Located deep in the heart of Southside Virginia’s racing country, VIRginia International Raceway stands as a testament to the power of vision in transforming a historic but aging racetrack into a world-renowned destination for motor enthusiasts.
In 2018, 300,000 people visited the Halifax County raceway to indulge in its tracks, events, and resort amenities, including lodging, dining, pool, shooting sports, kart track and off-road trails. VIR offers world-class racing with five different track configurations, two of which can be operated simultaneously. That track has attracted the notice of Car & Driver Magazine, which for 18 years has run hosted the runs for its Lightning Laps edition at the track. The magazine compares VIR’s track favorably to Germany’s Nordscheife “Ring”—one of the most renowned tracks in the world.
“No guardrail, no fencing, no safety features”
Yet when Connie Nyholm and Harvey Siegel first visited the track in 1998, they found a track overrun with weeds, trees growing at its edges, cows grazing on the front straight, and even a hog pen.
“The old track was here but it was all broken and alligatored up,” Nyholm said. “No guardrail, no fencing, no safety features at all. Just a ribbon of asphalt.”
In that overgrown raceway, though, Nyholm and Siegel saw a world of potential.
Nyholm had grown up in Martinsville, Virginia, and attended the College of William and Mary, where she fell in love with real estate development. She moved to New York City to work in commercial real estate. She helped clients such as Rite Aid and McDonald’s find new locations. Her main customer was Monro Auto Service And Tire Center. She assisted Monro in placing 60 stores in four states, including Virginia.
“One lap at VIR is like a hundred at Watkins Glen”
Nyholm eventually met Siegel, who convinced her to take a look at the VIR property. The raceway had been established in 1957 by North Carolina car enthusiasts. Texas racing star Carroll Shelby won VIR’s first feature race in a Maserati 450S. Shelby subsequently claimed, “One lap at VIR is like a hundred at Watkins Glen.”
By the 1970s, the track was in decline, and it closed in 1974. But Nyholm and Siegel came to the site with a new energy. They widened the track from 26 feet to 33 and 36 feet while still following its centerline. They added safety features and constructed the first five buildings for the new, revamped version of VIR. The revamped raceway opened in 2000.
America’s first motorsport resort
The original vision, Nyholm said, was to operate VIR as a motorsport country club. Quickly, though, it became clear that a private membership couldn’t sustain the raceway. They opened the facility to car and motorcycle clubs.
“Brilliantly, Harvey envisioned that when we restored the original track, we’d make the same length as Watkins Glen,” Nyholm said. Watkins Glen is NASCAR’s most popular road track. “We’d also divide it into two race tracks that can be run simultaneously to double rental rates.”
VIR also found an unexpected market as a destination for media outlets to showcase cars and for manufacturers to test their new products. The Lightning Lap issue of Car & Driver, for instance, has become the magazine’s most popular annual issue. Meanwhile, companies like Corvette, Ford, Honda, Subaru, Michelin, Dunlop and Goodyear regularly conduct high-performance testing at VIR.
In 2012, Siegel got out of the business, turning over majority ownership to Nyholm.
“Once we got into operations, I took over,” Nyholm said. “He didn’t have any interest in running it; he just liked to build stuff.”
Through it all, VIR has maintained its reputation as America’s first “motorsport resort.” It’s a family-friendly combination of racetrack, lodging, dining, skeet shooting, pistol and rifle ranges, karting and more. The idea was there from the beginning—to build a resort around a racetrack instead of a golf course.
Giving back to the community
The variety of revenue streams allowed VIR to weather the Great Recession. Today, the raceway has become a community asset for South Boston and Halifax County. It continues to carry on the local legacy of racing that includes iconic brothers Jeff and Ward Burton. And VIR gives back to the community by allowing local law enforcement to train on site for free.
VIR employs about 300 people, providing the equivalent of 108 full-time jobs. A recent economic impact study determined that VIR has an annual impact of $197 million in Halifax County, Danville and Pittsylvania County, Nyholm said.
VIRginia International Raceway has clearly come a long way since 1998, when Nyholm and Siegel found cows grazing on the front straight. “Our people are almost cultish in their dedication,” Nyholm said. “Once they come, if they’re an enthusiast at any level, they come back. They come back often. And they bring their friends. VIR is one of the largest, most challenging, historic tracks in the country, right here in our back yard. We keep it completely manicured, with a super friendly staff, and very family friendly, so that no one feels unwelcome or uncomfortable. Even if it’s a first-time visit and they couldn’t care less about racing, they still have a good time because of the environment and because the people are so nice.”
Children under the age of 16 are admitted free with a paying adult. Active military are admitted free, and veterans get a half-off discount. Parking is free.
Upcoming events include:
- VIRginia International Raceway (VIR) Craft Beer Fest on August 3;
- Championship Cup Series-Motorcycle Road Racing Fall CycleFest on September 14-15;
- The Runoffs Presented by Sports Car Club of America from October 8-13.