Cover Story

VIR - America's Motorsport Resort

 

Story by Tucker McLaughlin, Jr., Contributing Writer

Photos by Blakely Swanson

 

 

VIR hosted the return of the very popular Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series in April.

Paul Newman loved the place. Richard Petty got stuck in the mud on a July Sunday afternoon in a Trans-Am race, helping augment the legend of NASCAR Bend.

Car & Driver magazine raved about VIR’s Grand Course West, drawing comparisons to the famed German Nurburgring. Oak Tree Turn lives on.

Virginia International Raceway, celebrating its tenth anniversary since its rebirth in 2000, has earned international acclaim. The facility is located at Alton, near Danville in Southside Virginia.

From Cattle to Sports Cars

Connie Nyholm and Harvey Siegel had the vision to reclaim VIR from its sad state as a cow pasture 10 years ago.

Nyholm, a managing partner of VIR, and general manager Josh Lief have watched the motorsports country club gain traction in the past decade as a major factor promoting tourism and innovative industry across Southside Virginia.

Nyholm says, “When we first started the project, Harvey’s vision was to be a club track — rent all the weekends to Ferrari Club, Audi Club, Mazda Club, BMW Club — and if we picked up a few weekdays, we would be doing better than expected.”

Now, factoring in the math of using two tracks at once, VIR has 480 rental days a year. The facility is rented part of January, most of February, and then daily to Christmas.

VIR hosts several professional events, including the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series (held April 23-25); the Suzuki White Lightning AMA Pro Superbike Nationals (Aug. 13-15); and the Bosch Engineering NASA October­fast (Oct. 8-10). The weekend of Sept. 10-12 will bring the SCCA Pro Sport Car Wars, with the World Challenge GT and Touring Car circuit, combined with Trans-Am and the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup.

NASCAR Sprint Cup teams test here.


Formula cars are one of the many diverse racing series at the motorsports country club.

VIR hosts extensive karting activity, including myriad group events, the very popular Camp Motorsports, drifting competitions on the Patriot course, and much more.

VIR has two upscale hotels, villas for sale, a growing industrial park, and a burgeoning research and development facility.  “VIR is seen as one of the elite tracks in the country. People travel from all over the world to come drive at VIR,” says Lief.

The weekend of June 4-6 features the Heacock Classic SVRA Gold Cup Historic Races. The event showcases a revival — from the sports-car era of the 1950s and ’60s — of the competition between the Lotus and Elva marquees.

VIR has six different racetrack configurations, two of which can be run simultaneously. Those include the full course, run with events on the Patriot course, or north and south, or the Grand Course East and Grand Course West.

Car & Driver has recently released its fourth edition reviewing the “lightning lap of Grand Course West.” The magazine gushed that in North America, there’s a track — VIR’s Grand Course West — worthy of comparison to the storied German Nurburgring.

A track with history

The Web site, virhistory.com, contains much of the story of the old VIR — from 1957 to the untimely closure of the racetrack in 1974.

From the August 1957 VIR race program: “The rolling Virginia hills have been painstakingly clad with an ultra-smooth skin of macadam to provide a course of great natural beauty. The superb spectator visibility is nicely equated to a road layout that will test the best in racing machines and men.”

From Carroll Shelby in 1957: “One lap here is like 100 at Watkins Glen.”

“Virtually all the big names of the golden era of road racing, which was the late ’50s to mid ’60s, raced at VIR,” says Lief.

Petty, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Peter Revson, and Carroll Shelby raced here. Many of these drivers returned to VIR after its reopening. VIR showcases dizzying speeds, pastoral beauty and highly technical professional racing challenges.

VIR was a relatively new concept a decade ago, the motorsports-country club, and its success has sparked a successful national trend in that direction.

Want character lacking at so many cookie-cutter raceday facilities? How about the famed Oak Tree Turn? Insurers demanded that the giant oak tree that gives the turn its name be cut down, but the developers — at considerable extra expense — saved the oak to preserve a distinctive slice of raceday history.

