Virginia International Raceway – May 20-22, 2011

I left Lexington, OH at 7:15 AM on May 16, expecting to arrive at Danville, VA around 4:00 PM. The temperature when I left was a chilly, damp 6 C. There was a group with 3 Balls Racing who were running at Mid-Ohio that day and they would not have a very good time if it stayed that way. I had met one of their guys in the parking lot the night before and commiserated about the weather.

All I had were the Mapquest directions, since I couldn’t find a map of the eastern US anywhere. Once again, I had lots of time since I would only be going to my hotel, not the track. There was a motorcycle event all week at VIR, so I had to kill at least three days before going to the track. One of the things I needed to do was go to South Boston to get more race fuel. The other thing I planned to do was call my good friend Denise in the Winston-Salem area and possibly arrange a visit.

The trip across Ohio was predictably boring and damp, with continuous drizzle all the way. Things got a lot more interesting in West Virginia, because of the terrain. Everywhere I looked there were more hills – good size hills, jammed very close together and covered with forests. The Appalachians, I guess. I don’t know where anyone lives or works in WV, since every valley was occupied by either a road or a river! I77 from Charleston, WV southwards was like a four-lane Tail of the Dragon; twisty and very hilly, with virtually no service or rest areas. There’s no place flat enough!

Leaving WV you pass through the East River Mountain tunnel – which is about a mile long – to enter Virginia. A few miles later, you go through the Big Walker Mountain tunnel, which is about a half mile long. I can only imagine the roads those tunnels replaced. Later in VA I crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway. At the summit, there were some homes with spectacular views – both north and south. As I started down, I saw several warning signs for 6 miles of 9% grade. The brakes had better be good. About halfway down there were 2-3 signs for an upcoming runaway truck lane. By the time any runaway truck reached that lane, it would already have crashed a dozen times! The road was a continuous series of 30 mph switchbacks that no runaway could have navigated. At one point there was a lay-by with an unbelievable view to the north, but I couldn’t stop for a picture because it was on the westbound side with oncoming traffic. There was a second runaway lane, but it was downhill! Unlike any I’ve seen in the Rockies, that’s for sure.

I passed my first sighting of a BB&T branch – Clint Bowyer’s Nascar sponsor – but I don’t really know what they are – a bank and trust I suppose. I took the by-pass at Martinsville, which loops around the south end of town. You can see the Speedway grandstands briefly from the highway. I arrived at the Super 8 in Danville about 5 o’clock, delayed mainly by the huge hills I had to climb, at speeds that dropped to 60 km/h at times. I checked the fuel consumption during one such effort and it was 44 L/100 km! In Danville it was a blessed 23 C, more like the month of May I love. Time for snacks, reading, e-mail and sleep.

Tuesday morning I tried to sleep in but was up about 7:30. I grabbed some breakfast next door at Burger King and drove to VIR, about half an hour away, without needing directions or a map. At the gate I told the man on duty that I wanted to establish a pit presence to work on the car and to leave it there all week. He looked puzzled but checked with the girl in the office whom I’d spoken to about camping and got her approval. So I trailered into the north paddock and set up shop at the far west end, well away from the bikers who were using the track. After unloading, I began a series of checks, namely, brake pad thickness, torque on the half shaft joints, wheel nut torque and tightness of the locking pin in the shift linkage.

At this point I decided to drive to South Boston to get some more VP Race Fuel at the agent I had learned about before coming. However, when I found the place, it had a small notice on the front door saying they would be closed until Wednesday. Honestly, the place looked as if it was already out of business! So I turned around and headed back towards Danville, stopping to buy gas for the truck, a map and a sandwich along the way. I also began looking for Shell gas stations so I could replenish my stock of V-power 91 octane. Unfortunately, it looks as though Shell has no presence in the heart of Nascar country – there are no stations in the area. This was confirmed by the owner of the NAPA store where I  stopped to buy a bolt for the jack handle, which had somehow slipped out. While I was there, I spent an extra $36 to buy an air pressure “pig”, which will be much more convenient that the 12 volt pump I’ve been plugging into the cigarette lighter.

