An opportunity to come home put Connie Nyholm in the driver’s seatFebruary 26, 2010 6:00 AM
by Robert Powell
Connie Nyholm was running her own real estate company in New York City in 1998 when she met Harvey Siegel, a shopping center developer with an odd project in mind. Siegel, a sports car enthusiast, wanted to buy a road racing track near Danville that had been closed for decades. Nyholm, a William & Mary graduate, is from Martinsville, and she had been looking for a real estate project that would bring her closer to her home. But she had never been to a racetrack before she and Siegel surveyed the overgrown expanse of Virginia International Raceway, a track that had operated from 1957 to 1974.
Siegel and Nyholm reopened the track in 2000. Today, Nyholm is managing partner of VIR, a racing resort that attracts professional and amateur drivers from around the world. The 1,200-acre property includes a motorsports country club, two hotels, 12 residential villas, an industrial park and a full-service restaurant, the Oak Tree Tavern. The track can be configured in a number of ways that allow two events to be running at the same time.
Nyholm began racing herself in a variety of cars about seven years ago. She took the past two years off but plans to return to the track this year.
Virginia Business interviewed Nyholm in Richmond where she was attending a meeting of the board of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission. She was appointed to the board by Gov. Mark R. Warner and reappointed by his successor, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. A full transcript of the interview is available at http://www.VirginiaBusiness.com.
Virginia Business: Would you talk a little bit about VIR as an economic development factor in Southern Virginia?
Nyholm: We employ directly about 365 people … We are bringing food and beverage in house now … That was another 50 employees, and the industrial park employs about 88 people … VIR World is our internal term for the business.
VB: How did VIR evolve?
Nyholm: When we first envisioned VIR, Harvey [Siegel], my business partner, really wanted to build a club track, which would primarily be built around VIR Club, a membership club. And then we had hoped to do some rental to the bike and car clubs like Ferrari Club, Audi Club, Mazda Club, on the weekends. And then, if we were lucky, we would do some professional testing during the week.
And we became so much more than that, which was a vision I brought to VIR. I had never been to a racetrack in my life. I had never been to a professional sporting event or anything like that, so it was all from ground zero to me. It was a real estate development where we were building a resort around a racetrack instead of a golf course. So we have been under construction since the day we started.
VB: About how many events do you have during the year?
Nyholm: We’re rented about 480 days a year because we rent two tracks a day starting in March through November, and then one track a day December and February, and then some sporadic days in January. We have about a dozen publicly promoted spectator events.
VB: You grew up in Martinsville. Were you even aware of this track at that time?
Nyholm: Never heard of it. It closed in ’74, and so I was 15 … It was really popular with the college-age kids, who would come in and party hard on Spectator Hill … I would do tours for some of the little bit older people, and I would say, “Now how many of you remember Spectator Hill?” And they [would say], “Me, me, me, me.” I’d say, “Well, how many of you begot your children on Spectator Hill?”
It was not at all like we are now. … There were no flush toilets at all. So there were all these corrugated barns basically with outhouses behind them … We have pictures of people streaking that we can’t post on the Web.
VB: So how did Siegel come across it?
Nyholm: He had been racing vintage cars since he was in his 30s and was approached by the owners of [the Sports car Vintage Racing Association] race series, and they said, “Why don’t you build a racetrack? We’re running out of venues because a lot of tracks have closed.”
So he started looking at closed racetracks to see what he might be able to resurrect … So he looked at Marlboro, Md.; Bridgehampton, N.Y.; Vineland, N.J.; Cumberland, Md.; and VIR, which is head and shoulders over everything else, and so he put it under contract.
VB: How did you meet him and become involved in VIR?
Nyholm: We were introduced by his property manager, Peggy Burke, in New York … She said, “Well, I know this girl from down there. She talks funny, and she’s always talking about how she wants to go home.” I had my own business up there in commercial real estate development and brokerage, so I said, “Yes, I’d love to take a look at the project, see how we might be able to work together.”
[After inspecting the track], we started working together two or three days a week, and it didn’t take long for me to realize this is the real deal. I shut my business down and started doing this full time.
We bring a lot of complementary strengths to the partnership. And I think that’s one reason we’ve been able to grow so quickly. It’s just two of us, and so there’s not a lot of bureaucracy.
VB: So when did you really begin to get the racing bug? Were you put off by it at first and not sure about it?
Nyholm: No, it just looked fun. I have always been fairly adventurous. I took race school with Josh Lief, who was [Virginia’s] deputy secretary of commerce and trade … He is now our general manager … He wanted to go to school, and he said, “Why don’t you do it with me?” I’m like OK. So we did it, and I loved it.
VB: When you’re not racing, what sorts of things do you do in your spare time?
Nyholm: I sail. New boyfriend, big sailboat. So that’s what I’ve done the last two years.
VB: Where do you sail?
Nyholm: In Europe. He has a 42-foot Atlantic. So I’m learning to sail, and we’ve been sailing in Scandinavia for the last couple of summers. And it has been just way fun. Thank God for the iPhone, so I can sail and work and keep up with it. It has been wonderful.
VB: Do you ever miss New York? Do you ever wish you were back there?
Nyholm: No. It’s only a plane ride away. I can go for a weekend. I used to miss it just because I missed good food. But now, South Boston has two independently owned restaurants that are fabulous. And we have our own at VIR with the Tavern. As my son says, “Mom, if you want something, you just build it at VIR.” And I say, “What’s wrong with that?”