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11/15 2018

FORMULA EXPERIENCES: A CAR ENTHUSIAST’S THEME PARK

Fewer lines, smaller crowds and the only loops are ones you make

BY:  WESLEY WREN

You’ve probably been there — standing in line, overpriced corn dog in hand — for a roller coaster, its only mission to bring that corn dog back up from where it belongs. You’re an enthusiast — a car enthusiast, so you might have even been catching updates from the 24 Hours of Le Mans while standing in line, dreaming of what it’d be like to rip around a track in the night before dousing yourself in champagne in the morning. Of course, you lock your phone up when it comes time to strap into the latest death machine, while wishing there was something similar for track rats in training.

Well, now there is. Tucked away deep inside VIRginia International Raceway, Formula Experiences is about as close to a driving enthusiast’s amusement park as you’re going to get. Split over a day and a half, you get to see what it’s like to move a real race car around a track, without having to throw down the money for a car, gear or race team seat.

Arriving at the Formula Experiences headquarters and garage, you’ll probably see the doors open and the general manager, Tyler Tullis, likely working on a Radical SR3 to get it ready for its romp around the track later in the day. But before you even stepped foot on VIR property, the team was prepping the rest of the cars: Radical SR1s and Ligier JS F4s. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick roundup.

The Radical SR1s and SR3s are both 1,340cc Suzuki Hayabusa-powered open-cockpit race cars. The major difference between the two is that the SR3 is wider, with space for a second seat. Obviously, that makes it the more stable, but heavier, option. Both Radicals use paddle-shifted six-speed transmissions, but you do use a clutch pedal to get into first out of the pits. With only about 175 hp with the SR1 and 225 hp with the SR3, you might not think these small open-cockpit cars can move. But, for reference, the SR1 only weighs 1,080 pounds.

Formula experiences prepping cars

The team at Formula Experiences is removing the engine cover from one of its Radical SR31 single seaters.

The Ligier uses Honda for power — a worked-over 2.0-liter inline-four. The K20, as Honda would call it, is mated to a Sadev six-speed sequential that’s shifted pneumatically, also by way of paddles behind the wheel. Like the Radicals, you’ll also have to use the clutch to shift into first and pull away from a dead stop — other than that, it’s all paddles. Essentially a place for shifter cart racers to step up to after outgrowing their smaller rigs, the Ligier is a no-nonsense race car, and can serve as an entry point into the ranks of motorsport.

After you check out the cars, depending on what package you choose, you’ll shuffle to VIR’s Tavern restaurant, where you’ll get familiar with the Formula Experiences team and meet some of the folks you’ll be driving with the following day. After a bite to eat — you make your way toward the course for a hot lap around whatever section you’ll run the following day, but in the dark.

Even though the Radical SR3 is nowhere near as fast as modern prototype racers, it will give you a new respect for those racing through the night during 24-hour races. Even with LED light bars strapped to the roll cage, the pitch-black fall night consumes the course. Peter Heffring, no stranger to the course affixed to his operation, drives while you get a sample of what’s to come the following day.

Before heading to the hotel room at VIR’s lodge, the group headed back to the headquarters to get a quick run-through on how to drive these cars, as well as a quick education on running around a racetrack. Heffring led the talk and spoke mostly about ways to avoid accidents related to shifting downforce, and how to not hurt the cars if you spin. He also explained the way lateral grip works in a way that you, your kids and maybe your dog could digest and understand. After the talk, there was more time available for hopping on a simulator before bed. To get you ready for the cars, there’s a room dedicated to simulators. The simulators are set to whatever section of VIR you might run — ours was set to the South Course.

After a good night’s sleep, I throw on some easy-breathing clothes to go under my race suit and make my way to the headquarters. From there, I suit up and get ready to head out on the track.

There are different amounts of track time depending on what package you pick — and we were testing out the Gold package, which nets you about 90 minutes. That’s about six sessions, which might not sound like a lot until you’re suited up and sweating inside of a cockpit.

