As I read my assignment, my heart began pounding – Formula Experiences. Formula, I think to myself, as in Formula race cars? Am I dreaming? Someone pinch me . . .
I’ve done a lot of cool things behind the wheel: participated in dozens of autocross events, raced in 24 Hours of LeMons and Chumpcar, driven the canyons outside of Los Angeles, and traversed the wilds of Australia’s Fraser Island in a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny. But I never dreamed I’d have an opportunity to ride in, let alone drive a true race car.
That’s something for the bucket list.
One & Only
And that’s exactly the concept Peter Heffring, entrepreneur, software CEO, adventurer, and avid racer – along with his team of highly skilled mechanics – have debuted at Virginia International Raceway, or more locally known as VIR. The place sat vacant until 2000 but has grown considerably in its nearly two decades. Peter’s vision, Formula Experiences, is one such example of how VIR has expanded and flourished – in fact, it’s the only place in America where enthusiasts and race fans can get this close to formula and prototype cars.
Peter didn’t necessarily have a playbook to follow to bring the Formula Experiences concept to fruition, but its execution works: it provides the customer with a personalized experience that cannot be matched. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, was simple enough: arrive at VIR and meet at the Oak Tree Tavern for dinner and orientation.
I arrive early, of course – I simply must sneak in and catch a glimpse of these cars.
Friendly Greetings & Fantastic Machines
As I arrive at the unassuming red building I’m immediately greeted by two friendly faces: Ty, who is Formula Experiences’ General Manager – a pleasant and easy-going guy, always ready to assist – and Chief Engineer Rhys who is on loan to Formula Experiences from the Radical UK plant in Peterborough.
Opened in 1997, Radical builds prototype series racing cars. With seven cars in their current lineup, Radical’s offerings range from the $70,000 “entry level” SR1 for those looking to enter into club sports with a fully prepped race car, to the $250,000 plus RXC GT3. None of these track-specific cars are considered road legal but Radical does offer a version of the RXC for road use, designated for those brave enough to drive it on U.S. streets.
Formula Experiences owns a small fleet of about six of these Prototype-style 2018 Radicals, as well as two Formula-style 2018 Ligier JS F4s for younger drivers ready to make the move to open wheel from karting. Little did I know, but the first car that caught my eye – a bright blue Radical SR3 – would become my track toy for a day.
The Radical SR1s and SR3s at Formula Experiences are otherworldly in their presence: low and wide, with wings, air vents, and roll bars jutting out from all angles. Bodywork that is function first, form a distant memory. This purpose-built track machine may not be considered beautiful in the traditional sense, but it certainly demands attention, even while sitting perfectly still.
Start the engine and blip the throttle just once and every head in a quarter mile radius is going to turn your direction. Presence, passion, speed – “Who is driving that race car? They must be pretty serious. I want to do that some day!”
Make no mistake, these cars were never intended to be driven by novices. However, Peter has structured his program around education by combining virtual reality simulation, classroom lessons, on-track instruction, a ride-along to feel the G-forces and to understand the braking points, as well as a follow-the-leader training approach. Peter can, with this approach, take a novice and make them competent and, more importantly, relaxed and confident in these seemingly out-of-reach racing cars in just one day.
Early & Energized
We started first thing but the weather at VIR Resort simply couldn’t be better. Clad in my race suit, I arrive a little groggy – I didn’t get much sleep, as I spent all night asking myself over and over again: am I really ready for this?
Peter and his crew are quick with pleasantries and the VR trainers are configured and ready to go. Breakfast will arrive shortly – why not get a few laps in on the trainers before we get started? I sit down at the first trainer and VIR’s South Course is already pulled up – an exact digital reproduction of the track we’re about to drive. The trainer is surprisingly realistic with solid haptic feedback, great surrounding visuals, and slight movements in the seat to simulate weight transfer.
“I bet someone would pay just to do this all day” I think out loud, and Peter is quick to note that it’s certainly an option. A fully-customized opportunity for each person is at the heart of Formula Experiences’ objectives.
We get to chatting a bit more and Peter lets me know these aren’t your typical racing SIMs – these are professional trainers that Peter uses to hone his skills before any competition, spending countless hours right here, learning every corner. You can compare your times to professional drivers around the world to see how you stack up. They, under the guise of pseudonyms, use this very same setup in their own professional training programs.
Fast-forward a bit and I’ve spun or walled my virtual race car a dozen times – I’ve hardly made it around the track without doing something completely moronic. Of course, I’ve never been good at racing games so it’s probably just me, right? The other guys working the trainers next to me are doing just fine and I wonder again: am I really ready for this?
Class In Session
We move to the classroom portion of our day, reviewing safety concerns, going over track conditions, flagging, and other track tips. But Peter has a slightly different approach which I really appreciated: Formula Experiences uses a video narrated by a professional driver to go over every minute detail of the exact course we are about to drive from the perspective of the car we’re about to step into – fantastic.
The classroom doesn’t end there as we pile into Peter’s SUV so he can take us on the track to discuss the setup for each corner, navigation, and what to look for. The simulator still has me a bit on edge but the classroom training and on-course training has helped significantly.