I went back to the track and ate my lunch. Then I warmed up the car and drove over to the gas pumps they have. Although their 100 octane unleaded race fuel has less than 10% ethanol, I figured one tank full wouldn’t kill the car. Especially since it was “only” $7.70 per gallon, compared to $3.70 per gallon for 87 octane at most stations. That’s a lot cheaper than $5.50 per litre for VP 109 unleaded! And I won’t have to mix it. I drove back to my pit and checked the ignition timing, to be sure it was still at 32 degrees BTDC when warm – it was. On my way out I stopped at the VIR Store and bought myself a T shirt and green coffee mug, to add to my collection. All chores having been attended to, I drove back to Danville and visited the Dollar General again (another Nascar sponsor) for some more milk and cookies. Then I went to Wal-Mart for a new pair of jeans, since these seem to be wearing out from over-use. I should have taken a camera J to capture on film some of the outrageous people I saw there. I subsequently ordered a replacement speedometer sensor from Pelican Parts, so I could keep track of cumulative kilometres and speeds.

On Wednesday, I had nothing specific planned, so I looked around for a Denny’s to have a big breakfast, but had to settle for McDonalds again. After that I went to the track to check on the car and trailer. They were exactly as I’d left them, so I just did a quick nut and bolt check on the top of the engine, replacing a missing small bolt on the fiberglass engine cover. Then I ran the engine for a few minutes and everything was fine. I phoned my good Fiat friend Denise and arranged to visit her home around one o’clock, which is a 90 minute drive from Danville. The weather was partially clear and warming up slightly, so things were starting to look good for the weekend.

I left the hotel a little before 11:30 and followed Highway 29 (Business) through Danville, paralleling the famous Danville Train lines for quite a while, but I didn’t see a train or museum. South of town I crossed into North Carolina and picked up Highway 158 West, which would take me almost to Denise’s door. Along the way I stopped in Stokesdale and had a nice Subway lunch, and subsequently arrived at her house a few minutes before one. She immediately gave me a tour of the go-kart parts business, the go-kart race shop (6 karts), the wood shop where their business of making high quality walls, columns and flooring for PGA hospitality tents is centred, her Fiat garage and the other garages and trailers. They built the house themselves at the end of a lane, on land his father had owned and where a number of family members live. It’s in beautiful rolling countryside, just a few miles northeast of Winston-Salem. I met Denise’s youngest daughter – who also races go-karts at age 12 – and we went to W-S to pick up her 14 year old daughter who hates racing, but loves Canada and Canadians. We hit it off right away. By the time got back it was time for me to leave for Danville. We had a nice visit and will see each other at Fiat FreakOut in Nashville this summer. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped and got more snack food, plus a stiff wire brush to use on the spark plugs.

Thursday morning and the waiting was almost over. I grabbed some coffee and went looking for a Best Buy, thinking I might find a good deal on a better laptop. The internet at the hotel was down, so I couldn’t look it up. I went to a large sprawl of shopping centres in the north end, but had no luck. I decided to go to the track to clean the spark plugs and move the car and trailer closer to the admin and tech buildings. The California Superbike school was still there, but they take up so little space in the paddock that I was able to move much closer without coming close to being in their way. After cleaning the plugs and moving my gear, I watched the bikes for a few minutes before leaving. They were still in learning mode, so the speeds weren’t nearly at their full potential, but it was interesting to watch their lines through Turns 2 to 5 from the patio. It was only 10:30, so I decided to head back to the hotel to recharge both my phone and my video camera, which I had neglected to do before leaving Ohio.