The first session, I take out the most stable car of the bunch — the Radical SR3. I plop its nose right behind the lead-follow Porsche Cayman and start learning the track. The Radical accelerates well — maybe not quite as brutal as you’d want from a race car, but speed climbs fast. It shines when you mash the brake before the South Course’s first corner, and the 115 mph you’re carrying at the end of the straight becomes a manageable second-gear corner. As I learn the car and the course, I eventually slot in behind lead driver Heffring.

At that point, I realize that maybe I don’t quite know the cars that well. In trying to keep up with Heffring, I don’t have the skills to keep the nose pointing forward and make a quick spin. Despite being the most stable of the lot, the Radical SR3 is still quick to spin if you ask it to do something that it simply cannot — be that taking a corner too quickly or not quickly enough to keep the aero working.

Regardless, when spinning in the Radical you learn a few things quickly — the first is to disengage the clutch (as you should whenever you spin) so you don’t have to buy a new starter motor — remember, most motorcycles don’t go in reverse, and the Hayabusa engine and transmission is no exception. The second is: You want to get control of the car as quickly as possible and come to a stop before hitting anything hard. Thankfully, I’m a quick study and I don’t have to pay for a new starter motor or, well, car. Of course, there is insurance that limits your liability, but it’ll tack another $300 onto your trip. Though, that $300 might save you from having to buy the team a whole new car.

Formula Experiences simulators

This row of simulators allows participants to get a feel for how the cars will react on the track, as well as a way to learn the course ahead of time.

I get the car checked out and head back to my session. I approach corners more cautiously, trying to make sure all of my moves would happen where grip would exist.

From there, I hop into the king of the Formula Experiences roster — the Ligier. I take some quick mental notes from Heffring: It’s good to keep the momentum going on this slick-tire-equipped and aero-heavy race car, because without speed, there’s no downforce. With no downforce, there’s no grip.

With that in mind, I snuggle into the JS F4’s confined cockpit — bordering the claustrophobic — and went to work. In the F4, you have to be more conscious about speed, as well as tire heat. That means you’ll have at least one survey lap before you want to start pushing the car. Compared to the Radical SR3, the car sounds brutally fast, thanks to the Honda engine’s comparatively throaty exhaust right behind your ears, but isn’t much quicker, at least around this course. In the corners, you’ll be able to gain some speed on the Radicals because of the more aggressive aero package.

After 10 laps in the Ligier, I start to realize what 90 minutes in a race car feels like. Climbing out of the Ligier, which is no small task, I only think about getting some water and how incredible the car feels. After chugging a bottle of Evian, my thoughts focus on the latter.

After that, it’s time for a racing demonstration. Like a thrill ride at a theme park, you and another person in your group are strapped into the Radical SR3s, with Heffring and another pro driver at the helm. From there, the two duke it out around the course. While it seems more on the scripted side, it’s a good taste of what it’s like to be closing, passing and being passed by another car in competition.

Formula Experiences Ligier JS F4

The Ligier JS F4 is the star of the Formula Experiences experience, and gives you a taste of how racers progress through the ranks of cars.

Rounding out the day, I get to experience the Radical SR1 — the smaller, nimbler and less stable brother of the SR3. The experience is like the other Radical, the only exception being the SR1 feels on the dartier side of the spectrum. Short of that, the paddle shifters and power feel about the same.

The rest of the group, mostly locals from the area, had the opportunity to take their own cars out on the track after running around in race cars. A good deal, but because of the looming rain and sheer exhaustion, not many took them up on the opportunity. Instead, most of the group sat, drinking water and Gatorade and reflecting on the day.

The next day I felt sore (in the back, legs and neck), considering the workout I got from running these cars around a track all day, but it was more than just that. I now have a new appreciation for the folks who race in IndyCar and the various Formula levels. It’s obvious, but until you get a chance to drive one of these, you don’t realize just how much you have to think while trying to find the fastest way around the track — it’s hard to truly understand it.

The whole thing isn’t cheap – this top package was $2,900 before insurance — but if you’re a die-hard open wheel enthusiast and/or a closet track rat, it’s worth getting down to VIR to take a sample of what it feels like to go racing. And unlike Six Flags, you’re only spinning and going upside down if you do something wrong.

Go to Formulaexperiences.com for more information.