Bucolic Virginia International Raceway was a delightful backdrop for this past weekend’s annual Heacock Insurance Gold Cup SVRA race meet that is fast becoming a top-drawer attraction on the annual American vintage racing calendar. In addition to five first-class professional championship road course configurations, visitors will find, among other things, a go-kart track, autocross course, skid pad, lodge-style hotels and an 1834 plantation mansion that lives on today as a charming but elegant restaurant and pub.
Make no mistake, the place is a driver’s course, challenging and well maintained. The SVRA show used the 3.27-mile, 18-turn “full course,” with its elevation ranging from 130 feet to 40 meters. For some big-name drivers like Al Unser Jr. and Willy T. Ribbs this was their first trip to Alton, Virginia. Several NASCAR stars had only known the track as a deserted facility during a hiatus of nearly 30 years until it was fully refurbished to open again in 2007.
“I used to come out here and test maybe 20 years ago for Richard Childress,” said NASCAR Truck Series champion Mike Skinner. “The place was really run down, the asphalt was even breaking up. Those were the days NASCAR would let us test, so we’d come out here to try new things and sort out cars. Connie (Nyholm, VIR president) and her team have done a truly amazing job transforming this facility.”
Ribbs, who stormed from last on the pro-am grid and looked like a podium threat before his transmission failed thoroughly enjoyed his first VIR experience. He plans to be back.
“I absolutely love this track,” said Ribbs. “This is a beautiful facility and not just the track, but the grounds as well. It’s fun to drive on, it’s fun to race on. If you want a racer’s track, this is the one, baby.”
Nestled among the woods on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, VIR is part country club, part campground, and all around racer heaven. Elegant trackside villas line the course at one end, and decidedly more rustic lodging, complete with balconies overhanging the pit entrance are located on the main straight. The place is steeped in classic sports car culture, as evidenced by the proliferation of hundreds of camping race fans in tents and recreational vehicles making a weekend of it. Surrounded by towering trees and perched on verdant rolling hills, spectators revel in striking and plentiful vantage points that true race fans appreciate.
A centerpiece of that sports car culture is the track’s annual award, the Gold Cup. That trophy of precious metal stands on a mahogany base that sports a plaque that illustrates the true value of the award by listing all previous winners. It dates back to 1957, the year of the track’s founding. Walt Hansgen was recognized that year. Hansgen was a regular winner in early VIR races and a veteran of the Indianapolis 500 and the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix.
The list of prestigious recipients of the prize is a hall of fame roster. They include Roger Penske, Carroll Shelby, Jim Hall, Horst Kwech, Skip Barber, and Paul Newman. The Gold Cup, described by SVRA and VIR officials as a “spirit award,” was never meant to recognize on-track accomplishments, but the heart and soul recipients display in being a part of the motor racing community.
The Gold Cup was presented Saturday night at the annual SVRA “black and white” banquet to recognize racers and raise money for charity. This year’s winner was Dr. Lee Talbot, is a university professor who capped an astounding 69 years of racing cars in 2017.
“It’s bittersweet to be here,” Talbot, who was clearly moved, said. “My driving days are behind me, but the people I have been with on the track, have helped, and been helped by, are in my heart. This award means far more to me than winning any race in all my life at tracks.”
Talbot started racing sprint cars and midgets on dirt tracks in 1949 and moved on to professional sports car competition in Europe and the United States. He tells of his first racing machine, a sprint car with a flathead Ford engine and no roll bars or seat belts.
“We wore Levis, T-shirts, and loafers in those days,” Talbot explained. “There was no safety equipment and lots of casualties. The percentages weren’t good.”
Talbot became attracted to vintage racing and was a regular with SVRA and other clubs since 1994. His last race came at the Monterey Motorsports Reunion in 2017.
The rise of vintage racing and the establishment of SVRA charity pro-am races are helping top-name racers recognize an opportunity for a career afterlife. In addition to VIR’s American Racing Legends Charity Pro-Am Presented By RACER Magazine, several legends decided to drive in some of the other SVRA classes. Ray Evernham, Bill Elliott, and Todd Bodine were all entered in Group 10. Evernham was at the wheel of his distinctive 1936 Chevrolet sedan, Elliott had a 2007 NASCAR Dodge Charger, and Bodine used a 1977 Olds 442. Meanwhile, Geoff Brabham has become a frequent competitor in SVRA racing. He was on hand with owner Ron Hornig’s Brabham BT35 to sweep both the Saturday and Sunday Group 2 races. Max Papis even competed in the vintage motorcycle contests.
Clearly, the profile of vintage racing has been advanced by a festival formula that marries today’s professional Trans Am racing, traditional SVRA vintage competition, and other recently formed groups who work in collaboration to produce weekends full of eye candy. Good examples appeared this weekend at VIR with a run group set aside for 20 modified Corvairs, the International GT Porsches and Ferraris, and the Mazda Heritage Series for first-generation Miatas.
VIR saw a record-setting weekend for race cars on the grounds with 322 machines bursting the paddock’s seams. Saturday’s warm and humid weather did not deter a large gathering of spectators, many of whom swarmed a morning autograph session with the racing legends and the pre-race pit walk for pro-am drivers and cars. SVRA President Tony Parella is ready to amp up the enthusiasm with the vision of a Vintage Race of Champions (VROC) series to expand the platform for American racing legends to demonstrate their racecraft and delight fans. He and Nyholm are convinced VIR should be a home for that new venture.