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Gold Cup Historic Races 2007
at Virginia International Raceway
2007 Gold Cup Historic Races

It wasn’t until the conclusion of the Second World War that America really began its genuine love affair with road racing. Suddenly, what once was the norm of solely enjoying oval contests, a whole new crop of post WWII youths began looking past these arenas in favor of the volcanic excitement of lively “foreign” platforms, and the product of American ingenuity, many one–of–a–kind specials, dancing through a labyrinth of public corridors. Yes, American road racing was fundamentally reborn, but conceptually, “born.”

Coincidently, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was also formed at this time (1944), holding its first organized contest through the streets of Watkins Glen in 1948. Fueled by an exponential interest in this unique form of racing, they were soon racing through the streets of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; Bridgehampton, Long Island, New York; Palm Springs, California, and other locales, too.

Understandably, injuries and fatalities directly associated with holding these venues through pedestrian environments forced the move of these idealistic settings to airport circuits and purpose–built tracks. Again, Watkins Glen took the lead, opening the first racetrack devoted to road racing in 1952, followed by Road America (Elkhart Lake, 1955), and surprisingly, the country’s third permanent racecourse constructed in the heart of “good ol’ boy” Grand National (pre–NASCAR) territory (Danville, Virginia), Virginia International Raceway (VIR), in 1957.

Sculptured on the former 1200–acre Foote family farm and plantation, VIR’s existence is the fulfillment of a dream of four North Carolina sports car aficionados: George Arnold, Ed Alexander, Ed Welch, Dr. Hooper Johnson, and joining the quartet a year later, Ed Kemm, providing crucial finances. Opened for business in August 1957, VIR’s virgin gathering, deemed a national championship points race, attracted a who’s who of what would become decades later, an all–star lineup of heralded road racing pilots who would fill the annuls of the sport. Jim Kimberly, Bruce Jennings, Paul O’Shea, Jim Jeffords, Gaston Andre, Bob Holbert, Bill Krause, Carl Haas, Bob Grossman and Augie Pabst were just a sampling of entrants signed up for the inaugural race.

And while history has officially recorded the late, Ed Hugus, as the facility’s very first winner in his Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce, it was this former Le Mans winner, Bonneville record–holder, three–time National Champion, automotive visionary and icon, Carroll Shelby, who is accredited with VIR’s first “feature” race victory in the Grand Prix Sports Car Race. Wheeling a John Edgar prepared Maserati 450S, Shelby utilized all the 450S’ horses to keep pole winner, Walt Hansgen’s Alfred Momo prepped Team Cunningham D–Type in his mirrors for the feat.

VIR would continue operations for many more years until the combination of crippling financial woes and the ’70s fuel crisis helped cement its closure in ’74. Luckily though, two more visionaries (and vintage racers), Harvey Siegel and Connie Nyholm, discovered this dormant facility’s potential, bringing it back to life in 2000, and exceeding everyone’s expectations. Today, VIR is not just a refurbished race track, but a first–class motor sports’ resort loaded with amenities and creature comforts like a 27–room hotel, paddock suites and garages; a full–service restaurant and tavern, “clean” restrooms, a karting track, and many other family–orientated goodies either adorning the property or planned to be built.

Moreover, the original configuration, although widened a tad during the resurfacing process, was wisely preserved to mirror its primary layout c.1957. This one paramount decision has definitively bridged VIR’s rebirth with its illustrious heritage. And to commemorate this, over 200 participants were united with the iconic symbol of that grand opening, Mr. Carroll Shelby, who was in attendance as Grand Marshall of the 50th Anniversary Heacock Classic Gold Cup Historic Races this past June 8–10.

Divided into seven race groups, the entrants wasted no time unleashing their horses to seek the fastest way around VIR’s 3.27–miles of challenging turns, dramatic elevation changes, and fast long straight–aways during Friday’s all–day practice sessions. The Gold Cup traditional “Black and White” party presented by Vintage Motorsport Magazine at the fully restored and original c.1840s Plantation Clubhouse concluded the day.

During the evening’s social, Carroll Shelby was joined by several other special guests: Dr. Dick Thompson (the “Flying Dentist”), who finished fourth in the track’s inaugural race; famed automotive journalist, Chris Economaki, voice for the initial race weekend; and Tom Yeager, who not only remains an active vintage participant today, but who orginally teamed with Bob Johnson, winning the fourth ever Trans–Am race held at VIR in ’66.

