The first reaction to Virginia International Raceway is visual. The grounds are stunningly beautiful, a green-brown mural of pastoral hills and bucolic woods.
The second reaction – after trying to maneuver a powerful race car over the track’s varying turns and straightaways – is mental. It is as challenging as it is breathtaking.
“It’s quite a unique place,” said John Edwards, who co-drives the No. 25 BMW M Team RLL BMW M4 GT3 with Connor De Phillippi. “It’s definitely difficult to get the setup right but it’s also difficult to nail a lap as a driver. You have to be on it on the fine, technical stuff in the low-speed (turns), especially the way those corners feed into each other.”
Sunday’s Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, a two-hour, 40-minute test of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Grand Touring Daytona (GTD) classes, brings out the best in negotiating the track’s assorted challenges. It’s why so many drivers consider it among their favorite circuits on the calendar.
First among the challenges is finding a sweet spot in the car’s setup that works effectively in both the high-speed sections and the twisty bits of the 17-turn, 3.27-mile circuit.
“There are a few tracks where we have to find aero balance like this,” said Antonio Garcia, a three-time winner at VIR and co-driver of the No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C8.R with Jordan Taylor in the GTD PRO class. “I would consider this track like Canadian Tire Motorsport Park or Watkins Glen where there are fast speeds and slow sections, but you probably need to take care of your top speed. At times, it pays to be a little lighter on downforce and being fast on the straights.”
The first words most drivers will mention when asked about VIR are “flow” and “rhythm.” The track features three distinct straights that aren’t really straight, including a series of esses from Turns 6 to 11 that are easier to get wrong than right.
Ben Barnicoat, co-driver of the No. 14 Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3 with Jack Hawksworth, knows how hard it is to get right – and how gratifying it is when he does.
“The flow that this place has got is magical,” said Barnicoat, who’ll make his first WeatherTech Championship appearance at VIR this week but has raced there before in another series. “Going up the hill through the esses in our GT cars – it’s not the like the prototypes; (the GT cars) are pretty heavy – that section is right on the limit of being flat out. You’ve got to get every curb perfect. Every inch matters. … Being able to do it flat in a GT car is just so rewarding.”
Winding with distinct changes in elevation, VIR offers a rarity in racing – a circuit that’s difficult yet enjoyable.
“It’s one of those natural-terrain tracks that still feels like an old-school track,” Corvette’s Taylor said. “There’s not much margin for error … high speeds and lots of elevation changes. It’s just a lot of fun to drive. It’s one of the ones we always look forward to going to.”
VIR is even beloved by those who haven’t raced it. Frenchman Jules Gounon, who will co-drive the No. 79 WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3 with Cooper MacNeil in the GTD class, has only seen the circuit by way of simulators.
“This track is why I like racing in the USA so much,” said Gounon, who will have his first on-site experience with VIR when practice begins Friday. There is really no room for error. If you go off, it is grass that leads you to the tire barriers.”
It seems to have that effect on newcomers. When Formula 1 veteran Giancarlo Fisichella won at VIR in 2014 with Pierre Kaffer in a Risi Competizione Ferrari, Fisichella declared VIR his favorite track.
“(He) raced around the world in Formula 1, and he said VIR was his favorite track of all time,” said Edwards, who considers VIR his home track since it’s closest to where he lives in Charlotte. “That really highlighted it for me. It’s not just because it’s close to home and not just because I’m a biased American guy. This place is really special.”
Live coverage of Sunday’s race begins at 2 p.m. ET on CNBC, Peacock, IMSA Radio and IMSA.com/TVLive (outside the U.S.).