"Virginia is for Lovers!" Local billboards proudly proclaim. In early July Volvo afficiandos (Volvistas??) from across the country proved VIRginia is for Volvo Lovers, with the Fourth Running Of The Vintage Volvo Gran Prix. VIRginia International Raceway, that is.

Sharp-eyed readers of european car will recall Vintage Volvo Grans Prix in 1996 (Blackhawk Farms Raceway, Rockton, Ill.) 1998 (Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.) and 2001 Watkins Glen International Raceway (Watkins Glen, N.Y.).

This year, historic VIRginia International Raceway (www.virclub.com), near Danville, Virginia, hosted Volvo racers as part of a weekend of vintage racing sanctioned by HSR (Historic Sportscar Racing, Ltd.; www.hsrrace.com). A hundred or so vintage Volvo lovers also turned out for a concours and club meet sponsored by Volvo Sports America, the car club for older Volvos (http://vsa.org/).

The track was founded in 1955, at a time when post-war sports car racing was popular across the country. Watkins Glen International was built in 1952, and Road America in 1955 as well. VIRginia International had been a 1,200-acre family farm in the rolling country outside Danville, Vir. Open for business in 1957, VIR hosted racing luminaries and significant races, its challenging course layout, elevation changes, and high-speed sections demanding the best of drivers. In the early '60s, Carroll Shelby is reported to have observed, "One lap at VIR is like 100 at Watkins Glen."

The track Web site, however, notes its location on the border of North Carolina and southwestern Virgina means VIR is encircled by NASCAR fans and activity, and the course never attracted the big crowds necessary for financial success. My personal observation confirms this. No question. Guess the locals never could quite figure out why anyone would want to turn both left and right.

Under a succession of owners and managers, the track continued to languish, until the fuel crisis of 1973 rang a death knell, and the facility was shuttered in the fall of 1974, returning to farmland for some 25 years.

But in 1998, the skies parted, a beam of light shone down, and the property was leased and revived by New York real estate developer and vintage sports-car racer Harvey Siegel. Together with partner Connie Nyholm, Siegel has brought VIR to a truly remarkable motorsports facility, today. Racing returned in 2000, with a repaved and widened circuit which faithfully follows the original course centerline.

The facility has received international acclaim as one of the world's most beautiful and challenging circuits, and continues to push the envelope of what a racetrack can be.

Today, VIR is the cornerstone of VIR Club, America's first motorsports country club; the VIR Raceplex Industrial Park; the VIR Gallery, which is a showroom for high-end collector and racing cars; the VIR Safety and Security Institute, which provides specialized training for U.S. Government and military groups; and the VIR Euro Rally and Corporate Motorsport Experience, which features four rally stages plus a kart track, motocross track, ATV and SUV training grounds.

Under construction is The Lodge at VIR, a 27-room hotel overlooking the track, and the Oak Tree Tavern, a full-service restaurant located within a lovingly restored circa-1840 Plantation Clubhouse.(For more extensive history of VIR, go to www.virclub.com/track_info/track_history.html)

Continually reading such glowing coverage of VIR in the motorsports press prompted me to put the track on my "to drive" shortlist, and I was delighted to learn that the Volvo Gran Prix would be held there, this year.

On Tuesday afternoon, loaded to the gills with racing stuff, off I rolled for the 18-hour drive to VIR. Fellow racer Duane Matejka had acquired some body parts for his P-1800 Volvo on eBay some years earlier, and they happened to be in a Chicagoland suburb. I took possession on his behalf, saved the stuff for him through several Chicago winters and a major household move, and this race event was to be our first opportunity for the handoff. So the race trailer looked to all the world like the Clampett's leaving West Virginee. Only Granny was missing in her rocker. How appropriate.

Next day, somewhere around Nitro, (!) West Virginia, the load loosened up and I nearly lost all the Clampett's possessions. Near disaster! But one strap held, I caught it at a gas stop, and Duane eventually got his parts. Guess the call of West Virginee is stronger than anyone might have thought.

