The urge to roam never sits far below the surface for me. Almost daily, I get the feeling of uneasiness about spending too long sitting in the same place and end up planning some far-fetched hypothetical road trip. So began my plot of a road trip to a distant NASCAR race at some point. One glance at the schedule and the realization that the Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway sat on a perfectly unoccupied weekend and off I went. A day later, I brought a haphazardly thrown itinerary to my bosses at Pokatok, secured approval, and booked hotels for a whirlwind sprint of a journey across half of the country for the Road Trip to Richmond.
The journey set, I waited patiently for July 27th and the beginning of travel. A round trip of nearly 3,000 miles that I couldn’t wait for. The countdown to the Road Trip to Richmond began.
Day 1: Houston to Chattanooga
The first leg of my journey would feature the most single-day miles at 813 miles. Or would have if I had followed the planned route. Of course, the beauty in road trips is improvised stops along the way. The first of which was a quick meal at Elsie’s Plate & Pie in Baton Rouge after crossing the dreaded Atchafalaya Basin Bridge on I-10. While in Red Stick I had to drop by the home of the 2022 SEC West champs, the LSU Tigers.
Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley, ranks among the top venues in all of college athletics. Though the LSU faithful didn’t appear to be out in force on this random Summer day, the magnitude of the stadium always remains apparent
After a quick photo shoot, I hopped back in the Pokatok Subaru Outback to continue along the path to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Continuing east on I-10, I finally cut north when I reached I-59. Crossing the Pearl River into Mississippi, I continued north up to I-20 in Meridian.
At Meridian, the Pokatokmobile pointed more toward the northeast until I reached the hometown of another SEC power – Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Bryant-Denny Stadium played host to the next photo shoot as I swore I could faintly hear the sounds of “Dixieland Delight” playing. Though, in all likelihood, the sound actually came courtesy of delusion from the long hours on the road.
Leaving Tuscaloosa, I skirted around Birmingham and continued northeast on I-59. The journey took me through the northeastern part of Alabama and the Appalachian foothills. Very quickly cutting across far northwest Georgia, I found myself in Chattanooga for the night.
Day 2: Chattanooga to Roanoke
After a good night’s sleep in Chattanooga, the second day of the journey began. From Chattanooga, my northeasterly course continued through Tennessee. Weaving my way through the Great Appalachian Valley as the sun came up over the rolling hills was a spiritual experience and a sign of things to come.
As I-75 met with I-40, I neared my first little pit-stop of Day 2: Knoxville, Tennessee – the home of the Tennessee Volunteers. A quick detour through campus to see the legendary Neyland Stadium and drive down by the Tennessee River and I hopped back on 40.
The beautiful hills of East Tennessee continued to provide some wonderful scenery as I continued east on I-40, eventually heading north as I-81 diverged towards the Virginia border. I did manage to squeeze in a Buc-ee’s stop in Sevierville, easily the most chaotic traffic I’ve ever witnessed at a gas station known for drawing massive crowds.
Bristol Motor Speedway
On I-81 headed to the northeast, I made yet another sports-related stop. Our first NASCAR venue, though I wouldn’t be watching a race. Bristol Motor Speedway, nestled in the hills off I-81, seemingly appears out of nowhere as you take the road to the track. The massive venue with 100,000+ seats truly does feel like a spectacle and I hope to see a race there soon.
With Bristol sitting on the border of Tennessee and Virginia, once we rejoined I-81 on the road trip to Richmond, it was a matter of minutes before crossing the border into Virginia. With the hills still rolling on, so did I.
My final minor detour brought me to the town of Blacksburg, VA. In the hills of southwest Virginia in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech can be found. Their football team plays at Lane Stadium, another college football cathedral and venue that I hope to one day visit for a college football Saturday.
From Blacksburg, Roanoke was under an hour away. Back up I-81 I went to my resting place for Day 2 of the Road Trip to Richmond. 370 miles later.
Day 3: Roanoke to Richmond, the Long Way
From Roanoke, I set out on the most scenic part of the Road Trip to Richmond. Before the sun rose I sat back out on I-81 for Front Royal. The northern gateway to Shenandoah National Park and the glory of Skyline Drive awaited.
I did, however, have one quick sports stop to attend to on my path. Located just off I-81 in Harrisonburg, JMU’s Bridgeforth Stadium is easily spotted from the highway. The home of the Dukes seems like another gorgeous place to take in a college football game.
From Harrisonburg, just a quick jog up 81 and down 66 to Front Royal brought me to the northernmost entrance to Shenandoah National Park. The National Park system of the United States happens to be one of the best things this country has done. Any time I see an opportunity to visit a park on my travels, I’m compelled to at least stop by. Given Shenandoah’s proximity to Richmond, visitation was required.