While things were recharging, I decided to go back to the main shopping centre area to explore the Target store. I had never been to one before and was curious about how it compares to other chains. It’s basically very similar to Wal-Mart, but the displays are all red and white and the people are a bit more normal looking. They didn’t have any deals on laptops or other electronics, so I didn’t stay long. Since it was a beautiful day, I decided to go to the track early and relax there, rather than stay cooped up in the hotel. By the time I picked up some lunch and bottled water, it was about 1:30 when I arrived. I washed the car and put my helmet into it for the tech line, then relaxed in the shade of the restaurant’s patio to kill a few hours with my book. At one point I wandered over to the garages overlooking the front straight and went upstairs to the balcony to watch the bikers fly by. You can get a really good view of parts of the Hog Pen from up there, which provides a different perspective than you get in the car.

Eventually 5 o’clock rolled around and the main gates were opened, resulting in a steady stream of cars and trailers into the paddock. There were something like 190 entrants, so it would be a full house. After a few minutes Christian arrived and we hooked up for registration and the tech line. We then agreed to have supper together with his mother, whom he is bringing back from her winter in Florida. Their hotel recommended the Outback steakhouse, which is located near Target, so I led the way. We had an enjoyable meal and talked about all kinds of things, mostly car related of course. We agreed to meet at the track by 7 AM so we could change Christian’s brake pads before taking to the track, since they’re badly worn.  So it turned into a fairly early night for me.

Friday morning arrived fairly quickly, since I got up a few minutes before 6 so I could get to the track early. By 7 I was there and Christian arrived moments later. We immediately started to replace all of his brake pads and hit a snag right away. To jack his Cadillac CTS-V, you have to use either the frame rails or the control arms, which are well under the car. And the car sits very low, so it’s not possible to get a jack far enough in there to use it correctly. To create more clearance we drove the car a few feet onto the ramps of my trailer, which solved the problem. The job went pretty smoothly and we finished it well before our first stint at 9:15, including time off for the drivers’ meeting.

The first stint didn’t go as smoothly. We barely got lined up in the staging lane when the stint was aborted. Apparently a corner worker had a heart attack or some other kind of medical event and they said they would bring a helicopter in to take him to hospital. In fact, they took him in the track’s only ambulance, so the track was closed for close to an hour as a result. When we finally got going again, it only lasted a couple of laps before we were all brought in because a driver of a BMW had his steering wheel come off, with disastrous consequences. He hit a wall somewhere and badly crushed the front of the car – but he was not injured. We finally got a stint in before stopping for something to eat, although they had cancelled the lunch break so we could get back on schedule. I remembered the line all right, but was a little ragged on some of the details. I missed a few braking points and was entering the climbing esses too fast, which makes them seriously more challenging. I was also a little uncomfortable on the front straight, because the car was floating a bit – that straight is a little off-camber for drainage purposes and it was a little unsettling to feel the car wandering to left as the track went right. The solution for that was simply to stay in the throttle, to keep the car more firmly planted.

Part way through the day, Christian and I were talking about our interests, families, etc. He told me that his wife (Veronique), works at Export Development Canada – the same place where my oldest son Michael works. I phoned Mike and confirmed that they actually know one another! Small world – again.

About mid-afternoon we had our third and final stint, but once more there was an incident that interfered with it. Someone blew an engine on the front straight and dumped oil for several hundred yards near pit-out. It took about 15 minutes to clean that up, so our on-track time was shortened somewhat. However, by now I was getting into a rhythm and feeling more comfortable, so it was quite enjoyable. I still need to review the videos to check lap times and my line, but I think I was improving. Without a working speedometer, I don’t know my maximum speeds on the long back straight, but I was using fifth gear and pushing 5000 rpm before braking. I would guess I was doing about 190 km/h. I made a big mistake when the guy blew his motor though – I didn’t see three black flags as I drove past them! I got and deserved a reprimand in the pit lane. I guess I was just too focused on the track. It won’t happen again. Now it’s time for a shower before joining Christian, his mother and another friend from Calabogie – Benoit – for a nice Japanese supper.

