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“If there’s a Heaven on Earth, it’s VIR.” – Paul Newman
Boy was he right! Virginia International Raceway has become my favorite racetrack, hands down. For those of you that have been there you know how well it flows and utilizes the topography of the land, for those of you that haven’t been, think of a better flowing Road Atlanta.
The track was built back in the 1950’s so it has that high speed high risk feel, but went through a full restoration when it reopened in the early 2000’s greatly improving runoff and safety. The track has evolved a lot over the years, from repaving and widening, to the loss of the beloved Oak Tree – but it has fundamentally remained true to its roots. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in your back pocket in case you get the opportunity to drive this legendary track.
So, as you’re flying down the front straight you will notice that it is not straight at all. Clip the apex curb on the front straight and let the car track out back to the left. As you approach the brake zone you’ll notice there aren’t too many reference points other than the maker boards. Start conservatively but you’ll find you can go pretty deep here. In the E30 I’m grabbing the brakes right around the 3 board. T1 is increasing radius so you can trail brake it into the apex a tick earlier than you think, grab the go pedal and let the car unwind all the way out to the left edge of the track. As things straighten out you’ll notice that there is a kink in the road before your approach to T3, clip the apex on the left and get the car pointed towards the flag station outside of T3…
Turn 3 is faster than you think and very wide. It is easy to get lost on your approach. As noted above, I use the flag station on the outside of T3 as a reference point, as I come through the T2 kink I get the car pointed right at the flag station and drive towards it until back track right and ready to turn in. Get your head turned and searching for that apex, things get busy as you will be trail braking and down shifting into 3rd gear as you turn in. Open up the wheel as soon as possible taking advantage of all the track out space, including the additional runoff beyond the curbing.
In an E30, at the exit of turn 3 you will be at the top of 3rd gear. Turn 4 is tight but no need to down shift. Don’t discount the importance of T4, especially in a momentum car as it is essentially the beginning of a long straightaway to the top of the uphill esses. The transition from T4 to T5 is quick, as a result we want to apex T4 slightly later than feels natural because we want to end up track center before turning back right into T5.
Hold on tight, things get narrow and busy as we work through the lower esses. As soon as the car settles from the exit of T4, we turn back to the right entering T5. This transition is critical because every MPH you gain or lose is going to stay with you all the way up the hill until T10. Get in close to the apex of T5 but if you clip it make sure you’re not getting loose or generating any wheel spin, smooth is fast. Let the car drift out until just inside the curbing on the left. This is a constant radius turn that shouldn’t require much steering input once set. In the E30, it rarely feel good. You’re either chasing the rear or cringing from under-steer, do your best to roll speed and stay flat on the throttle. As you go through this long right hander the lower esses come into sight and you unwind the car straightening it out over the curbs. You’re going to be grabbing 4th gear in an awkward spot as you crest the first curb of the lower esses – get used to it because the folks that are competing for wins aren’t short shifting.
Check the gauges, relax those hands, catch your breath. You’re approaching the world famous uphill esses. In the E30 the esses are pretty easily flat, but you need to pick the right line to make it work.
Turn 7 & the uphill esses:
Turn 7 is a slight left hander that sets you up for success or failure. As you clip the apex curb hold the car left just a tick longer than feels natural, this way when you turn back to the right for T8 the car will be pointed straight up the hill. There is a slight bump at T8 where if the car is turning to much to the right it will get upset, even in a lower powered car like an E30. At this point you’re either in the right grove enjoying one of the best stretches of track in North America or you’re just holding on trying to stay on track. T9 is the final right hand turn of the esses, it’s fast and will keep you on your toes. Let the car drift towards the center of the track as you track out but don’t go too far because we’re coming up on “South Bend”.
T10, South Bend:
Turn 10 is a fast one. As you brush the brakes on the approach you will need to down shift to 4th (if you used 5th through the esses, a lot of people hold 4th up the hill). The turn in is fairly early as you want to clip the inside curb with your left side wheels. Open up the wheel as soon as possible and let the car drift out to the right side of the track. The camber falls away at the edge of the track so be prepared to catch the back end if it steps out. Keep in mind that if things go wrong here you want to bail out to the right. There is a big grassy field to the right and a hard wall to the left. At the exit we’re on the right side of the track and rapidly approaching the classic Oak Tree corner. Get back to the left side of the track before the brake zone.
Turn 11/12, Oak Tree:
In the E30 this is one single brake zone. Get on the brakes around the 2 marker, modulate over the T11 curb and head for the edge of the track on the left before turning back into T12. The back straight is long and steep so maximizing revs out of T12 is crucial. I don’t take much curb at the apex because I don’t want to get loose or upset the car under throttle application. Use all the track out including the area beyond the curbing.
Check those gauges, relax the hands, read a short book…have a smoke…
Turn 14, Roller Coaster:
Braking for T14 can get exciting. You’re hard on the brakes while modulating through the T14 kink. Build up to it but in the E30s you can safely go beyond the 1 sign all the way to the turn arrow board before braking. Once the car is straighten out after the kink start thinking about T14a, the right hander. There is significant camber here so you can roll more speed than you might imagine. Clip that apex curb at T14a and let the car unwind. T15 is wide enough in an E30 that you don’t need to get back track right before turning in left.
Turn 16/17, Hogpen:
The old hogpen has since been torn down, but still a great corner. This is the second most important turn on the track, every MPH you carry through T17 will stay with you down the front straight and into T1 which is a great passing zone. As we go down the short straight between T15 and T16 you will need to upshift to 4th gear in an E30. Trail brake into T16 over the apex curb on the left. At this point you’re also downshifting back into 3rd gear OR committing to running 4th gear all the way through the corner. Either option works so for the first few laps I suggest keeping it simple and rolling 4th. Before you turn back right into T17 the car should be left of center on the track and parallel with the left edge of the track – essentially pointing into the woods instead of towards the T17 apex. This will open up T17 allowing you to roll more speed without running out of space at track out. Turn it back in to the T17 apex and let the car unwind out towards the left. Don’t worry about hitting the T17a apex, it is natural to be ~1/2 a width off as you track out to the left edge of the track. At this point we’re back on the front “straight”. In an E30 you don’t need the entire track to make the front straight turn so go ahead and get over to the right side, it’s the shortest route and most defensive if you’re under pressure.
Rinse and repeat. Do it again one foot deeper on the brakes, one foot earlier on the throttle every lap until you find the limit.
‘Nothing beats seat time’, so make the most of it. Let Robert Grace help you become a faster, safer and more consistent driver. Whether you’re a novice track day driver or an experienced racer, he can help you become a complete racing driver with competitive results. Visit robertgraceracing.com to learn more.
Photos by: Tian Xia