DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Connie Nyholm reflects on the life journey that’s led to her position as co-owner and CEO of Virginia Int’l Raceway, she shrugs and calls it “crazy luck, I guess.”
A native of Martinsville, Va., who headed off to the bright lights and bustle of New York City after graduation from the College of William & Mary, Nyholm has made her way confidently and successfully in a pair of male-dominated industries: commercial real estate and motorsports.
Nyholm now oversees VIR, one of the most scenic natural terrain circuits anywhere, and one she helped rescue from near abandonment in 1998. Located in rural southern Virginia, it has played host to IMSA events since 2002 and is set to do so again this October with the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR.
After securing a degree in economics, Nyholm found herself in the dog-eat-dog commercial real estate trade in the Big Apple, where she specialized in freestanding retail site selection. An early mentor gave Nyholm key advice on how to make herself stand out from the rest.
“You really need to pick an area of specialty and try to pick something that you really like and that stands out and is different so that you can differentiate yourself,” she recalled being told.
With an interest in cars, Nyholm focused on retail site selection for auto service outlets, primarily for Monro Muffler Brakes.
“They called me the auto queen,” she said with a laugh. “I did (site selection for) Pep Boys, some Quick Lubes and 60 Monro Muffler Brakes in four states.”
Nyholm also became a founding member of Women in Retail Real Estate, a networking group to assist females in the male-dominated profession. It’s where she met Peggy Burke, whose boss Harvey Siegel was working out a deal to purchase VIR in the late 1990s and needed help with the track’s resurrection and future operations.
“I was really wanting to get home from New York,” Nyholm said, “so Peggy introduced me to Harvey, and we hit it off like two peas in a pod and realized that we had extremely complementary strengths and weaknesses. And here I am.”
Initially, Nyholm’s deal with Siegel earned her one-percent equity in the track for each of the first 10 years. She built that to 25 percent with additional “sweat equity,” then purchased another 25 percent stake with inheritance from her parents. When Siegel offered to sell his remaining half, Nyholm jumped at the opportunity with financial assistance from Kathy and Jim Stout, owners of Pittsburgh International Race Complex.
Nyholm’s new partner bought the Stouts’ interests in October 2020 with a vision to “invest in his investment,” prompting Nyholm to say, “Everything I’ve ever had and will ever have is in VIR.”
She takes great pride that she and Siegel were able to rebuild VIR and increase its stature while remaining true to the circuit’s original design from the 1950s.
“I was Harvey’s implementer,” she said. “His grand vision, the aesthetic of VIR, was all Harvey. The operation of VIR and keeping the racetrack exactly as it was built in the ‘50s – we just widened it based on the centerline and added all the safety components. We worked on all that together and knew that we wanted to honor the history and the legacy of VIR, and not screw with what was so great.”
Nyholm said she’s never felt “held back” in her drive to succeed professionally because she’s a woman. She’s relied on and learned from mentors – men and women alike. One thing she ascertained early is you’re only as good as the people around you.
“I’ve surrounded myself with terrific people – men and women, young and old,” she said. “I always try to hire and work with people who are better than I am, who bring something to the table well beyond what I would be able to do without them. And then empower them to enact their responsibilities. It’s just worked out really well for us.
“Harvey was a great role model and an early mentor because all of his top people were women. He said, ‘They just work harder and they communicate better, and I need to be told what to do.’ I’m like, ‘OK, this is going to work out really well for me,’ and it did.”
Encouraged by other women, including groundbreaking driver Lyn St. James, Nyholm devotes more time now trying to assist the next generation on their own paths to success.
“I tell people this, especially younger people: You only have a roadblock if you see it as one,” she said. “If you don’t see it as one, then it’s not there.
“I have encouraged each woman or anyone wanting to get outside of their comfort zone – where life truly does begin – to figure out what are they missing, what do they need. Who can they go to, to best support that? It may well be another woman … (for) others, not so much. I think you need to find how you can best mature yourself and then find someone willing to contribute in the way and at the level you need.”