Crossing Kentucky and West Virginia, I gained an appreciation for the great horse farms so well known in these areas. Acres of lovely grass, seems like miles of white fencing, and of course, exquisite horses. What a foretaste of surroundings to come at VIR.

At first glance, the place reminds you of nothing so much as those Kentucky horse farms, with acres and acres and acres of carefully manicured grass. And somebody has to mow all this! But the care in creating a superb motorsports park does not end there. For participants and spectators, the obvious efforts to create a truly enjoyable experience are everywhere.

I found thoughtfully planned spectator spaces, shaded snackbar and shaded false grid for the racers. Sitting fully suited up in race gear on the false grid in 90*F weather while a spill or stall from the prior session is removed, drains your body fluids and concentration. VIR's shaded grid area is a real help to drivers. Air-conditioned washrooms, showers and driver's changing areas, all simply unheard-of--elsewhere. I've found no other racing facility to compare, including Road America, which is certainly the Mid-west's finest track.

So my initial reactions to the facility were very positive as I arrived, registered, completed Tech and set up in the paddock area on Thursday afternoon. Tech, by the way, was quite straightforward, under the auspices of HSR. One of the Tech Inspectors remarked, "You Volvo guys really turn out for these things. I took my Jaguar to Road America when we were the featured marque, and just a handfull showed up!" The Volvo types were coming out in force. Some 19 drivers had pre-registered, coming from as far away as Southern California.

Since I wasn't going on track until Friday morning, I took advantage of a bit of free time to visit the American Armoured Foundation Tank Museum in Danville. This is a MUST SEE! In preparation for your on-site tour, visit www.aaftankmuseum.com

The museum boasts one-third of a million sq ft of more than 15,000 International Tank and Cavalry artifacts dating from 1509 to present. And, yep. Naturally, the Swedes are represented. If you're not at VIR for a Volvo event, you'll need to see the Swedish tanks here, instead of on the racetrack.

And speaking of local color, stop at Aunt Millie's in Milton, N.C., when you're at VIR. This unassuming spot serves up pizza which compares with some of Chicago's finest, and proprietor Gwen McGuire is intent on creating the Seneca Lodge of VIR, just outside the racetrack property. You can help create a legacy.

HSR offered me the opiton--at no extra charge--of participating in two race groups for the weekend: the Volvo-only group, and assignment to their normal race group for each car, depending on age, unique car preparation, etc. I enthusiastically opted for inclusion in Group 3, as well as the Volvo group, allowing for six sessions on track on Friday, four on Saturday, and three on Sunday. What a racing bargain, and what a great way to get a jump-start at new track.

Turned out #122 was essentially a rolling chicane for the Porsche 914-6s and 911s of Group 3, but I got a lot of seat time, especially the first day on track. And, my god! did those Porsches blow by me. But by the end of Friday, I was feeling like I at least knew my way around the track and had selected a line for each corner. Keeping to it was now going to be the trick. And, of course, driving with at least one eye on the mirrors at all times, especially whenon track with Group 3.

By the end of the day, my times had dropped to the vicinity of 2:30 for the 3.27-mile course. Certainly not spectacular, but not bad, considering it was my first weekend on this very challenging technical course. The full course has three sets of esses, (the Snake, Climbing Esses and Roller Coaster) substantial change of elevation, and at least two full speed sections. For the Porsche guys there are more than two, of course. I'm talking about an old Volvo here. Charging at full speed into the dip just before the incline that becomes the Roller Coaster, my heart was in my throat for most of Friday. My mind kept saying, "Wait to brake. Wait to brake," and my sphincter kept saying, "NOW! NOW!"

(Go to www.virclub.com/track_info/track_layout.html to see the full course map. You will find that VIR boasts a website second to none in motorpsports.)

