Paul Prideaux and Jim Wilson freely admit it: They're addicted to speed. During the week Prideaux, a consulting engineer, and Wilson, a financial adviser, put in long hours in their respective Richmond offices, and by the time the weekend rolls around, these two fortysomethings are often in need of a pick-me-up. So once or twice a month the two friends drive 120 miles south into the rolling hills of Virginia to what may be the best-kept secret in American motor sports: Virginia International Raceway.
VIR, a winding 3.27-mile road course that has 17 turns and 130 feet of elevation change, is the motor sports equivalent of a high-brow golf club. For a $500 initiation fee and dues of $100 to $175 a month, car enthusiasts such as Prideaux and Wilson can race their cars around the course on any of the 18 yearly "club days" and take advantage of the other facilities on the 1,200-acre property, including a 27-room hotel, a swimming pool for the kids and a restored plantation house that was built in the 1840s. "This place is a country club setting where you're not afraid to bring your family while you're spending the weekend going around the track," says Wilson, a Ferrari 360 owner who's one of 325 club members at VIR. "It's truly one of a kind."
"We all agree to play nice on the track," says Prideaux, who drives a Ferrari 355. "We try to get around each other, but the rule is no contact. We're willing to push it up to that point, because going off the track at 150 miles per hour wouldn't be good."
The mastermind behind VIR is Harvey Siegel, a New York City real-estate developer and longtime vintage-car racer. Siegel had been looking to purchase land that he could transform into the country's first motor sports resort when he visited VIR in the spring of 1998. The track, which was in operation from 1957 to '74, had since fallen into disrepair. But Siegel was still overwhelmed by what he saw. "The buildings were falling apart, cows were grazing in the pastures, and some of the trees had fallen down," recalls Siegel, "but all my eyes could see was an incredible piece of real estate."
After agreeing on a 100-year lease with the property's owner, Siegel says he spent "tens of millions of dollars" in renovating the track and its facilities over the next 18 months. Now, VIR hosts numerous professional and amateur races each year that feature vintage cars, stock cars and even motorcycles, and club members get special spectator access to those events.
"The NASCAR phenomenon has raised awareness of motor sports in this country," says Siegel. "But with VIR, you no longer have to sit in the stands. You can actually get out there and be a participant. It's a rush."
On a recent fall afternoon Price Cobb, the 1990 winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, gave a visitor a ride around the track in a '97 Porsche 911. As he blasted down a straightaway at 160 mph, Cobb nudged his passenger and then, smiling mischievously, momentarily took his hands off the steering wheel and shut his eyes. After giving his white-knuckled visitor a heart-thumping scare, Cobb grabbed the wheel, passed a slower car, then slid through the next turn. If not for Cobb's antics, you might have thought you were in the middle of a Nextel Cup or Formula One race.
"There's no track like this in America," said Cobb after he parked the Porsche on pit road. "You've got slow, technical turns. You can get great speed on the long straightaways. And you can take chances through the S turns. A perfect day for me is to spend it here at the track and then see the sun setting over these beautiful hills. I can't imagine a better place on earth."