Saturday was another great day at the track. The weather was clear, sunny and increasingly hot as the day wore on – the temperature reached 30 C. The track was in excellent shape and we all felt much more confident and familiar with the task at hand. Christian, Benoit and I had hooked up in the paddock with two brothers – Erik and Chris – one from Ohio and the other from Virginia Beach, who both drove 944 Turbos. We spent a lot of time enjoying the shade of their portable canopy and chatting about many different things.

The day was not without incidents, though. In the first stint, I was following a BMW M Coupe (Z4) into Turn 3, when he unexpectedly went deep into the corner and blue/gray smoke started pouring out of his exhaust pipe. He pulled off line and got around Turn 4 so he could pull off the track near a marshal’s stand. A little later in the same stint, another BMW – this one a 3 series coupe – put two wheels in the grass on track right approaching Oak Tree. He tried to bring the car back on track and immediately spun and hit the tire wall on driver’s left. So two more BMW’s had been lost! Fortunately, neither incident caused a delay longer than a local yellow and the rest of the day was incident-free.

I had three really good stints and I shot a good video during the second one which should show a pretty quick lap time – probably a 2:42. I feel quite confident that I was hitting 200 km/h on the back straight, since I was seeing 5000 rpm in fifth gear before braking for Turn 14. The car ran absolutely perfectly and all of the vital signs were very safe. I was impressed with the car’s power, as well – I was able to pull away from Boxsters, pass another older 911 and have a good drag race with a newer Carrera 2 on the back straight. In the afternoon stint, a newer Carrera spun in front of me exiting Turn 1, but he only put two wheels off and was able to recover without holding me up very much. There was a minor nuisance of sorts, with a bright yellow 914 that had a 3.6 Carrera engine and open megaphone pipes. It was horribly loud and actually pulsed my ears noticeably as it passed and pulled away. I was glad to see the last of it once it passed. At the end of the day, we got cleaned up and congregated at Christian’s hotel and sat around the pool with a beer for a while, before going to Ruby Tuesday’s for a pretty good supper.

The third and final day at VIR was outstanding. It started off a little cool and overcast, but quickly cleared by mid-morning and became very hot – about 33 C in the afternoon. The track conditions were ideal and we only lost one (more) BMW – a 3 series coupe in later afternoon, with some kind of mechanical problem. We had three good stints with a long break between the second and third due to Sunday noise restrictions, so I finished around 4 o’clock. Christian and Benoit left for home at one o’clock, so they could arrive the same night. But Erik, Chris and I stayed until the bitter end and then had a beer in the shade of Chris’s pop-up tent. I may have to get one of those for the really hot days ahead. Erik and I exchanged business cards so we can keep in touch, particularly if they decide to try our Canadian tracks.

During the run we had around noon hour, I got Christian to stay behind me as we exited Oak Tree and accelerated up the long back straight, so he could check my maximum speed before braking for Turn 14. Afterwards he told me that I’d peaked at 190 km/h on his Cadillac’s speedometer, which I have to take as accurate. It’s certainly fast enough in this old car! Needless to say, I pointed him by on the front straight and he disappeared. I was very happy with virtually all of my laps, making only a couple of tiny errors which didn’t have any negative consequences. The car ran perfectly, although with the extremely high ambient temperature, the oil temp reached 115 C, causing me to pit a lap or two early as a precaution. I probably could have changed the jets and spark plugs to compensate for the heat, but couldn’t be bothered for the sake of the one remaining stint. And, the engine used almost no oil over the three days. I am very satisfied.

I had planned to take two days for the 1250 km drive home, to relax and enjoy the scenery and maintain a reasonable pace for fuel economy. My first stop would be Carlisle, PA where they have the famous antique car show, but it’s not this weekend, so I’ve missed it. Actually, when I got to Carlisle it was only 1:30, so I decided to press on. I got home around 10 PM (15 hours) after a 50 minute delay at the border. The total trip had been 3850 km at an average fuel consumption of 18.8 L/100 km – not bad at all, considering the mountains I had to climb. What a great trip!

Video is available at:

Photos are at:

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