VIR has its own unique history, starting with the famed NASCAR Bend.

Here’s that story, courtesy of virhistory.com: “Four NASCAR stars drove but didn’t have much luck — David Pearson blew the engine in his Dodge Dart during practice. Curtis Turner blew an engine in his Mustang but taped over the hole and was the last car running at the finish. Richard Petty went off twice and got permanently stuck in mud. Wendell Scott spun and then broke his Mustang’s suspension crossing a drainage ditch trying to return to the pits. Turn 3 got re-named NASCAR Bend as a result of the difficulties encountered there by Pearson, Petty, and Scott.”

VIR also paid homage to Carroll Shelby, one of the leading figures in the automotive and sports car arenas in this country in the past half-century.

The track recognized Hurley Haywood, the Chicago native who went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1977, 1983 and 1994. He’s also had major success at the 24 Hours of Daytona and drove in the 1980 Indy 500 and IMSA, representing that circuit four times in the International Race of Champions.

VIR has attracted racers of all stripes and professions. Motorsports luminaries who have been connected with VIR include IndyCar, NASCAR and Indy Rolex Grand-Am team owner Roger Penske, one of the most prominent motorsports and business figures in the USA; Marco Andretti, a leading performer on the IndyCar circuit; Patrick Dempsey, road-racing enthusiast and a Hollywood movie and television star; and Chris Economaki, one of the nation’s leading motorsports journalists.

The list of VIR luminaries also includes Boris Said, one of the leading drivers for hire when NASCAR goes road racing; former Sprint Cup regular and Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett; Rolex DP veteran David Dono­hue and his dad, the late Mark Donohue, members of an American racing family with its own slice of VIR history; Mat Mladin, arguably the best ever in the highest level of professional motorbike racing in the land, the AMA Pro Superbike circuit; Ben Spies, now blasting through the Moto GP in Europe; and Nicky Hayden, another past winner at VIR in Superbikes and now in Moto GP and more.

Halifax County’s Ward Burton, the only Virginian to win the Daytona 500, practiced here during his Sprint Cup career. Denny Hamlin, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, and other NASCAR notables have turned laps at VIR, honing their road-course prowess and exploring various technical issues.

Lief points out that VIR has hosted an off-road motorcycle race, and there are more efforts underway to promote off-road racing.

Kevin Harvick Racing loves the karting facilities, and other NASCAR figures blow off steam here in their rare off-days, competing on the karting track. Camp Motorsports USA has also proven very popular. Drifting, another racing style, has found a new home with seven open drifting events, with the finals set for the Patriot course.

VIR has featured race-day variety: AMA Pro Superbike, Grand-Am, Trans-Am, Skip Barber Racing, the ARCA truck series, IMSA, the North Carolina Region, SCCA Charge of the Headlight Brigade, 13-hour enduro (Oct. 30), other versions of SCCA pro and amateur racing, and WERA motorcycle racing, to name several.

And one cannot minimize the impact of club racing — with considerable interest from regional Porsche and BMW groups — at VIR.

A Stunning Variety

To grasp a sense of the rush at VIR, you have to pay homage to a stunning variety of sports cars wheeling around VIR any given weekend.

As VIR notes, the “Cars are the Stars” here. That’s only a start. It’s no stretch to suggest on any given Vintage motorsports weekend here, VIR’s paddock gleams with some of the most expensive and treasured automotive masterpieces in America.

VIR’s South Bend features the Oak Tree Tavern, including Connie’s Pub, a full-service restaurant and pub serving the region. And, regardless of its “Clubhouse” standing, the Tavern is open to the public for dinner, with reservations suggested.

When the weather is most cooperative, VIR can hold its own with its own distinctive tailgating-party style.

Nyholm says, “I think we’ll see our events grow larger and larger. Each year we’ll see more spectators come. And if we can get them through the gates once, then we’ll get them again, and they’ll bring their friends.

“We’d like to see our spectator events grow and bring more and more people to the area, which of course brings more new money into the area.” 

 

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