Visit VIRHistory.com for an extensive look at VIR’s history!
The Beginning of Road Racing
The old saying goes that automobile racing began just a few hours after the second car was built. In fact, the first automobile race took place in France in 1894, from Paris to Rouen, and the first American race took place the following year, a round-trip race between Chicago and Evanston, Illinois.
In the early 1900′s, road racing in America was staged on public roads, following the trend established in Europe at the turn of the century. The Vanderbilt Cup and the American Grand Prize were the two premier events of the time, and the most famous races were held in Long Island, N.Y., Savannah, Ga., Milwaukee, Wis. and Santa Monica, Calif.
1903 Paris-Madrid Race
This picture was taken during the Paris-Madrid race in May 24th 1903 driven by Marcel Renault who eventually crashed the car and died later during the race.
Soon road racing became overshadowed by oval-track racing, with such famous circuits as the Milwaukee Mile in 1903 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911 paving the way. It would not be until after World War II that organized road racing started to really take hold.
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was founded in Boston in 1944 — an outgrowth of a pre-war group known as the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) that existed from 1934 to 1941 and dissolved following the outbreak of hostilities. Following the conflict, the SCCA’s first big event was run on the streets of Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1948. Thanks to America’s post-war prosperity and enthusiasm, as well as the influx of sporting automobiles from Europe such as MG, Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo, the sport quickly gained popularity and momentum.
Following the success of Watkins Glen, similar events sprang up in Bridgehampton, N.Y. in 1949 and Elkhart Lake, Wis., Palm Beach Shores, Fla. and Pebble Beach, Calif. in 1950.
The Early Years
VIRginia International Raceway opened for business in August, 1957, hosting an SCCA race that attracted such stars of the sport as Carroll Shelby, Carl Haas, Bob Holbert, Augie Pabst, Bob Grossman, Don Yenko, Dr. Dick Thompson, Walt Hansgen and Bruce Jennings. Shelby, who would later go on to worldwide fame by winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1959 and creating the iconic Cobra sports cars in the early 1960s, won that first feature race in a Maserati 450S.
The lconic Texan uttered a quote about the track that is remembered to this day, “one lap at VIR is like a hundred at Watkins Glen.”
1957: VIR Opens
This first race at VIR had entrants including Carroll Shelby, Carl Haas, Bob Holbert, Augie Pabst, Bob Grossman, John Yenko, Dr. Dick Thompson, Walt Hansgen, Bruce Jennings, and many others.
As one of the first permanent American road racing tracks, VIR soon became a fixture on the SCCA circuit and a favorite among racers due to its high-speed straights, challenging turns and dramatic elevation changes. However, its location in the heart of stock car racing country prevented it from ever attracting big crowds like those enjoyed by Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake.
As a result, Sports Car Enterprises was forced to relinquish its lease on the Foote family’s property in 1959. Danville’s Col. Paul Rembold took over the lease and the track fell under the auspices of the Civil Air Patrol. Col. Rembold and track manager Henry Wallace were more successful in the operation of the track through the 1960s, attracting thousands of fans to sports car, motorcycle and kart races.
Among the highlights were the fourth-ever SCCA Trans-Am race in 1966, won by Tom Yeager and Bob Johnson in a Ford Mustang over a field that included NASCAR stars Richard Petty, David Pearson, Curtis Turner and Wendell Scott; the first-ever IMSA GT race in 1971, won by Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood in a Porsche 914-6 GT; and a return engagement by IMSA in 1972, also won by Gregg and Haywood in a Porsche 911S.
The track fell on hard times in the early 1970s, and that, combined with the fuel crisis of 1973, spelled the end for VIR. The track was shuttered following an SCCA enduro on October 13, 1974.
The Rebirth of a Legend
The Foote property reverted to farmland for 25 years, until the property was leased and revived by New York real estate developer and vintage sports car racer Harvey Siegel in 1998. Siegel’s vision for VIR was more expansive than anyone could have imagined, and the facility reopened in 2000 transformed into a world-class road racing circuit that was repaved and widened, following the original track’s center line.
A World-class Venue
In its modern incarnation, VIR hosts a number of world-class events, such as the American Le Mans Series, and includes full resort facilities for racers and enthusiasts. Resort facilities include three hotels, several dining options and activities such as karting and skeet.
Within two years, VIR began hosting the top professional sports car and motorcycle racing series in America, as well as welcoming back the amateur racers of the SCCA, whose North Carolina Region was thrilled to have their “home track” back. Under the guiding hands of Siegel and his partner Connie Nyholm, the future looks bright for VIR. The facility has received international acclaim as one of the world’s most beautiful and challenging circuits and continues to push the envelope of what a racetrack can be.
None of the men who first brought VIR to life, nor the racers and fans who frequented it in the early days, could have imagined the kind of showplace that exists on the site today. In the words of actor Paul Newman, who raced in both amateur and professional competition since the 1970s, “if there’s a heaven on Earth, it’s VIR.”
Hopefully that sentiment will be shared by racers and fans alike for generations to come.