Locked & Loaded
My nerves move from apprehension to excitement as we pull back into headquarters. We begin preparing and head to the garage where Peter has selected the aforementioned stunning blue SR3 as my track toy for the day. With a zero to 60 time of 3.1 seconds and a top speed of 147 mph, this car is undoubtedly fast, but the real stat here that begs all the attention is this: lateral G-force in the 2.3 range – no road-going car is even close to this level.
In fact, the fastest cars you can imagine – Porsche, Ferrari, GTR – barely break 1 G.
I load up my cameras and Chief Engineer Rhys goes over his final checks on the car. Formula Experiences leaves nothing to chance and they live by the mantra that an over-prepped car is the best and only option. If the car is right, very little can go wrong and in this business, nothing can ever go wrong.
I awkwardly lower myself into the SR3. Carbon fiber and racing harnesses surround me. A few switches and dials, and with the push-button start, the car roars to life.
“Rev her up to 2,000 rpm or so and count to five while you let out the clutch – everyone stalls the first time.”
I stall it at least three times before I get a feel for the clutch engagement and then eventually pull off with a jerk and a rumble.
Driving through the paddock at low speed was interesting in itself. Every single pair of eyes is watching, wondering and I imagine lusting at the sight of such incredible machines. We enter the South Course and Peter goes straight onto the track. I follow.
The rush of air sucking into the intake just behind my head, the G-forces thrusting me deep into the carbon racing seat, the sound of the motor pushing towards the 10,000 rpm rev limiter, and the crack of the gearbox as gear changes are clicked off in milliseconds from the paddle shifters – this thing is incredible! My first thoughts are lost as euphoria washes over me. My left foot finds the dead pedal (these cars are fully automatic once out of neutral) and my right foot goes to the floor.
Second gear, third gear, fourth gear, and then hard on the brakes down, down, down to second, look for the apex and turn-in and OH MY GOD – the grip is insane! I’ve never felt anything like it!
Clip the apex, eye the exit, the car settles and back on the throttle, foot to the floor – third gear, fourth gear, the track dips and turns skyward and it’s hard back on the brakes. Up and over and into the Spiral, a very fun section of the South Course that corkscrews down into a hard left, find my exit back on the throttle and into the Fish Hook – you can hold your speed with an early exit here, track out and back to flat as you push the car up and over a small blind.
I lose my nerve and let off the gas as the track comes back into focus, through the south bend, back on full-throttle, and the car screams as I dive into Oak Tree . . . poor thing. (An actual oak tree was VIR’s iconic landmark until it came down in 2013.) Oak Tree is a fast corner if you have the experience and don’t stare down the tire wall; otherwise, it’s a constant annoyance where you take the corner too slowly each time.
I fall into the latter category but the payoff comes next: exiting the Oak Tree I track out, mash the pedal and click through all six gears on the front straight. I hit 120 mph and then squeeze on the brakes hard, down, down, down, down to second before doing it all over again.
Attention To Detail
The experience around the track is exhilarating but what’s going on behind the scenes is even more impressive. Peter and his team constantly ask questions, monitor progress and look for every opportunity to keep us relaxed, engaged, having fun, and achieving the ultimate objective: getting faster. Every time I pitted, Rhys & Ty scrambled to help me out of the car while checking the car’s vitals. Rhys, with his laptop plugged in, was gathering and reviewing every piece of data – and my SR3 was performing flawlessly.
We talked through everything and after a bit of one-on-one coaching from Peter, I’m back in the seat.
Packaging & Pricing
I lost count of how many laps I put in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that number approached or surpassed the 50 mark. Through it all I felt a total connection with the Radical SR3, Peter, his crew, and Formula Experiences but with packages starting at $1,995 for a one-day driving experience (training, coaching, ride-alongs, and six driving sessions) plus $1,000 for the recommended insurance, Formula Experiences isn’t exactly an inexpensive day at the track.
An all-inclusive luxury experience package runs around $6,000.
I look at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and from that perspective, and compared to the cost of similar on-track driving experiences I investigated, the price tag falls in line for a full day session. You get to appreciate how extreme aero works, feel two Gs of grip, and you get a ton of seat time with Formula Experiences.
Put it on your list – it’s worth saving up for.
Aaron Benson is a life-long auto enthusiast, shade-tree mechanic, and freelance writer with years of experience competing in Autocross, 24 Hours of LeMons, and Chumpcar. He resides out of Raleigh, North Carolina and his other interests include software, mountain biking, ice hockey, and Magic the Gathering. Connect with him here on LinkedIn.
Stats & Facts
0-60: 3.5 seconds
Top Speed: 138 mph
Weight: 1080 lbs
Power to weight: 6.17 lbs/hp
Lateral G-force: 1.9 g
0-60: 3.1 Seconds
Top Speed: 147 MPH
Weight: 1367 lbs
Power to weight: 6.08 lbs/hp
Lateral G-Force: 2.3 g
VIR South Course
Length: 1.65 miles
Number of corners: 9
Elevation change: 371’
Lowest point: 32’ above sea level (Spiral)
Highest point: 403’ above sea level (Oak Tree)
Disclaimer: Formula Experiences provided Aaron the same track day experience a customer would receive, in exchange for an honest review. This article was not sponsored or paid for in any way.