Homecoming at VIR
VIR is the only race course that ever bit me. No matter, I love it anyway.
The place is like a country club for road racers. It’s hidden from genteel civilization by a sylvan location near the city that was the final capital of the Confederate States of America. The logo for the place is an Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-Type that won the 1956 and ’57 24 Hours of Le Mans. Perfect. And that’s hardly to only link VIR has with Le Mans. There’s a hard blood link that dates to VIR’s first race in 1957.
VIR has a 1950s charm that most other road courses of its vintage seem to lack. The fences and guardrails are set well back, affording spectators long and broad views that would be comfortably at home at Augusta. The uphill esses are especially popular for premium spectating. When entering the facility, that’s the first elevation you’ll see crossing the bridge by the TV compound. Those esses snake up the hill toward VIR’s signature oak tree and have wrong-footed more than one international star.
Not all that long ago (during his tenure as a Volvo pilot) five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell plopped himself down next to me in a golf cart and said, with a light touch of exasperation, that he just couldn’t get the bits after the long left turn to blend to his satisfaction. (This drew a crowd armed with programs, cameras, papers and pens. As D. Bell is at least as effective an ambassador and diplomat as he is a racer, he signed them all with a smile and more than a minimum of kind words. But he wasn’t kidding about the complexities of the run from that long left hander – the “NASCAR turn” – behind the pits to the bridge.)
Some people from Audi (who expect their anonymities to be respected) claimed that VIR’s uphill esses produced spike g-force readings (during a private R8 test) previously unseen.
The thought of P1 cars slashing uphill to the oak tree without lifting has had the director, the producer (and me) staring longingly at the September page of the calendar since Sebring. (Rumors and reports from a June VIR test day claim the lads in Greg Pickett’s No. 6 didn’t lift on the uphill run! Take deep, even breaths; in through the nose, out through the mouth.)
Now consider that VIR is a contemporary of Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Riverside and Lime Rock. It has roots in that happy year when Juan Fangio won his fifth and final World Championship, and Jaguar made it three straight at Le Mans with their elegant D-Type – the one from the old VIR logo. Back then, F1 cars still wore – for the most part – wire wheels and drum brakes! (The D-Jag was a bit more modern wearing Dunlop wheels and disc brakes.) VIR’s first big race winner was Carroll Shelby in John Edgar’s Maserati 450S, “the bazooka”, packing a 4.5-liter Maserati V-8 that produced enough thrust to give the big 450S its nickname. Shelby’s VIR winner was the one that came out of the Maser works right after the 1957 Sebring winner (speaking of Fangio). Less than two years later Shelby became the second American to win Le Mans.
VIR not only has blood connections to both Le Mans; the place was also the site of IMSA’s first GT race – the 1971 VIR 300. It was 95 laps of the 3.2-mile natural terrain road course that was designed with a bulldozer, not a computer.
The record shows that a Porsche was the winner of that first IMSA GT in April 1971. The car that did it is a Ferry Porsche-approved tangerine 914/6 GT that still lives in the private collection of Brumos Porsche in Jacksonville, Fla. Hurley Haywood and Peter Gregg won that race and went on to claim IMSA’s first GT championship that year with the same 914/6 GT that still does showroom and historic race duty.
It’s a lovely little car and I’ve had the pleasure of riding in it when the folks who hosted Sebring’s historic car race held scrutineering downtown on the square … just like the old days. Blasting along Florida’s public roads in a championship GT racer, sitting on the floor, holding on to the roll cage and grinning like an idiot is a fine way to spend a Florida March afternoon.
A year later Brumos’ racing Porsches wore white with red over blue stripes: except the one that won the 1973 12 Hours of Sebring – IMSA’s first Sebring 12 Hours. That 911 was a forgettable shade of yellow and had been delivered just a week or so before John and Peggy Bishop saved the 12 Hours for us with IMSA’s first Sebring sanction.
With last week’s rapprochement we may again see Brumos’ colors on 911s at Sebring … it’s been almost 20 years! Too bad we won’t see IMSA (and Camel) GT champ and Le Mans winner Hurley Haywood driving. The 22-year old US Army Spec 4 who had just returned from Vietnam to win the VIR 300 in 1971 retired, officially, last year. His last race was the 2011 24 Hours of Daytona and that seems appropriate as Haywood practically owns the place after five wins in the Rolex 24 alone. Especially, considering that Daytona and Sebring will again snuggle up to each other on the same calendar in 2014.
Last week’s news from Daytona has infused the rest of this season with a whiff of relief and, perhaps, some apprehension … the kind usually wrought by change. But all I could think about last week was 1971 and 1957, the year VIR opened. The links are strong: VIR is where IMSA’s GT concept was proven in just one race. Now it’s the first ALMS race in a new age of American sports car racing. That it comes at the place where Carroll Shelby won the new course’s first feature race in 1957 in an Italian-red earth shaker is a pleasing bonus because of Shelby’s dense Le Mans accomplishments.
But the gent who I’ll think of this weekend at VIR as the green flag waves is Le Mans’ forgotten winner – the late Ed Hugus, who won VIR’s very first race 55 years ago driving an ALFA Romeo. His exploits are in precious few history books: Ed did the night shift at Le Mans, 1965 to deliver NART its first Le Mans victory and Ferrari its last. A look through Le Mans’ written history usually lists just Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory as the 1965 Le Mans 24 Hour winners in Luigi Chinetti’s Sr’s 275LM.
On that June day Hurley Haywood was about to enter his senior year in high school, Peter Gregg was buying Brumos Porsche from the estate of Hubert Brundage, and the first Porsche 911 had yet to appear at Le Mans. Shelby, Hugus and Peter Gregg are gone; Hurley is retired from racing with a juicy résumé, but he can visit his VIR winner any time he wants.
And VIR is now more beautiful than it was the day (long ago) I learned that even when the sun is shining brightly and the air is warm, the road stays wet in the shadow of the Oak Tree long after the rain stops; even when you’re not anywhere near flat out through VIR’s voluptuous esses.