The growling hum of supercharged V8 engines shatters the peace of a secluded farm near the Virginia-North Carolina border. At regular intervals, the howls of wide-open throttles echo between the various red barn-style buildings scattered about the rolling pasture land that is equal parts Camptown Races and American Graffiti .
In spite of its secluded, bucolic setting near Alton, the sprawling grounds of the Virginia International Raceway don't offer tranquility — and pilgrims to this place don't seek it.
The smiles of men gathered around open hoods of sports cars, jalopies, foreign rally cars and stock racers have a more than slightly predatory edge. Speed is the beast that these men seek, chasing it around a snaking four-and-a-quarter-mile-long track that is legend among motor-sports enthusiasts.
Soon, the sort of blood-boiling, fast cars that zoom around this track might just make their way to Richmond's downtown streets if a proposal to bring a Grand Prix-style race here manages to gather some speed.
"Richmond would be the perfect place to conduct a race, and it would be great for the city," says Charlie Diradour, who adds that he and others — including National Auto Sport Association Mid-Atlantic president Chris Cobetto, Venture Richmond and the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau — are in the early stages of planning for a 2013 Grand Prix-style race through Richmond's streets. "I think that it's something that could bring a lot of people to Richmond, and I'm talking 30,000 to 40,000 [people] just to watch that race."
This past July, Diradour was at the NASA-Mid Atlantic Summer Slam at VIR, an event that showcased a strange brew of amateurs and pro drivers competing at several levels in the NASA circuit. Grass-roots racing at its best.
"Dude, it's 107 degrees outside, and I'm eating meat," says a burly man named Jon Felton, with a shaved head, goatee, shades and a piece of beef jerky in his mouth. He retreats to the shade of a paddock. Felton is president of Get Fast, a Richmond-based auto-sports event promotion company that helps make the young-boy dreams of old men come true by providing high-performance driver training.
Grass-roots racing means exactly what it implies: DIY gear-heads taking everything from the family sedan to a souped-up muscle car out on a high-performance track and pushing their vehicles to the limits of performance. The favored track? One with both right and left turns.
"We've got everybody from beginners in their daily driver Hondas to professional drivers in their quarter-of-a-million-dollar race cars," says Felton, who also serves as Cobetto's right-hand man as national autocross director for NASA-Mid Atlantic, which organized the July race and would play a key part in organizing any Richmond event. He assigns a simple explanation to why fast cars fascinate: "It certainly is more fun than playing golf."
Or watching golf, for that matter. There's a reason why Diradour, a local developer and Monument Avenue resident better known for his support for a new baseball team and stadium on North Boulevard, found himself driven to Grand Prix-style racing and its local sponsor organization, NASA Mid-Atlantic. His need for speed quickly accelerated into seeing big economic potential for a Richmond race.
"We would have [amateur] support races, practicing and tuning for both support races and the big race," he says, referring to hopes of bringing a Sports Car Club of America Pro Challenge event here.
It's not quite NASCAR, or even IndyCar, but in many ways SCCA racing is even more exciting for the simple fact that it is in many ways more accessible to fans, Diradour says. "You'd get a feel for what the weekend warriors do — and the professionals, too."
In terms of how many people might turn out for such a race, Diradour could be underestimating the number, if you ask Baltimore City Councilman Bill Cole about the potential of a downtown Grand Prix-style race. In September, his city ran a three-day IndyCar event through a zig-zag course that zipped down neighborhood streets and into the heart of the Inner Harbor.
"I think it was wildly successful, and we certainly exceeded even our wildest dreams when it came to attendance," says Cole, who estimated actual attendance at 160,000 — 40,000 more than the city had envisioned. "We had a safe and successful weekend, and the city looked great on TV."
The city, he says, spent money to prepare streets for the event; somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 million, but those projects were already slated to be done and simply needed to be moved up on the calendar. In the end, he says, Baltimore made money through massively boosted hotel and food and beverage taxes. And the city will make money again next year and the year after, while the initial outlay to fix roads won't be a repeating expense.
"In the Baltimore market, we reached about 70 percent [hotel room] occupancy for the weekend," Cole says. "And it's hard to put a dollar value on the marketing that we received that weekend. Seeing positive stories about the city of Baltimore in the New York Times and USA Today ... we're not always known for the most positive stories."
Though Richmond doesn't bear the negative brand of HBO's The Wire as Baltimore does, the city could use a bit of image re-branding, most here agree. And in Diradour's estimation, what better way to do it than getting people out into the streets?
"Richmond has a reputation of being a place where people like to go to festivals — street parties downtown," he says, suggesting that a race through downtown Richmond is "not just about racing, it's about bringing people to Richmond to see what our city is all about."
Tom Campbell, chairman of SCCA Pro Racing, which is based in Kansas, says he's talked with interested parties in Richmond about the idea of a race.
"It was in the context of ‘If they build it, will [we] come?' And our answer was yes. ... We're always looking for places to run," says Campbell, whose organization does not act as promoter or organizer of such events, leaving the logistics to local planners and promoters.
"The street courses tend to be ... much livelier event[s] usually," Campbell says, ticking off a list of about a half-dozen city street courses in the country, including St. Petersburg, Fla., and Long Beach, Calif. "The community is part of it — the fans are there — and you're getting involved with the people who live there as opposed to at a prepared course like VIR where you ... hope people come out and watch you."
That said, Campbell advises that any Richmond effort needs to get on the ball soon: "There is a lot of work that has to go into [it] — a lot of planning — it's not just a matter of sitting down with a map of the city streets and saying what you think is a good course," he says. "They've got to start now, and some core of people will have to be working on it. Right now we are wrapping up our schedules for next year. If they're going to be ready for 2013, they have to be ready to sign contracts sometime around August of next year."