It was definitely a late green flag; the lead cars had pulled to within perhaps a hundred feet of the line when I saw the starter’s shoulder twitch. My fuel-injection-trained right foot flattened the accelerator pedal with all the delicacy of a drunken pig. The flat-four VW engine behind me sputtered, then roared in response. Spotting two low-slung open-wheelers entering Turn One in tandem, I nosed in and made us a tight-knit trio traveling at nearly 100 mph.
VW-powered formula cars at Nelson Ledges? It could have been an SCCA Formula Vee race from 1965—but it was actually a practice day in 2019, held by the Formula First Drivers Association. Formula Vee, of course, is an SCCA class for featherweight single-seaters powered by a 1200-cc VW Beetle engine. Over the past 60 years or so, thousands of drivers have used the class as a stepping stone to bigger and more dramatic opportunities. Thousands more have happily stayed in Vees for their entire careers, citing the affordable, approachable nature of the cars and the deep talent pool of what has come to be a very driver-centric class.
More recently, however, “FV” has encountered a few challenges, including the costs involved in running up front and the somewhat ungenerous accommodations for larger drivers in its most competitive chassis. Formula First offers a simpler rule set built around 1600-cc engines, larger tires, and more leeway in permitted wheelbase. The resulting cars are cheaper to build, cheaper to run, and often a second or two per lap faster.
I joined several Formula First drivers for a thoroughly charming test day at Nelson Ledges last October. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, I could easily fit in almost every chassis present. “FST” cars turn lower lap times than Spec Miatas and many other sedan race classes thanks to significantly higher cornering speeds. You can set one up to handle in safe and predictable fashion, or you can tune to the ragged edge. No power steering, ABS, or stability control to get between you and the track. The driver community is enthusiastic and supportive. What’s not to like?
With 100-plus cars competing both here and overseas, Formula First looks set to continue the open-wheel VW tradition for years to come. A complete car can be had for $8000, with per-event costs as low as $300.
Find out more at formulafirst.org.