Formula Experiences Gives Fans a Real Driving Challenge
(Alton, VA - RIS) Is driving a prototype race car on a bucket list track on your bucket list? Well, now, thanks to the Formula Experiences programs at VIRginia International Raceway, you can. If driving is not quite on your radar, you can participate in one of their ride along programs, even one at night, which is eye-opening in more ways than one.
Sitting there in your easy chair or even in the stands at a race, it looks so calm and easy most of the time, like “everybody can drive a car, what’s so special about driving on a race track?” attitudes expressed by some spectators. Well, we’re able to tell you, after actually getting to drive a sports racer (a Radical SR1 to be exact) that it is NOT as simple as it looks. That said, we’re still giggling from the opportunity recently afforded by Formula Experiences, the new extreme lifestyle experience offered at VIRginia International Raceway, near Danville, VA.
With several years of photographing races and volunteering as a corner marshal, plus working as a journalist we may have had a better feeling for what was coming - maybe. We certainly were eagerly anticipating the day at the track, and the experience did not disappoint.
After a phone call from the track’s PR firm, asking if I would be interested in participating in an event with Formula Experiences at VIR. Well, in a word, YES! The timing of the event was convenient too, as we were already at the track for the weekend before, volunteering as a corner flag marshal with the Sports Car Club of America’s races, so we stayed over and played tourist in Danville on Monday before checking into the Lodge on the track and meeting the other writers for dinner in the Oak Tree Tavern before heading over to the South Course pits for rides around the track we would be driving the next day.
First, a ride in the school’s van, just so we can get a rough feel for where the South Course goes – then into the pits to get ready for our rides in one of the Experience two-seaters.
The South Course has been interesting from the start, but the view from inside a car at speed, at night, is something else entirely. Sitting low in the car as a passenger, it’s sometimes hard to see where the next corner is and which direction it goes, then suddenly the road goes another direction, left, down, right, up, two or three at a time it seems when combined with braking and acceleration. None the less, it’s a experience worth pursuing simply on its own at night. We debriefed after the rides and then went back to our rooms in the Lodge at VIR – yes, a race track with a hotel on site!
Morning comes, with quiche, croissants, etc. plus fruit and the usual caffeinated drinks. More course instruction in Formula Experience’s classroom, with pro racer Mike Skeen describing the track and proper lines through the turns, where to brake, how to respond to errors (more on this later!) and then firesuit and helmet fittings. We brought our own helmet, though more on this later, and used a different driver coverall.
The program as we experienced it was based on the Radical SR1 sports racing car, but the option is there to drive a Formula 4 open-wheeler, if that’s more to your liking and skill level. This program is decidedly notfor the masses who queue up to ride along at tracks, it is aimed at people with at least some high performance track experience, not necessarily racing, but at least some clue that the drive is not simple. That said, it’s an absolute blast, even if (like this writer) you make errors, lose your concentration, spin out and don’t fit the car perfectly. The car fitting problem is fixed easily, and would have made our adjustment to the car and track even more enjoyable but we didn’t mention it strongly enough. That’s not the fault of Formula Experiences so be sure to mention any problems encountered in your session.
Rather than being able to watch some of the others on track I got told to get in a car and pull out behind instructor Skeen for a lead/follow session. Ulp, are they sure about this? Two stalls later, thanks to unfamiliarity with the clutch sensitivity, we pull out of the South Paddock pit road and onto the track and into a new world of thrills. Hard on the throttle to try to keep up, then hard on the brakes for the first turn. Colorfully named, it’s a real challenge to execute correctly, as it falls away downhill, is banked wrong and tightens up before the exit. (No wonder it has a negative nickname!) Braking points are easily marked all around the course used and have been explained, so the only excuse for overshooting a turn is driver error – but more about this later. South Course is technical, tricky, sometimes frustrating but above all, it’s a blast to drive hard, in anything, but especially in something nimble and responsive like the Radical we drove.
Driver errors are more than possible, leading to simple dust clouds after running wide or somewhat more embarrassingly, a full spinout due to compounded errors. (Don’t ask how we know this!) Rule One when spinning: Remember to put the clutch in – the Hayabusa engine in the Radical has a starter that will be damaged if it spins backwards – and that’s not cheap, according to the FE staff. Fortunately, we only had a red face episode, not an American Express experience. The cars have paddle shifters, so the clutch is only used leaving the pits and then coasting into the pits at the end of a session. Simple, straightforward and reliable, the cars respond to the slightest touch of the wheel or pedals. The brakes are astounding if you’ve never driven something like this and the harder they’re used, the better they get, right up to the point of lockup, but the cars stop so quickly that this never arose.
Lunch came surprisingly soon, until the clock was referenced – we’d been at it for several hours without noticing the passage of time. Back to their offices for lunch and several stabs at the iRacing™ simulators available. Simply put, we suck at video games, far worse than on the real track. My excuse is the lack of feedback in the brakes and steering, but I might have been escorted off the property after making so many errors of that magnitude in a real car! Fortunately, the only damage was to my ego.
About the helmet mentioned earlier - at high speeds, many helmets will develop enough aerodynamic lift to try to strangle you or at least to be disstracting. Not a real problem if you know it will happen, which fortunately, we were already aware of, but still it's a hassle to drive along at large numbers while trying to hold the helmet down with one hand. Some helmets are better than others - Your Mileage May Vary. Mine would probably not have been quite so bad if I had taken the time to adjust the inner foam for a better fit, but that will be tested later at another session.
The programs offered are aimed at higher end corporate client groups and individuals with the time and experience to enjoy it fully. Perhaps an experienced amateur sports car racer who wants to try a different kind of car, perhaps a racer in another form of motorsports, maybe even someone who has This writer, in spite of ‘losing the sight picture’ more than once, losing his concentration more than once, and multiple (small) errors, had a blast! Would we come back on our own to do it again? You bet!
Look up Formula Experiences at www.formulaexperiences.com
Long-time RIS staffer, beginning in the mid-80s. Charlotte, NC area local contact.