Meanwhile, Duane Matejka of Foreign Auto Tech (www.volvo-1800.com) was turning in times around 2:18, driving the fastest old Volvo in the country. So I could see I definitely had my work cut out for me to keep finding seconds on the track. It's great that Duane gives us something to shoot for, you know?

Duane is probably the winningest Volvo racer in the country, as five-time Champion of the Volvo Historic Series. He was joined this weekend by Sam Moore, the legendary IT-B racer, and two-time IT-B National Champ who hails from North Carolina. I've watched Sam race at Road Atlanta, where his red '72 142-E sedan blew the doors off assorted VW Rabbits and other IT-B types.

John Parker (jparker3@twcny.rr.com) of Syracuse, N.Y., driving one of the country's fastest P-1800 Volvos also made the trip. John exhibited the P-1800 supercharger set-up he has created for street Volvos, designed to let older Swedes terrorize the rice rockets in stoplight derbies.

Steve Alander, of Naples, Fla., brought the only model 242 Volvo racing in the country. Most of the familiar faces from prior Vintage Volvo Grans Prix, and some new ones. Unfortunately, we lacked most of the West Coast contingent who had been able to travel to Watkins Glen. Our mututal loss.

During Saturday's sessions I began to experience some minor difficulties with the car. First a stalling condition developed in sharp right-hand corners. This provided the opportunity for each and every car in both race groups to pass me coming out of the signature Oak Tree turn at the far south end of the course.

On prior occasions a broken carburetor part had caused these same symptoms. Sure enough, I found and replaced the broken part. But the condition persisted. Later I found more carburetor parts needed replacement. Sputtering at high speed also suggested perhaps the points need replacing. In the heat (literally 90*F or so and 90 plus humidity) of a 5-min. paddock stop between back-to-back sessions, I was unable to successfully swap and reset points, so missed the Volvo Qualifying race on Saturday afternoon. Okay. I'll start the Volvo Feature Race on Sunday from the back of the pack.

Saturday afternoon wound up with a Monsoon, literally. Several inches of rain fell amid heavy winds reminiscent of Elkhart Lake in the fall. There, I commonly lash the canopies to the race car in order to keep them in this county. Same at VIR. And the adjacent motorhome. And extra stakes in the ground. And all the spare race tires I normally keep on the trailer. And somebody was trying to tell mr they don't have all that much wind in the mountains of Virginia. Not!

Sunday dawned bright, sunny and predicted to be hot. By race time it was in the mid 80s and the Volvo types were sweating and pacing around nervously. Me included.

Duane Matejka (#1 )posted a 38.9-sec. victory over second-place finisher, John Parker (#177). Rich Conklin (#68) of Long Beach, Calif., finished third. Interesting note here: Parker built Conklin's P-1800 for him, so two Parker-prepped cars were in the top three. Not bad, eh? And Sam Moore (#26) went on to finish fourth. Keeping in mind that his IT-B car runs a stock Volvo engine, this is a very strong finish, indeed, against cars whose engines are permitted under vintage rules to take maximum advantage of technology available in the '60s and early '70s. One hint: look for telltale signs of Bob Griffith!

Ordinarily, when racing a vintage Volvo you're one of only a couple at the track that weekend, competing against British, Italian and German cars. While Volvos are known for mechanical reliability and consistency, a funny thing happens when the Volvo racers all face each other--maybe we overreach a bit. In any case, more mechanical failures occur than at any other time in the season. Just six cars finished the race.

Though I 've been developing the car more in each year since 1996, #122 was less reliable for this outing than any in the last few years. Starting from the back of the pack, the throttle would not work freely during the pace lap--more carburetor problems. After only a couple of laps in the race, I found myself running on just one of the two carburetors, and knew the wise choice was to retire. My first mechanical DNF in years with trusty #122. As they say, "That's racing."

And just in case you're wondering, the weekend was terrific!

(Race results are available at: http://www.hsrrace.com/04_vir/results/G10_Volvo.pdf)

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By Jack Babcock
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