Virginia International Raceway has a well deserved reputation as one of the great road courses in the United States. I have enjoyed many track days there since 2000 and hope to continue to. Over the years there have been a few changes that the owners have done to enhance the experience at the track. Garages have been built so that they are an option for participants as well as condos being constructed within viewing distance of the climbing esses.
In July of last year one of the most enduring symbols of VIR collapsed when Oak Tree broke and fell. Since that time the look and character of that corner has changed, to be sure, but not to the detriment of the drivers. There was a corner workers station on the inside of that corner that has been moved to the other side of the track and a driver’s view of the corner has definitely changed on approach and exit.
Last weekend I took a visit to VIR to not just see what had changed at Oak Tree (as the corner will always be known), but to get a perspective on the latest change – a completely repaved racing surface.
In the last few years there had been several patches to the road surface at critical corners. This resulted in new challenges as the grip would also change as you transitioned from an older surface to a newer one and back again. While not ideal, everyone had the same track to deal with and it certainly made you a more aware driver. None the less, earlier this year VIR completed a complete resurfacing of the entire track. By March drivers were taking to the new surface to find out what it was like.
The months have passed and the surface is maturing so last Sunday was a good time to get the reactions of folks who were winding up a three-day track event at VIR.
One of the first things I noticed was that the gravel pits were gone and replaced with nice new asphalt. While the old gravel might have provided a good surface to deal with leaking fluids it also carried with it a great deal of dust and was subject to the effects of rainy weather.
So now there is a stable surface that provides a proper place to park your car along with a reasonable requirement to use planks under jack stands or similar object that might sink into warm tarmac.
The track itself has been improved in small, but important ways at key corners. The exit of turn three has a rumble strip (gator) on the outside and then additional pavement outside of that. It used to be just and edge with a good deal of gravel to slip on to. Now you have the warning of the gator strip and about a foot of asphalt to catch yourself with instead of spinning off.
That leads to what ends up to be a faster turn four, which used to be a “throw-away” corner. With the momentum carried from the exit of turn three and a wider line you can really cook your way through and on to the next corners that prepare you for the climbing esses.
Passing under the bridge you still need to keep track right as you prepare to climb, and your rhythm is just as important as ever, but on turn nine – with the right side of the car unloaded – you will feel a bit of a rumble on that side. Not unsettling, just a bit unexpected, perhaps. Turn ten is just as blind as ever, but like the exit to turn three, there is a rumble strip on the outside of the turn exit and just a bit more asphalt to save yourself with as you go light on the suspension and head down hill.
Then there is the turn in before Oak Tree and you drift out to a similar rumble strip with more asphalt on the outside. While purists might look at these improvements as being too much like training wheels on a bicycle, they make too much sense not to be there. Even with the extra width and the sensory cue of the rumble strip, a sloppy driver can overcook the turn and end up in a place no driver wants to be.
The back straight is long as ever and the higher horsepower cars will enjoy building up momentum there before entering the top of Roller Coaster. With the new asphalt comes the ability to maintain a much more consistent grip and allow you to focus on your driving technique more than ever.
Exiting down through Hog Pen is a challenging as ever with the rapid changes in weight loading on the car, but the new track gives you a more enjoyable ride through to the front straight. Here is a video from a driver on the day before:
VIR is one of the best tracks in the country for some very important reasons, but the most important reason is that it is such fun to drive on and with the new track surface it is even more so.
A large part of the experience at this track is about the people. The people that make up the event support staff are experienced and competent. Many have been coming here for years both as support and as drivers.
The events are well organized and the participants are well supported by the facility.
VIR obviously does not stand still. The owners continue to find ways to improve the facilities and the experience.
None of this comes easy, nor is it free, but the price of having the best driving experience of a life time is still amazingly affordable at VIR.