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Johnson recalls the formative years at VIR

SoVaNow.com / October 03, 2012
Virginia International Raceway continues to evoke poignant memories for Dr. Hooper Johnson, one of the lead storytellers coming this weekend for the Gold Cup Historic weekend.

VIR is celebrating its opening event - for the old VIR, not the motorsports-country club revived by current partners Harvey Siegel and Connie Nyholm.

The track opened for business - in its first incarnation - in August 1957, hosting an SCCA race that attracted a prominent field.

Carroll Shelby, one of the most important figures in the modern history of sports car racing in America, won the opening event at VIR, in a Maserati 450S.

Johnson is a product of the 1950s, and the Myrtle Beach resident takes justified pride in the original design of the track, which sprung to life from an abandoned farm.

Johnson was part of a group of four sports car enthusiasts from North Carolina - Ed Welch, Ed Alexander, George Arnold and himself - that gave birth to VIR. The foursome formed a company known as Sports Car Enterprises, and, with businessman Ed Kemm providing financial backing in 1956, made VIR a reality.

Johnson started racing all kinds of cars when he was growing up, but he made the contacts that would help produce VIR while he was in medical school in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Johnson had become friends with Arnold, who was a son-in-law to one of the Foote brothers. The Footes had the farm and a 1,200-acre plot that served as the building ground for the track. Johnson also became friends with Welch, who honed his racing skills competing against North Wilkesboro-area bootleggers.

The foursome had a passion for speed and adventure. Johnson recalled that he was sitting around talking with Arnold, who said, “my father-in-law has a big farm that he doesn’t use for anything, so we said, let’s build a race track.”

Arnold got an aerial survey of the property, and Johnson and his friends drew a design for a race track on this plot of unused farm land, sitting around in Winston-Salem.

“We sat there one night ... and we drew up a race track,” said Johnson.

Johnson recalls Welch driving through the weeds on the Foote farm, as the vision for the Alton track came to life. Harry and Horace Strickland, from Galax, brought a construction crew, and soon, VIR was a reality.

“There were no trees then ... it was a complete bare farm, all the way from the farm house to the river,” Johnson said.

Johnson never envisioned VIR would become the attraction it has grown to be.

“We wanted a place to race. Well, we had some ideas. In the area around, there’s a couple of hundred thousand people, and sports car racing was just taking off then,” Johnson said.

The iconic Oak Tree turn was created when the gang wanted to keep the tree in place, and the road graders just went around the turn. The spot where the motor grader turned became the foundation for the Oak Tree Turn, based on how the turn went when the equipment was grading around the tree.

The orginal team behind VIR also shows a separate pit road off the race track, and Johnson expressed pride in his role in all this.

“I was the designer and the ramrod. Ed (Alexander) and his family were the money, and Ed Welch and I helped (with the design) ... George Arnold supplied the land, and that was it,” said Johnson.

VIR has since enjoyed a second revival, with the latest major attraction the arrival of the American Le Mans Series. Since its re-opening in 2000, NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors have tested there, both the Grand Am Rolex Series and AMA have competed at the Alton track.

Patrick Dempsey, the Hollywood actor, has turned laps at VIR.

NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contender Tony Stewart reportedly loves testing and just hanging out here, without drawing much attention in the process. The track has drawn developmental racing series with teams owned by the likes of NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.

“It hadn’t been used for 20 some years ...

“It’s really great now compared to what it was,” said Johnson. “It was pretty crude,” discussing the earlier layout of the track.

Johnson knew the legendary figures behind the earlier VIR, including Corvette racing specialist Dr. Dick Thompson, Shelby, Nick England, Briggs Cunningham and other stars of sports car racing.

Johnson later raced on occasion after completing his medical residency in 1957, returning to his hometown of Wilmington for go-kart competition. He later moved to Texas and claimed the B limited Texas state go-kart title at the tender age of 51, thwarting the victory circles dreams of some of his younger competitors.

Johnson understood the potential of VIR at its rebirth, but he takes pride in helping launch the track in 1957. He was optimistic about the racing facility the first time around.

“In the area around (VIR), there’s a couple of hundred thousand people, and sports car racing was just taking off then,” recalled Johnson, who said facilities like Elkhart Lake and Lime Rock were also coming to life. Since then, VIR has become famous for its elevation changes and technological challenges.

“It’s one of the five best in the whole country. Carroll Shelby said, ‘one lap at VIR is like running five at Watkins Glen,” said Johnson. “I knew him fairly well. The first race we ever went to, we pitted right beside him.”

Johnson also harbors special memories of the old track, as he and his friends carved out the track from the Southside Virginia landscape.

“When were laying it out. We turned Oak Tree Corner, we were coming down the hill ... all the way to the river. We decided we’d better put an S-turn in so the guys wouldn’t overshoot, run into the river. We looked up, and George Arnold was riding with us, we were riding up in the corner, and saw some kind of something in front of us.

“And I said, what is that? And George said, that’s a hog pen.

“So then we decided. Hog pen corner is named after that, because there was a hog pen there. The race track went around the hog pen.”

Now, look at the place, producing a variety of speed, with a dizzying range of competitors and raceday technology.

“It’s a great place to race. It’s safe, it’s fast, and if you get a little brave, you can do good, or you can loaf a little bit,” said Johnson.

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