I’ve been camping at VIR since the track reopened in the summer of 2000, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world. I’m not alone. Actor, philanthropist, and racer Paul Newman famously stated, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is VIR.”.
Virginia International Raceway, a former dairy farm located in Alton, Virginia is a tiny speck on the map in the rolling hills bordering North Carolina. In the early 2000’s I was a frequent visitor and camper at VIR, covering a variety of events, including my favorites – the Ferrari Challenge and the annual AMA Superbike double header for Octane Magazine. Though neither of those events are currently running at VIR, the 2016 spectator calendar offers a good variety of races to watch.
This year was also special for me because my 8-year-old son, Alex, was excited to see his first race, and to go camping outside of our back yard. It was an amazing opportunity to share a special experience with my little buddy.
Back in May we stuffed our 68 Mustang coupe full of camping gear and hit the road to VIR for the Wisko Grand Prix. I wasn’t sure if the races would hold his attention all weekend, or if camping would maintain its allure away from the conveniences of home. We kept things simple for our first trip to the track; just one night, low key event, basic gear, no cooking. We brought some snacks with us, ate a simple packaged breakfast, then had lunch at the VIR concession stand and dinner at Aunt Millies, a great little pizza joint just over the state line in nearby Milton, NC. We watched the races, walked the paddock, relaxed at our camp, and had a great time.
Since our first racetrack camping trip was such a success, we looked at the event calendar for a follow up event and bought tickets to the IMSA Sportscar Championship in August. With our Jaguar XJ8 packed to the headliner we set out for three days and two nights with full camping gear for the complete camping experience.
IMSA weekend is VIR’s big spectator event this season, so by Friday afternoon most of the prime camping spots were spoken for. VIR is a big beautiful facility though, with several nice dedicated camping areas, both clear and wooded. We picked a flat spot with no exposed roots in the trees near the pond, behind the Ferrari prancing horse statue, and set up camp.
Weather can be unpredictable in this region in late August with potential for severe temperature fluctuations overnight, so I came prepared. Or so I thought. We weren’t going to need the sweatshirts and extra sleeping bags I brought in case the mercury dropped, but we were looking forward to running some fans off the generator I picked up on sale at Harbor Freight earlier in the week. Unfortunately, the little Storm Cat Harbor Freight generator only ran for about 12 minutes before it vibrated its recoil handle off, sucked the coil rope into the flywheel, and ate the plastic arm that grabs the flywheel when you pull the rope. No more electricity. No more fans. How do you know your 8-year-old is having the time of his life? When it’s a humid 96 degrees at eleven o’clock PM, you’re both sweating bullets, and he’s still thrilled to be there. The bullfrogs eventually sang us to sleep, and with the tent canopy removed for maximum airflow we opened our eyes to blue mountain skies and the rhythmic thrum of race engines warming up in the paddock across the pond.
Saturday morning began Alex’s full camping experience with pepper, onion, and cheese omelets with bacon cooked on our trusty old Coleman camp stove. I forgot to pack plates, so we ate our eggs out of a red solo cup, and lined another cup with paper towels to absorb the bacon grease. Half the fun of camping is necessary improvisation, and Alex got a crash course. After some spectating we ran back to camp for another campground staple – hot dogs. We boiled up a pot of water and prepared some Cup ‘O Noodles to complement the dogs, then hit the bleachers for more wheel to wheel action. We shared dinner with our buddies, the Torres brothers, who were camped out with us – burgers and teriyaki chicken with fresh raw snap peas. Meat is a staple of a male run campsite, but a growing boy and his aging Dad need their veggies. Nightfall brought smores over the charcoal grill and cards by the light of an old gas lantern.
With Sunday morning came another 8am alarm of cylinders barking to life, more food, more racing, and more to see. An event of this size draws sponsors and vendors, many of which are generous with their promotional swag. Michelin and Continental Tires were both major sponsors, both giving away hats and trinkets. Alex proudly switched between Michelin and Continental hats, wondering aloud about the superiorities of each brand of tire on our way to the paddock for the driver autograph signing. We also ran into my old buddy Tom who gave Alex a few Hot Wheels cars to get autographed. Add to that a stack of free posters and t-shirts provided by race teams and sponsors, all signed by the race drivers we’ve been watching battle on the track all weekend, and an opportunity to get a close-up look and photos with the race cars. Pretty cool.
By Sunday afternoon he was torn – sun tired and ready to go home and tell Mama about our adventures, but still having fun and wanting to camp another night. We made some great memories at VIR, and hopefully created a new tradition. Maybe next year we’ll see you down by the pond.