Queen of Speed

How one racy woman took Virginia International Raceway from cow pasture to premier motorsports resort.

Dan Vaden

We thought if we could get a track that was built when sex was safe and racing was dangerous that it would have a lot more character and a lot more history,” says Virginia International Raceway co-founder and Martinsville native Connie Nyholm of her decision to re-open the then-defunct racetrack in 1988 with business partner Harvey Siegel.

Nyholm, who had built a successful real estate company in New York before returning to Southside Virginia, had never set foot on a racetrack nor even seen a race before surveying VIR’s 1,200-acre lot, which had become a weed-infested eyesore since the track’s closure in 1974. But her real estate developer’s instinct kicked in, and she saw that they could not only turn the spot into a premier racing destination, but also a luxurious resort.

“We’ve done most of everything we’ve envisioned and then some,” says Nyholm, 54. Then some includes two high-tech automotive laboratories built onsite by Virginia Tech and General Motors. The rest—two hotels, villas, children’s play area, restaurant, skeet range and luxurious spa—were part of Nyholm’s original vision for the property. “We built it as an all-inclusive resort, but we built it around race courses instead of golf courses.”

VIR’s “long straights, elevation changes, and a combination of slow, fast, and, scary-fast corners test a car’s capabilities better than any other track in North America,” according to Car and Driver magazine. This fall, VIR will host numerous events, including the Heacock Classic Gold Cup (Sept. 27-29) and the American Le Mans Series (Oct. 2-5). VIR features six different road course configurations, and cars will often run on two courses at the same time.

“Fans can actually go down to where the big rigs are parked, and watch the crews and be close to the drivers right there in the paddock and garage area,” says Nyholm.

If you go, bring lawn chairs and walking shoes. Bleachers are provided, but seating is unassigned. Tailgating is encouraged, but if you’re after a more posh place to sate your race day appetite, Connie’s Pub at the property’s Oak Tree Tavern hotel may be the spot for you. How does it feel to have a pub named after you? “Well, I am their best customer,” says Nyholm, “so it’s pretty fine.”

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