There is a real, enduring mystique about racecars and the people who drive them. They’re confident, competent, and ever-so-slightly cavalier. They are in tune with themselves and the complex machines they pilot. They dance on the edge of control and chaos. They cut outsize, dashing figures in our imagination. They’re heroic. And who doesn’t want to be a hero?
Need for Speed
Don’t be misled by Virginia International Raceway’s name. VIR doesn’t feel properly Virginian. It’s a racecourse nestled in the hills a half-mile from the North Carolina border, and it’s closer to Raleigh than to Richmond. But it is different from its southern cousin, Charlotte Motor Speedway, in one significant way. Whereas Charlotte Motor Speedway is primarily an oval track, VIR is a winding road course designed to emulate the twists, turns, and elevation changes of public roads.
It’s also historic, originally built in the ’50s, and much of the full 3.27-mile track resembles bucolic, twisty back roads. It’s iconic, playing host to an alphabet soup of racing series: SCCA, IMSA, NASCAR. Roger Penske, Skip Barber, Richard Petty, Don Yenko, and Carroll Shelby have all competed here.
Peter Heffring has chosen VIR to be the home of Formula Experiences. Heffring, an engineer who also happens to be a racecar driver, started Formula Experiences as a retirement passion project: a way to share his love for driving and to do it in as immersive a way as possible.
There are typically two types of driving experiences and schools. On one end of the spectrum, there are highly scripted dog-and-pony shows designed to give novice drivers a taste of speed while keeping them safe. Time behind the wheel is measured in minutes, and there’s almost always a babysitter riding shotgun to ensure no one does anything stupid. On the other end, there are the serious driving schools for serious drivers looking to hone their skills. It’s more immersive, but with immersion comes pressure to perform. It’s more work than play.
Formula Experiences splits the difference. There is no set curriculum—Heffring tailors each experience to the skill level and desires of prospective drivers—but the ultimate goal is fun. For the average driver, that means a combination of high-speed ride-alongs with Heffring and his professional drivers; just enough instruction to keep everyone safe while introducing the basics; simulator sessions; and plenty of track time in an honest-to-God single-seat racecar. It’s high immersion, low pressure.
At this point, it’s worth noting that driving cars is an inherently dangerous proposition. Driving them at high speed, even more so. However, Formula Experiences provides the appropriate safety equipment for each driver (racing suits, helmets, driving shoes, gloves), and Heffring and his staff go to great lengths to establish ground rules and to ensure clients are comfortable before anyone gets into a car. Once on track, drivers only go as quickly as they wish, and can come into pit lane at any time they feel uncomfortable.
In practice, it seems safer than being on I-85 during rush hour: there’s no oncoming traffic, plenty of room, no passing, and fewer variables that can ruin your day. And if you’re like me and most other drivers, you’ll likely run out of courage long before you outstrip the car’s capabilities.
Speaking of the car—driving Formula Experiences’ Radical SR1 is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. I don’t care if you have a BMW M3 or a Dodge Hellcat. SR1s are purpose-built racecars, not streetcars modified to go fast. It has four wheels, a drivetrain, a big wing, some fiberglass panels, a steering wheel, and that’s about it. Even the seat is simply a hard piece of plastic molded into the suggestion of a sitting position.
Here are a few relevant specs for reference: 0-60mph in 3.5 seconds; top speed of 138mph; lateral acceleration of 1.9g; weight of 1,080lbs; and 175 horsepower.
You might be tempted to scoff at the horsepower figure because a 2019 Toyota Camry—a car no one considers high-performance—holds 203 horses under the hood. But then consider this: that Camry is three times as heavy as an SR1. In fact, by that metric, the SR1 hauls less weight around, per horsepower, than a brand new Porsche 911 GT3 RS or a BMW M3 (F80). In short, the SR1— only an entry-level racecar—is a purpose-built monster relative to what any of us mere mortals experiences.
It sounds and drives like a monster, too. The engine—a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder Suzuki superbike powerplant that revs to nearly 10,000rpm—sits mere inches behind you in the car. And it screams. Even with the helmet muffling most sounds, you can always hear the engine egging you on. So you flick the paddle shifter to select the next gear up, mash the gas pedal, and listen to it scream some more.
All the while, you’re fighting to keep your eyes on where you’re going, because while the SR1 product brochure says there’s a wind deflector, there’s really nothing to block the slipstream from buffeting your helmeted head backwards and upwards. It gets even more complicated, should you enter a turn at speed. The SR1 is capable of sticking to the ground even when it’s accelerating—sideways—at 1.9 times Earth’s gravitational force. Should you drive to that limit (you won’t), your head will suddenly feel twice as heavy, and it will also want to go sideways.
The only reason the rest of you stays put is due to a five-point racing harness. Earlier in pit lane, when Heffring’s crew was prepping you and the car, that harness was ratcheted down so tight you could barely breathe. Now, it’s almost not tight enough. There’s just a hint of play and movement. It’s not enough to cause real concern, but enough to remind you that you’re going through this tight hairpin turn at three times the speed you’d normally consider. (This is also the point at which you realize the SR1 will take more, but your courage has nothing left to give it.)
After a twenty-minute session, Heffring’s crew waves you back into pit lane to rotate drivers and give you a breather. When you release the harness and clamber out, you realize you’re dripping sweat and shaking—maybe from the adrenaline coursing through your body, maybe from your heart pounding so damn quickly in your throat, maybe from the fumes of high-octane race gas.
Heffring’s crew comes by to check on you and the car, but as soon as they see the big, goofy grin on your face, they know everything is golden. There are still a few more 20-minute sessions left before the day wraps, and you realize you might have more to give the car. The SR1 is so capable that, for average drivers, it inspires nothing but confidence. You can get faster.
That’s the crux of Formula Experiences. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding. You won’t become Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, or Lewis Hamilton in a few sessions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste—a real meaty bite—of what being a racecar driver is like. And along with that, maybe you get a sense of what it’s like to be a hero.
Formula Experiences, 1131 North Paddock Lane; Virginia International Raceway, Alton, Virginia. formulaexperiences.com. Driving packages start at $1,495; corporate options available.