Sports car driver Sam Barnett stands in front of the VIRginia International Raceway Mazda pace car. (Photo by Nicole Cohen)
Richmond has short track racing, but to experience sports car racing at its finest, a day trip to VIRginia International Raceway in Alton is a must. The Michelin GT Challenge, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season’s largest race, kicks off Aug. 26. On that weekend, the historic track that's just 2 1/2 hours away from Richmond will host a slew of family-friendly activities. This is in addition to practice, qualifying and multiple support series races leading up to the main race on Sunday, Aug. 28.
Racing sports cars parked at Stone Brewing as a preview for the upcoming Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway. (Photo by Nicole Cohen)
A promotional event was held at Stone Brewing Monday night, where attendees got up-close and personal with some of the racing sports cars and meet several members of the VIR staff including the owner and chief executive officer, Connie Nyholm, and chief operating officers, Sandie Currie and Kerrigan Smith.
Sam Barnett also appeared, driver of the No. 6 Mazda MX-5 car. He’s been racing sports cars for 10 years and at the age of 37, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Born in Reno, Nevada, but raised in Charlottesville from the age of 9, Barnett says he has no interest in racing anything but sports cars. “I have a passion for driving cars on the racetrack that are similar to the cars that you drive on the street. I always wanted to take that car that I drove when I was a teenager and take that car out on the racetrack,” he says. “So this series in particular, I happen to drive this same car on the street too. So I drive a 2016 Mazda MX-5 on the street and [the racing version] on the racetrack.”
The IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is the premier sports car racing series in the United States. It is the result of a merger between two existing sports car racing series, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series. Due to this merger and rebranding, this year’s season follows a brand new model, making it a new experience for fans, drivers and the tracks themselves. In fact, VIR is the only track featuring this series in the greater Mid-Atlantic area and the 10th stop of only 12 tracks in the nation selected to host the championship in 2016. In addition, the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR will feature GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes and it is the only IMSA race of the year featuring GT cars exclusively.
“This race has really helped separate us as one of the top road courses in the country,” says VIR's marketing director Mike Rose.
Barnett is currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina, but considers VIR his home track. You would think that would give him a little bit of an advantage come Aug. 28, however he says in addition to the Michelin GT Challenge being a new experience for all involved, they’re also currently repaving the VIR track. “So the little bumps, nuances that you may have seen before, the different grip — everything is reset so everyone’s going to be stuck trying to figure it out at the same time. Which actually adds to the idea of trying to keep a level playing field, because it’s new for everybody,” he says. Car modifications are also strictly monitored and regulated by the IMSA to ensure a level playing field and fairness.
For fans or those who have never experienced a sports car race before, heading to VIR is a great way to get acquainted with the sport. The track itself consists of five configurations ranging from 1.1 miles to 4.20 miles, which also means multiple races can occur at the same time on the different sections. The Aug. 28 Michelin GT Challenge consists of 3.27 miles, 17 turns and 130 feet of elevation changes. And to top off a day trip or weekend trip, the 1,300-acre track complex itself is equipped with onsite lodging, seven shooting ranges, a Kart Track for ages 12 and up, a spa, two onsite restaurants, two viewing paddocks with amenities, and more.
VIR is located at 1245 Pine Tree Road, Alton. Tickets for the Michelin GT Challenge IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship cost $40-$75. 434-822-7700 or virnow.com.