Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
As you've likely already ascertained, it wasn't a Formula One racing car we headed into the desert to test drive. For one thing, they don't test those on abandoned airstrips; they book track time at a first-rate racing circuit for that, or in some cases use their own private test tracks. For another, though teams have been known, upon occasion, to invite the odd journalist to drive their multi-million-dollar grand prix cars, odd as we are, we're still waiting for such an invitation. But while F1 may be the only formula of motor racing known to the casual observer, at the risk of hiding behind an old cliché, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Formula One is the top tier of an entire world of open-wheel, single-seater motorsports that consists of dozens of lower racing formulae around the world.
Logically enough, under Formula One have historically been a number of junior classes like Formula 2, which is now in the process of being revived, and Formula 3, which is run in separate regional competitions around the world. Some formula racing series use different nomenclature, like GP2 and A1GP, not to mention IndyCars, America's own version of open-wheel racing. Below them, however, are all even more different racing formulae, some based on mechanicals borrowed from, or even organized by, specific automakers like Formula BMW, Formula Ford and Formula Palmer Audi. Way down the pecking order, just above karting, lies Formula Vee.
The idea behind Formula Vee is to keep costs down so as to allow aspiring racing drivers to take part without the backing of sponsors, automakers or racing outfits. The mechanicals underpinning the cars could hardly be more basic: take the engine, transmission, front suspension, brakes and wheels from an old VW Beetle (hence the Formula Vee designation) and built a tube-frame chassis with a fiberglass body around it and you've got a race car. Sounds simple enough, but bear in mind that the bulk of ambitious Formula Vee competitors build their own cars in their garages at home. That's exactly what our host did, with an eye towards competing in the British Formula Vee championship. But more on that in an upcoming post.
Although the UK series is one of the most popular, similar competitions are organized around the world, including ones in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, Ireland and Canada. Here in the United States, Formula Vee competitions are run under the auspices of the Sports Car Club of America, the same sanctioning body that organizes amateur and professional races across the country through its myriad chapters and divisions.
With its elementary mechanics and homegrown simplicity, Formula Vee is motor racing boiled down to its essence. The cars weigh little over 1000 lbs, and the best ones can top 120 mph. Maybe that doesn't sound like much, especially compared to the speeds reached by higher-level formula racing cars, but sitting precious few inches above the ground with the wind rushing by, it feels plenty fast. The skinny tires and old-school brakes give the novice driver an ideal training ground for learning the dynamics of single-seat racing before (hopefully) graduating to a higher class where the speeds increase drastically, and along with them the risks and demands.
After waiting for the aspiring pilots to complete their practice laps – including a few for your photographic enjoyment – it was finally our turn behind the wheel. But with the sun dropping almost as fast as our fuel supply, we would only have time for a few laps. Of course the single-seat set-up meant there would be no hands-on tutorial, but the brief was short. Steering wheel, gas, brakes, clutch, four-speed H-gate shifter...that's about it.
Our course ran through a long line of pylons placed strategically down one side of the runway, through the roundabout at the far end and back down the straight towards the tower and dilapidated terminal. The sand-swept air strip looked like it hadn't been used in years, so aside from sporadic through-fare from local residents, the odd teenager on a joy-ride, and a family of wild dogs that seemed to consider the site their home turf, the coast was clear.
The car has an ignition system, but more often than not a simple push-start seemed just as convenient. Lift the clutch, drop it into second, pump the gas and away we go. Right off the line, the experience seems familiar. All the controls are where you'd expect them to be, but something's different. More direct. More intuitive. Driving ordinary, even extraordinary automobiles, you grow accustomed to the inevitable – though increasingly minimized – delay from when you turn the wheel or press a pedal before the heft of the car does what you've instructed with your limbs. With a simple lightweight frame and circa-1963 mechanicals, the Formula Vee car exhibits no such hesitation. If you've ever gone karting and then gotten back into your car to drive home, chances are you know exactly what we mean.
Although our time was limited, it didn't take long to familiarize ourselves with the car and its dynamics. The skinny tires mean there isn't a lot of traction. In the corners you'll find the limit of adhesion rather quickly if you're daring enough. The small air-cooled flat-four engine doesn't challenge the rear tires with too much torque, but coming out of a corner early enough on the throttle will generate just enough wheel-spin to keep it interesting. With the engine out back and little more than the weight of the front suspension and fiberglass nosecone keeping the front end planted, we were warned that the tail is prone to slide around, and so it did. But a quick correction, steering into the skid, and a judicious application of throttle pulled the rear end back into place and the car pointed straight ahead. Even steering wide of the edge of the tarmac and into the dirt, the chassis wasn't upset and slid back onto the pavement with no fuss.
Of course the ultimate test of any driving experience can't be measured or calibrated with any instruments, but can be judged only by how hesitant we were to step out of the car and give back the keys. In this case, there were no keys to return, just a crash helmet and our impressions. And if you haven't guessed by now, after just a couple of laps around the air strip, we didn't want to leave, but were out-voted by the setting sun and empty fuel tank.
If only we could have gotten there earlier.