASCAR, of NASCAR," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "I put him right there with Enoch Staley and Clay Earles and others that helped Bill France Sr. believe in the sport and build the sport."
Sawyer, whose wife of 64 years died in 2003, is survived by his two sons, Wayne and Billy, three grandsons, one granddaughter and four great grandchildren. A funeral is scheduled for Tuesday.