Shenandoah National Park
How best to describe the beauty of Shenandoah? I’ve already used descriptors of rolling hills and valleys. Shenandoah encapsulates all of those features. The lush greenery of the forests clinging to the mountainsides only adds to the beauty. From the moment my tires touched the pavement on Skyline Drive, it felt like driving into a different world.
Skyline Drive runs the length of the park, 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along that path are over 75 overlooks, each breathtaking. I found it hard not to stop and take in views at every single overlook. However, with limited time and just part of a day to fight the urge, I was forced to limit my time.
I did manage to squeeze in one short walk at an overlook. An opening in the barrier shows steps descending through the lush greenery just off the road’s edge. I worked my way into the dark below the canopy of trees before coming back into the light on a boulder at the edge of the drop-off. There, away from the road, I took a moment to sit.
I wish I possessed the words to do that moment in time justice. Protected by the brush I had walked through behind me and with no sound but the rushing wind through the leaves, the peace of that quiet spot enveloped me in a warm embrace. Time stood still for a moment as gazed out over the hills and the mighty Shenandoah Valley. With effort, I pried myself away from that boulder to climb back up to my car and continue south on Skyline Drive.
As I drove along Skyline Drive and stopped at several more viewpoints I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the natural beauty of the park. I was, admittedly, a bit wistful when I exited through Rockfish Gap and headed east towards Richmond and the final stop of my journey eastward. However, I did muster up enough energy to stop by the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Once again, a beautiful place for a college football game greeted me.
After a quick dinner at the Whiskey Jar and the purchase of some local beers for transport back to Texas at South Street Brewery, I left Charlottesville in my rearview mirror. Traveling eastward on I-64, I at long last reached the goal of Richmond. Another 300+ miles went into the book.
Day 4: Richmond to Greenville
Finally, we made it to race day. The entire goal of the Road Trip to Richmond, after all, involved taking in the Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway. After an early lunch at ZZQ in Richmond for some incredible Texas-style craft barbecue, I made my way to the track. Under the hot Virginia sun, thousands gathered to watch NASCAR’s best take on the 0.75-mile short track.
I arrived at the track early to take in some of the pre-race sights and sounds. For any prospective NASCAR fans out there, I highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience the garage and infield of the track. Seeing the crews hard at work making final preparations for the race makes for a real treat.
After heading back up the pedestrian tunnel and finding my seat in the stands, I settled in for a very hot race. Though I understand the reluctance of some to view NASCAR, described by detractors as “cars going in a circle”, I find the in-person experience to be exhilarating.
Cook Out 400
The growl of the engines, the physical rumbling around the track, the wind off the cars – all of these factors create a visceral sporting event. I’ve seen even the most ardent of NASCAR critics converted to fans by witnessing the green flag fly for the first lap of a race. Just know if you do decide to take in a race, hearing protection is required (not legally, but I don’t want you to lose your hearing).
Though the race suffered a bit from the struggles of the NextGen car on short tracks, I still had an incredible time. Texas driver Chris Buescher fittingly made his way to Victory Lane at the conclusion of 400 laps. As tradition requires, he treated the crowd to a burnout when the checkered flag waved.
Following the conclusion of the race, I sprinted to my car to attempt to get a head start on the masses. Surprisingly, I did manage to avoid the worst of the traffic leaving the track. I was immensely thankful for that as I drove back in the direction of Houston. From Richmond, I-95, then I-85 took me south. With the sun setting on me in southern Virginia, night finally settled in around me as I crossed the border into North Carolina.
Traversing the Old North State in the dark, I wish I had gotten to glimpse the Piedmonts and cross the Haw River in the light. Unfortunately, the schedule didn’t allow for that. Reaching Greenville, South Carolina just before midnight, I settled down to sleep that night. Nearly 400 more miles on the Road Trip to Richmond.
Day 5: Greenville to Baton Rouge
With the post-race drive behind me, the fifth day of my odyssey saw the longest single-day stretch of the return trip. From Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, LA – 671 miles, and change, were added to the Road Trip to Richmond tally. Another religious food experience also found its way onto the docket courtesy of the chicken fried ribs at Atlanta’s Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q.
From Atlanta, I journeyed southwest to Auburn for a quick photo shoot at Jordan-Hare and a stop in at yet another Buc-ee’s. I have to admit that exhaustion started to set in around this time. Though I love a long road trip, the stretch between Auburn and the Louisiana border seemed to drag on for ages.
In spite of the red eyes and miles behind me, I did reach my destination. With once more incredible meal and another night of sleep, I rested up for the final stretch.
Day 6: Baton Rouge back to Houston
Another early start saw me depart Baton Rouge for home. Once more across the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, this time headed west. Blessedly, I experienced almost no traffic for the final 281 miles back home. After arriving back in the Bayou City, I settled down to reminisce about the Road Trip to Richmond, thankful for the incredible experience.
As ever, I am always looking for my next great adventure. Let us know on Twitter what sporting event you’d love for Pokatok to send me to.