Editor's note: This is another in our “RACER fan diary” series, where race fans will submit a selection of photos and words to capture the atmosphere and ambiance of a race weekend beyond the classic “who won, who lost and who stood out.” Tom Welfle,on Twitter at @DysonFan, is back for another installment after doing one at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in July to now survey the American Le Mans Series' first trip to Virginia International Raceway.
When the four-hour American Le Mans Series race at Virginia International Raceway was originally announced, it immediately topped my list of races to attend this year. Known for being a long, fast and flowing track, not to mention a gorgeous facility, VIR did not disappoint.
I have to admit, we were a little concerned upon arrival. VIR isn't like any other circuit I've visited. Most circuits have a main gate that represents what it is…a racetrack. Meanwhile, VIR has an entrance that resembles a state park, or a high-end campsite. However, there were plenty of staff at the front entrance, all very helpful.
Once in the track, it's very easy to forget where you are. A paved three-lane road leads in either direction. At this point, the track is nowhere in sight. As we were unfamiliar with the facility, and all stupid enough to have not printed off a track map, we decided to drive around the track and explore. Plantation-style buildings and well-manicured turf aren't usually what comes to mind when you think of places to watch cars go fast. We drove by the Snake section (between Turn 6 and Turn 7) over the bridge and into the North Paddock. Not seeing an enticing spot to set up our tent, we backtracked down the road to the other side of the circuit.
After emerging from the forest that separates the track from the circuit's main road, we saw the familiar Oak Tree. The road wraps around the outside and leads toward the back straight and the second pit lane (VIR has many different track configurations – ALMS used the 3.27-mile Full Course). Two sets of grandstands, a food truck, showers, and washrooms are all found here. It seemed like a great place to set up camp. We were still somewhat unsure of the track, however, as it didn't seem as fan-friendly as, say, Road Atlanta. We weren't too sure of what to expect about our choice of campsite. But fortunately, any concerns we had were quickly alleviated, and VIR was there to take care of us.
We were originally worried about the distance to the paddock, or access to the rest of the track, but VIR had us covered. With three trams shuttling fans from the Oak Tree to the North Paddock, the track made it incredibly easy to get around. Fears over sightlines were quickly dispelled, too. The track is situated lower than the spectators in many areas, which provides you a large field of view. Where the track isn't lower, elevation changes, or clearings in the track (due to other track layouts) make up the difference.
SPECTATOR OR PHOTOGRAPHER?
The Oak Tree turn (Turn 11) is spectacular. The 100-plus-year-old tree makes for a stunning setting; one of the coolest sights I've seen at any track. From the grandstands at the apex or exit, your field of view is huge. The ALMS cars really did suit this track, looking like they were defying physics on exit from the Climbing Esses (Turn 9) and approaching Oak Tree. When the light got low, this was a great place for photos – the grandstands were filled with would-be race photogs.
Inside Turn 5 gives you a view of the end of the front straight, Turns 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and into 6. It's also a great place for pictures if you are tall enough that the fence doesn't destroy your shooting line, or the bottom of your lens. Apparently, I pan a little too violently… the fence ate the bottom of my lens.
Off the beaten path, back toward the middle of the North Paddock, you will find Family Camping. Surprisingly, this is one of the best places to watch and you almost have to ask why it's seemingly hidden? This gives access to the section of track called “roller coaster.” It's a fitting name, as just watching the cars take this fast downhill section of lefts and rights, was enough for me to hope the drivers had sick bags.
The most awe-inspiring view is counterpart to the “roller coaster.” The climbing esses are spectacular. When the LMP cars were alone, you were able to hear that they were truly flat-out. Drivers had their feet buried as far into the floor as the tub would allow, while shooting left and right. The speed at which they move side to side on the circuit is mind boggling. The GT cars were no less impressive, lifting only slightly if at all.
FACILITIES AND GRUB
The bathrooms were some of the best I've seen at a track; however, we did camp on the less-busy side of the track which obviously results in lighter use. The cleaning, security, and track staff were always around making sure everyone was enjoying their time and the track was at its best.
Track food seemed overpriced ($9 hamburgers), but from what it looked like, portions were decent. We decided to go with the vendors that were located in the trees next to the Pagoda in the North Paddock. We found the selection of items to be wide-ranging between the track food and vendors – from a burger and fries, to chicken fried rice and spring rolls.
Our initial impressions of VIR were uncertain. However, it worked hard throughout the entire weekend to change our minds. VIR has a lot to offer, and comes across as a truly world class facility. It lent itself well to the professionalism and on-track product of the ALMS. With incredible sight lines, facilities, staff and stunning surroundings, there isn't much to not like. We'll be back, VIR. You truly showed us that first impressions aren't everything.