Additionally, Shelby was awarded VIR’s newly created “VIR Gold Cup” trophy, and the official painting commemorating VIR’s 50th Anniversary of the track’s opening commissioned by famed automotive artist, Mike Mate, was unveiled. The painting, which incidentally, adorns the poster and program cover as well, highlights all the significant racecars that have competed at VIR over the years.

Bathed in glorious event–long sunshine, participants continued their asphalt dances with more practice sessions Saturday morning and a full lineup of heated qualifying runs in the afternoon. And if you thought you would have plenty of quiet time during lunch to eat and do a little shopping among the various vendors, you had to chow–down fast my friends, as the lull in the blacktop action was definitely too short of a break to checkout the various participating mechanical warriors at rest, chat with their handlers, and/or visit a host of other interesting and static attractions spread throughout the paddock and VIR grounds.

Additionally, there was an impressive car show (on Saturday) occupying the grasses outside the VIR gallery, and an exquisite display of automotive and historic racing machinery housed inside the gallery. Among the Allards, a Cadillac–powered Healey, and many other mechanicals, sat the exact Cunningham D–Type driven by Hansgen that followed Shelby to victory in the inaugural race at VIR; the Brumos Porsche 916–6GT shared by Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood for the very first IMSA GT race victory (held at VIR in ’71); “Fast” Phil Currin’s IMSA GTO Championship Vette (VIR winner); the ’66 Ford GT40 Dr. Thompson and Jackie Ickx took to 6th place at Sebring in ’67; the most prolific Porsche Carrera GT of all times with 67 National SCCA title race victories and three SCCA National Championships (two with Bruce Jennings); a pair of 1957 B/P Corvettes that he raced in the initial VIR contest by Bark Henry and Robert Mouat; and a Bud Moore's T/A Cougar.

Topping off your nostalgic appetite was, “Storytime,” another Gold Cup institution. It provided everyone a casual setting to enjoy Shelby, Economaki, Thompson, Yeager and another VIR alumnus, Pete Van der Vate, as they reminisced and answered a plethora of questions, all culminating in grand autograph signing sessions.

Regrettably, logistics or possibly an oversight precluded the opportunity for all those who previously raced at VIR to be formally recognized, and as one alumnus mentioned, “it would have been nice to just get a group photo of everyone.” Several of those distinguished drivers (and 2007 Gold Cup entries) come to mind: West Coast, Wil Painter, who unfortunately broke early; 1971 D–Sedan National Champion, Chris Gross; John Gaither, enjoying the view from his Zink Formula Vee; Dick Scott, Bill Harding, Bob Desloge, “Fast” Phil Currin, Nick England, Ceasar Cone, who said, “I raced Sunbeam Alpine in ’66 and ’67 before retiring to raise kids and race sailboats;” and Robert Bowers, who participated in the initial race weekend.

The roar of motors quickly refocused our attention to the blacktop as “Mad Dog” Joe Blacker took top honors in the Dr. Dick Thompson Group E race; Robert Stadel’s Volvo 1800S led the “Swede” marque sweep of the podium slots in the Piloti Group B battle, and that old hunting dog, Jim Netterstrom, schooling the VA Tech Hokies Group A combatants by posting the fastest lap time for an impressive victory.

Thrilling races continued as winners were crowned (results can be found on www.virclub.com), highlighted by Doug Richmond demonstrating why he is “Mr. GT350 (see PotL) in the Carroll Shelby Group F Race,” and an exhilarating driving exhibition between two stunning Troutman and Barnes creations representing the grand era of front–engine sports racers for the top Chris Economaki Group D Race spoils. All I can say is that the latter race probably had its respective insurance holders biting their nails as the chase was on between the Chaparral MkI driven by Tom Hollfelder and the pursuing ex-Lance Reventlow Scarab of R. Walton. With the pair both leaving the rest of the field in their mirrors, a seemingly possessed, Hollfelder, exploded to the lead for the win.

There’s no doubt that while the sport of vintage auto racing continually does the utmost to celebrate its heritage almost every weekend during the racing season, no one organization or track has done a better job than Harvey, Connie and entire staff of VIR, who not only entertained us with several days of great vintage racing, but presented everyone at this year’s Heacock Classic Gold Cup Historic Races with a “golden” opportunity to experience 1957.....Walter Pietrowicz