Chasing the Dream

Speed is always in style when vintage sportscars hit the track at Virginia International Raceway in Alton.

Danny Marshall on the track at Virginia International Raceway.

Photo by Patrick Tremblay

Connie Nyholm had chased Harvey Siegel for years. In 2005, she finally caught him. At Virginia International Raceway’s Oak Tree turn, she edged her 1972 Datsun 510 past his British-made Elva Courier. It was the first time she had ever passed him on a racetrack.

“I was absolutely ecstatic,” says Nyholm. “But as I’m passing him, he reaches out and points me by.” This is not a required move in racing, but indicates to other drivers you’re aware they’re making a pass. It can also signal that you’re letting them win—something Nyholm did not appreciate.

“I got into the paddock, and there was Harvey in his driver’s suit,” she explains. “I pulled up and jumped out just hopping mad. I yelled at him, ‘How could you point me by?! You know I’ve been trying to get that legitimate pass all this time!’”

Siegel replied simply, “Mechanical failure.”

Says Nyholm, “He just sandbagged me because he didn’t want me to beat him. But I passed him many more times after that, so eventually he had to give in.”

Nyholm, 57, is the owner and CEO of Virginia International Raceway (VIR) in Alton, near Danville; Siegel, 82, is her business partner. Together, in 1998, they began renovating the then-derelict and overgrown track—which was first opened in 1957 but had been shuttered since 1974—rebuilding it into a racetrack complex and resort that reopened in 2000.

Today, VIR hosts about 10 amateur and pro race weekends each year for both sports cars and motorcyles, as well as vintage racing events like the one Nyholm and Siegel competed in. This year, VIR will host two vintage events: a Historic Sportscar Racing meet June 3 & 4 and the Heacock Classic Historic Gold Cup Races Sept. 23 & 24.

Vintage racing’s unofficial motto says “the cars are the stars.” All events are open paddock, so spectators can walk right up to the cars, meet the drivers, and watch race preparations in action.

“In most professional motorsports, there’s no way fans could have this much access,” says Tony Parella, president of the Southlake, Texas-based Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA), organizer of September’s Heacock Classic. “It’s the most fan-friendly version of motorsports out there.” SVRA and Clearwater, Florida-based Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) organize most of the nearly 50 races in the U.S. each year.

Races are divided into classes by the size, power and year of the cars involved, and can attract as many as 40,000 spectators says James Redman, HSR general manager. This is the product of explosive growth in the sport in recent years. In 2012, Parella says SVRA hosted just five events: In 2017, it will host 15 (HSR will host 9). And 51 percent of SVRA’s revenue comes from ticket sales and sponsorships, adds Parella, up from less than one percent five years ago.

Lee Buckner skidded through the hogpen, gaining on the car ahead of his 1968 Mustang Fastback. (The final turn before the finish line at VIR, “hogpen” refers to the land’s previous use as a farm.) “He had more horsepower than me, but I was coming out faster than he was just because I knew the track better. He had the power, but I had the momentum,” says Buckner. “I was gaining. I was trying to hold off another competitor behind me. I knew I could catch him. But I didn’t catch him—I just ran out of track. He won the race, and I came in second.”

Buckner, 52, and his wife Robin, 53, of Powhatan, are both drivers. When the pair married in 2006, Lee’s wedding gift to Robin was a 1970 Chevrolet Camaro. After years of attending car shows, Robin had had enough. She gave Lee an ultimatum: “We’re going racing. I can’t sit at another car show.” So she bought Lee a gift; a day at VIR, where he spent time practicing and learning from coaches with a small group of other aspiring drivers.

The Buckners rebuilt their cars from the ground up (they do all the mechanical work themselves), painting the Mustang black with a gold stripe, and the Camaro cherry red. Soon they were racing in as many events as they could find. Says Robin, “We have cars that are meant to be driven, let’s go drive them.”

Handling an old car is a world apart from driving a new one. For starters, there is no power steering or traction control, and there are no anti-lock brakes—none of the million refinements that have gone into modern automotive technology. “Sometimes it’s more like trying to hustle a tractor around the track,” says Lee Buckner. And driving, he says, is “more violent, louder, intense” than in a newer car—but that’s part of the challenge, and the appeal.

So which Buckner is the better driver? The pair hesitates briefly: “She’s smoother,” says Lee. “He’s faster,” says Robin.

Some years ago, Danny Marshall says he looked to his left while guiding his 1958 Porsche Speedster through VIR’s uphill S-turns. A car was passing him—a car he didn’t recognize. “They were passing me in a Cobra, and I was surprised. I had never seen anybody passing in that spot before.” He would discover the mystery racer’s identity after the race—legendary professional driver Bob Bondurant, in town to experience the then newly-reopened VIR for himself.

Marshall, 65, knows VIR. He grew up in Danville; attended the first sports car race ever at the track in 1957 with his father; and even worked pumping gas and painting fences there during high school. Now a Virginia State Delegate from the 14th District, Marshall started racing vintage cars in the 1980s, became a professional driver in 1998 and competed on the pro circuit for nearly 15 years before returning to his roots in vintage.

In vintage racing, which is a form of road racing, the course twists and turns through the landscape, forcing drivers to accelerate and decelerate much more often than on a traditional oval track. “I tease NASCAR guys all the time,” says Marshall, “they just turn left, we turn left and right.” It’s an endeavor that requires an intimate knowledge of the track, plus plenty of strategy. And resources—it can take tens of thousands of dollars to make an old car race-ready, and the most sought-after models can be valued in the millions of dollars. Because drivers are paying their own bills, there’s not much of an appetite for the type of aggressive bumping that wrecks cars—one of the greatest compliments one can receive is to be called a “gentleman driver.” 

David Hinton, owner and president of Historic Sportscar Racing.

Photo by Patrick Tremblay

The cars might be the stars, but people stay in the sport for the community. Groups of family drivers, like the Buckners, are not uncommon. Many of their cars have special meaning—the make and model a driver grew up in, or that parents drove—and so they are happy to reminisce with fans wandering through the paddock.

Those who compete often come to know each other well, and share a special bond. “It’s very competitive, but it’s friendly competition. There’s always a party,” says Nyholm. “It’s about reconnecting with friends and telling your race stories. Everyone sits around and tells lies about their timesheets.”

Even after returning to vintage racing after more than a decade in the pro ranks, Danny Marshall says he still felt part of the family: “It’s almost like coming home.” 

This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.

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