|A brief history of
Virginia International Raceway
excerpted from articles by Nick England, Peter Krause, Rich Taylor, and Road & Track
Imagine it is August 1957 and you're standing in a large field about 10 miles east of Danville, VA, surrounded by almost 200 exotic racing cars made by Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, MG, and others -- just what the heck is going on here? Virginia International Raceway, that's what! These sleek cars and their drivers have gathered from across the U.S. for the inaugural road race on the 3.2-mile ribbon of fresh asphalt that snakes up, down, and around this 1200-acre site, simply called "VIR".
The feature race that first weekend was won by Carroll Shelby (sound familiar?), driving John Edgar's brand new 4.5 Ferrari which had just been flown over from the Italian factory specifically for this event. As Road & Track put it, the big Ferrari was "off the plane a full week and still flying": he dominated the two-day event, easily overpowering the Cunningham D-Jags driven by Walt Hansgen and Charlie Wallace. But the best competition of that inaugural weekend was the C/Production race, where George Constantine (brand new Aston Martin DB 2/4 Mk II) and Jim Robinson (Jaguar XK140MC) had a ding-dong battle for the full 14 laps, the lead changing hands once or twice every lap! Other winners that weekend were Dr. Dick Thompson in his B/Production Corvette, Bob Holbert in F/modified with his Porsche RS, and Doc Wyllie in his Lotus 11 in G/Modified. No doubt the reader has recognized quite a few names by now!
So how did all this come to happen? Well, in 1956 three young sports car aficionados from the heart of stock-car country in North Carolina, looked for a suitable place to build a road-racing circuit. They found it on the Foote family farm, located in a bend of the Dan River, just across the state line from Milton, NC. Ed Welch, Ed Alexander, and (primarily) Ed Kemm leased the land and spent over $500,000 to create VIR, a considerable sum in 1957! This was the heyday of closed-circuit construction, started by Thompson Raceway in 1952, followed by Road America in '55, the Glen in '56, and Bridgehampton & Lime Rock in '57. Private race courses were needed to take the place of the SAC airport circuits (lost in '55) and the previous practice of using public roads (lost in '52).
Although VIR was host to five successful SCCA National events from 1957 to 1959, and attracted nice crowds (estimates of 30,000 at most events), the original investors' dreams of 100,000 paying spectators never materialized. In 1960, the Danville Civil Air Patrol took over operation of the track, under Colonel Paul Rembold, and arrangement which lasted 14 years. Throughout the '60's, a host of famous racers tried their hand at VIR in sports cars, including Roger Penske, Mark Donahue, Augie Pabst, Lance Reventlow, Peter Revson, Briggs Cunningham, and Janet Guthrie. A few unusual events were held, as Curtis Turner organized (and won) a stock car event in 1962. The "Thunderbirds Hot Rod Club" even held drag races on the front straightaway!
By the mid-1960's, VIR was well established and hosted the fourth-ever Trans-Am Championship race, dubbed the "Danville 400". This was to be a turning point for the fledgling series. After very small fields of relatively-unknown drivers at earlier races at dinky tracks like Bryar and St. Louis/Mid-America, the VIR race field blossomed to a full 36-car field with recognizable names like Dickie Attwood, Skip Scott, George Alderman, Horst Kwech, Dick Thompson, and Gaston Andrey. In an effort to increase the gate, NASCAR stars Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Wendell Scott were brought in along with VIR veteran Curtis Turner. As Rich Taylor points out, the promotion worked but the performance of the stock-car drivers was mostly one of comic relief: Petty spun off, dug himself out of the mud, then went off again three laps later in the same spot ... Curtis Turner stuck a rod, and coasted into the pits where his crew duct-taped the hole in the block so he could complete the last few laps ... Wendell Scott took over Dick Thompson's Mustang after the Doctor ran it up to third place, and promptly had a huge spin, got disoriented, and drove through the infield crashing into a drainage ditch to finish their day!
Most of the events throughout the '60's were more modest, consisting of typical SCCA club races with drivers from the surrounding few states. Some of the larger events were open to spectators, and were popular with the region's college students, drawing several thousand sun-and-suds-loving fans. Not unlike the Glen and other venues of the time, and a portend of things to come. Big-time professional sports car racing returned to VIR with the first event of the IMSA GT Championship Series. The factory-backed Porsche efforts of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood took the trophy home that year and the following. In the early 1970's, small sedans became popular for amateur competition, and BMW's, Datsuns, Opels and even Pintos and Gremlins.
But the end was near. A combination of factors including the gas crisis, lack of a suitable promoter, and changing safety regulations were taking their toll. The last event was an SCCA race in October, 1974, affectionately nicknamed the "Goblins' Go". Apparently the goblins came, as some over-exhuberant spectators vandalized one of the Foote family's farm buildings, and that was the last straw. The family decided to close the site to racing and re-dedicate the land to corn and cows.
Fast forward to 1998. Amazingly, the track surface was still there, though rough and broken up in spots. After many, many abortive attempts by others to resuscitate the place, New York commercial real estate developer and avid vintage racer Harvey Siegel completed something like 18 months of negotiations with the land owners, resulting in a long-term lease which allows him the the ability to commit the sizable resources to rebuild this sports-car racing mecca. In his initial "press release" to fellow racers, Harvey outlined plans to completely repave the track, widening the 27' wide surface to 30' to 36'. There is a tremendous amount of fill and grading required, to eliminate dangerous low spots and create proper, safe, modern run-off areas. He also assembled a top-flight team of managers and consultants, including Mike Rand (former GM at Lime Rock), Richard Lee (track engineering consultant from Laguna Seca), Peter Krause (track layout consultant) and local commercial property manager Connie Lee Nyholm.
The plans include the creation of a true motorsports country club -- restoring the old field stome buildings, and adding amenities like a pool, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, and bar and restaurant to complement the track facilities. One can join the "VIR Club" just like you might join a local club for golf or tennis. Fortunately for us vintage racers, Harvey also decided to make the tracks available for real wheel-to-wheel road racing.
Yes, we said "tracks" ... while the original 3.27-mile, 12-turn layout has been entirely renovated, there have also been two cross-overs added mid-way along the old front & back straights. These crossovers permit simultaneous use of two smaller tracks: the 2.2-mile "North Course", for use by the smaller clubs like VSCCA; and the 1.65-mile "South Course", generally reserved for use by VIR Club members. A few times a year, the full 3.2-mile original configuration will be used for major spectator events held by the larger clubs like SVRA.
So where are we now? The paving was completed in 1999, the paddock has paved access roads, with grass areas for parking the tow rig & race car (easier to stake & much cooler than blacktop). The track is already nearly booked up for all of 2000, with club dates for VSCCA, VDCA, SCCA and major events for SVRA and HSR.
A track reborn! Many others have talked about it, tried it, whatever ... this time it's been done! We're indebted to our fellow competitor Mr. Siegel for restoring this historic relic, modernizing it, and making it available for our enjoyment. I hope you'll decide to join us for the first MG Vintage Racers' Focus Event of the new Millenium, on May 6 & 7, with our friends from VSCCA and event chairman Peter Krause, for a fantastic low-key and fun event!
Online Editor: Christopher Kintner
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