A fast lap around VIR -- then and now

A fast lap around VIR -- then and now

Special to Motorsport.com by Bill King Ed Lowther (1964) and EFR (2005) take you for a lap around the most challenging racetrack in the country -- and maybe the world. Ed Lowther (left) explains it all to the author, circa...

Special to Motorsport.com by Bill King

Ed Lowther (1964) and EFR (2005) take you for a lap around the most challenging racetrack in the country -- and maybe the world.

Ed Lowther (left) explains it all to the author, circa 1964.
Photo by John Ewald.
It was a late Saturday night in October 1964. Ed Lowther was sitting on his bed in a room at the old Howard Johnson's in Danville, Virginia, talking about Virginia International Raceway. Visions of the circuit had him still wired, when he should have been cutting Zs. Lowther was there with his C-Modified Genie Ford for the Northeast Division finale. He would clinch the championship Sunday.

"So Ed," I says, "What do you think's the trickiest place on VIR?"

"Well," says he, "Right after you cross start/finish you're on this really bumpy straight right down into the braking zone for this horrible right-hand hairpin that's followed by a little left and a big left with this ditch on the outside. If you fall off the road -- or should I say -- when you fall off the road, it takes a winch -- and I don't mean the female kind -- to get you out.

"If you survive that, there's another hard left and a really hard right that takes you into this cooked spaghetti section. Then you can get the power down for couple hundred feet until you cross the access road that's always dirty and you fishtail all over the place [demonstrating with violent hand movements].

"Then there's this treacherous uphill chicane with a pothole at every apex; and before you can catch your breath, there's this blind, reverse camber left where the road drops out of sight and your eyeballs go through the top of your helmet.

"Then it's up the hill and you're braking and turning at the same time to get around this huge oak tree that's pretty much the apex of the right hander that leads onto the backstraight, which would be a relief if it weren't so bumpy [shaking violently all over].

"Eventually this endless straight ends with a squirrelly bunch of downhill rights and lefts that lead into a long right sweeper with a 10-foot drop-off on the outside [shudders] back onto the pit straight -- both bumpy and bent, I might add.

"Yep, that about covers it. That's the hardest part -- unless it rains ... It did rain Sunday, but that's another story."

Ten years later, the gnarly old racetrack closed its doors -- leaving the racing scene with its reputation as the most challenging circuit in North America totally intact.

Late last century, Harvey Siegel recognized this weathered and broken asphalt trail wandering through the Foote family farm as the demanding test of driver and car it had once been. The story of Siegel's loving restoration of the facility complete with faithful preservation of the circuit itself is well documented. Siegel did widen the track from 27 to 36 feet, which lengthened it from 3.23 miles to 3.27. But none of the elevation changes, grading or arcs through the corners were altered.

So is the track any easier to drive today? Aside from the grippy new asphalt, which eliminated the ubiquitous bumps and potholes, it seems that the challenge lives on. Here's what Elliott Forbes-Robinson has to say about Virginia International Raceway today:

VIR track map.
Photo by VIR.
"There's a way I get around here that's probably the right way, but it's also different. This place is tough for me. I was just here for a historic race, and I get down into One [Lowther's horrible right-hand hairpin] and it just seems like no matter how I take the entry, I'm wrong at the exit. And so I have to fight for something at the exit all the time, because you power off of there. It is quite important to get off there right. If you go for the power too early, you're going, 'Yeah, I really got on the power early,' but unfortunately to do that you've got to take a really wide line that's slower than heck.

"Turn Two, or Three I guess it is [Two is a full-power left-hand kink], is a very fast left hand corner, but it tends to pitch you off the exit. [Thankfully, Lowther's old ditch has been covered over.] So you've got to be really careful how you enter it because it will pitch you off the exit. I've seen lots of people coming up racing for that one. They brake and follow me and fall off, and that guardrail comes up IN A HURRY!

"The next section after Turn 4 [a hard left, followed quickly by a harder right] -- Turn 4 determines the whole rest of the section. [Lowther's cooked spaghetti.] So if you get it wrong, the rest of it is going to be really uncomfortable. And that works for every corner through there. If you mess up Five, then Six isn't good. A mistake anywhere in there just progressively follows you all the way through. If you get Four right and then you get Five right and then you get Six right, you're fine. But then I'm like, 'Wow, that's a lot of stuff to get right for me.' It's really hard to get that all right at one time. [Note who's talking here, amateur hero drivers.]

