Virginia International Raceway in Alton near Danville runs nonstop.July 29, 2011 6:00 AM
by Tim Thornton
The Danville area has rivers and lakes to paddle and fish; hiking and biking trials; an outdoor performance venue; science, art and history museums; and a minor-league baseball team. You can find many of those diversions in other places, but a motorsports resort that offers skeet shooting is a little out of the ordinary.
The Martinsville Speedway, the NASCAR oval just down the road, gets more attention, but Virginia International Raceway in Alton just over the Halifax County line hosts 14 races each year. The motorsport resort also is used by race teams testing their setups, car clubs celebrating their favorite set of wheels and corporations taking advantage of team-building exercises such as kart racing and pit crew competitions.
VIR’s Teen Driving Initiative aims to improve young drivers’ skills. The Ariel Atom Experience, on the other hand, puts grownups on the track in really fast, open-wheel, open-cockpit cars.
That operation is run by AutoTech, which works out of the VIR Technology Park. The Virginia Institute for Performance Engineering and Research is out there, too. A collaboration between Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University, VIPER serves racing teams, car companies, NASA and the Department of Defense.
When VIR’s 3.27-mile road course opened in 1957, “It was just a road track and a couple of shacks,” according to Dan Vaden, VIR’s director of marketing.
The track hosted some big names – Carroll Shelby, Bob Holbert, David Pearson, Richard Petty. But running a racetrack is challenging. The first owners lasted two years. The track was closed by 1974.
Harvey Siegel, a shopping center developer and vintage sports car racer, teamed up with Connie Nyholm, a Martinsville-born real estate developer, to reopen the track in 2000. Since then, Nyholm, VIR’s managing partner, has spearheaded a lot of new development. There are dining and lodging facilities for long race weekends. VIR hosts professional motorcycle races, kart races and automobile races ranging from the Rolex Sports Car Series to vintage racer weekends to the ChumpCar World Series. For the uninitiated, that’s a 24-hour race featuring cars worth $500 or less. Jeremy Stratton, executive director of Danville Economic Development, says 30 percent of the city’s hotel occupancy comes from VIR events.
“There are very few days in the week that there isn’t someone out on the track,” Vaden says.
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