"And then you come to the Esses. [VIR's most photographed section of track.] The Esses are great. Almost every time you can go through there flat. In a 914, they're wide open in top gear. And in the Daytona Prototype, they're wide open in top gear. Of course, everything happens so quickly in the DP that the line is REALLY important. If you miss one or both of the first two, then the last one is going TO BE SCARY. So you've got to get it right.

"I love this section, but it is so precise that to take it flat, you've got to be in the right place at every single one. You take the first left. If you're not where you belong, then the next one will be tough. You'll come up over the hill and use a lot more road than you want to and then you'll never be able to get back over right to make the next left, which is an awfully fast corner and a great corner that has the blind exit. [That's where Lowther always lost his eyeballs.]

"Then you're coming up toward the Oak Tree [VIR's signature feature]. You know, I drove here for three days and never got it right. I kept entering wrong. I'd get up to the Oak Tree, and I'm in the wrong spot or I'm accelerating going up there because I overbroke for the first part [an uphill right-hand sweeper] and am too slow, so I have to accelerate up to brake for the Oak Tree [a first gear hard right leading onto a 7/8-mile downhill-uphill-downhill-flat straightaway. Lowther's bumps have been smoothed out.].

"It's just such a tough course to get right that I struggle with it. And then there's the straightaway. Now there I'm very good and I get it right almost every lap.

The author explains it all Andy Wallace and Elliott Forbes-Robinson; yeah, right..
Photo by Victor Newman.
"At the end of that, you come down the hill and you have to brake down into a brow-blind left sweeper where the car gets light. You lose a little bit of your braking. The car gets loose in the back as you crest the hill and you have to chase after it get it slowed down enough to make that right hander at the end of the straight there, which if you pull off that one and go for the gas too soon, then again you can't take the next left flat.

"But if you do it right, it rewards you by making that next one a wide open corner and that gets you good speed down the hill. Then, as you come down the hill again, you have the left hander coming up there and if you don't take it right, get the apex right, you're going to mess up the downhill right-hand sweeper [dubbed Hog Pen from a previous farm structure that was a fixture of the old track. Again, Lowther's drop-off is no more] and you're not going to come out on the straight fast.

"So you've got to get it right to get the throttle on early. But once you do that, the rest of the corner is a breeze and it is more fun to come around there and really carry some speed down the straightaway. You can see the difference when you really do that one right and the whole section right because you'll gain three or four carlengths on somebody, and it's a joy to do that.

"Then you come on down the straight -- and even the straight has a turn [a right kink] you can mess up in the middle of the straight. Come to think of it, why's it even called a straight when you've got a turn you can mess up right in the middle of it coming by the tree at start/finish line.

"But it's one of my favorite tracks in the whole country. It's probably the fastest technical track there is, because when you take a look at the Esses here, we're doing over 160mph at the top of the Esses in the DP, and you're pulling Gs that are pretty incredible because you're loaded very heavily there.

"When I was here in the [ALMS LMP1] Dyson car, we went up over that hill and we actually had to work on the power steering pumps because it loaded the car so heavily the power steering started to lock up. So we had to put some more pressure in the power steering because that's how hard it loads the car going up the top. The current cars Dyson is running actually were doing over 175mph at the top of the hill on the computer, which is just incredible and it's flat too for that car through there."

So coaxing a CM Genie Ford in 1964 or a DP Pontiac-Crawford in 2005 around VIR is an exercise in constant vigilance at speeds that command the full attention of top racecar drivers, then and now.

The Daytona Prototypes will be out in full force for the VIR 400, October 7-9. Advance sale three-day super tickets are 50 bucks (www.virclub.com). Now that you know what to look for, check out these viewing locations: <ul> <li> Next to the TV compound just to the left of the drive-over bridge gives the best view of the blazing fast Climbing Esses; <li> From the South Paddock you can see from the top of the Climbing Esses, through the Oak Tree and down the backstraight -- over a mile and a half of racetrack; <li> From the end of the backstraight or from the west of the false grid provides a great look at the downhill run to the front straight; <li> Along the fence from the skid pad to the drive-over bridge is an elevated vista for viewing a number of very technical corners from NASCAR through the Snake. </ul>

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