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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: No Need For Speed

Ralph Gardner Jr. at Formula Experiences, Virginia International Raceway

I’m more of the bird watching type than the racecar driving type. Beauty and tranquility, peaceful walks in the woods are my thing, rather than roaring around a race track at a hundred thirty miles an hour.

I’m not suggesting I’m better or different than anybody else. Only that most people aren’t presented with both options simultaneously and required to choose. 

The opportunity arose last week when I went down to Virginia to report a magazine article about Formula Experiences. That’s a new company that puts you behind the wheel of a brand new race car at the legendary Virginia International Raceway. The speed junkie resort is nestled in the countryside near the Virginia-North Carolina border. 

At least I’m informed VIR is legendary. I don’t know that from personal experience. I don’t follow the sport of racecar driving. Frankly, I don’t understand what the fuss is about watching a bunch of deafening automobiles circle a racetrack five hundred times. It all appears rather monotonous to me.

I actually drove a racecar on a previous occasion at Lime Rock, a racetrack in Lakeville, Connecticut that I’m also told is legendary. That was also for a story and my companion was Larry Webster, at the time the editor of Road and Track magazine and an amateur racecar driver. 

For car aficionados, our vehicle was a Lotus Evora S.

I recall two things from that experience. The first was the fear I felt as Mr. Webster took sharp curves approaching a hundred miles an hour. I’d never previously experienced such extreme G forces. I thought I finally understood what the Apollo astronauts felt like when they were launched to the moon atop a Saturn V rocket.

My other recollection is my wife’s mockery, which persists to this day. Watching from the reviewing stand she remarked upon the way I’d roar through the straightaways only to slow to granny speeds whenever I entered a curve. 

So I may have been somewhat better prepared than the average citizen during my first night in Virginia when I got in the passenger seat of a Radical SR3, a British race car. My driver was Peter Heffring, the eminence behind Formula Experiences.

However, before embarking on my trip I’d consulted with Michael Schrom, a friend, upstate neighbor, racecar driver and 2003 winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona behind the wheel of a Porsche 911.

I asked Michael what the allure was of driving a racecar at night?

“Your senses are heightened,” he told me. 

But I knew from my experience with Larry Webster at Lime Rock that my senses would be fully on edge whether I was riding along in the middle of the afternoon or the dark of night. 

Your senses have a way of snapping to attention when you’re afraid of dying. 

In any case, the Virginia night ride-along was appropriately terrifying, Mr. Heffring hitting speeds in the mid 130s before slamming on the breaks as we entered a curve. 

Oh. And, as opposed to the Lime Rock Lotus we happened to be in an open cockpit. Image if you were flying from New York to L.A… outdoors.

Bird watching, at least the desire to bird watch, arose the following morning when I sat on the patio outside my hotel room on the grounds of Virginia International Raceway waiting for my ride to take me over to the Formula Experiences garage to suit up. 

It was a beautiful, warm, cloudless morning. And VIR looks more like a horse racing stable than a automobile and motorcycle race track, the kind of place where you’d expect to see Secretariat living the good life rather than cars flying around curves.

In fact, part of the resort’s 4.2-mile course ran directly in front of my room. 

However, it was empty at that time of the morning for good reason: the track was reserved for our group. 

I’m willing to admit that my predilection for birding was influenced by apprehensions about what the day held and whether I’d survive to write about it. But how I’d wished I’d remembered to bring my traveling binoculars along so I could identify some of the life-affirming birds chirping in the trees.

Apparently, the attraction of Formula Experiences is that it’s as close you’re going to get to being in the Indy 500. What helps distinguish it from other racing adventures is the freedom it offers to get behind the wheel of a racecar with few if any limits as to speed.

Also, the track isn’t an oval. It’s got long straightaways and stark curves, often in quick succession, as well as dips and elevations. Actually, it’s not unlike driving the Taconic State Parkway if you were allowed to do so at 140 miles an hour.

My fellow participants that morning, and through the afternoon as well, were several successful businessmen from the Raleigh-Durham area who approached the adventure as something of a bucket list experience. 

My bucket list, to the extent I have one, would be more inclined toward things like visiting a Zen rock garden in Japan.

I made it clear to Mr. Heffring and his pit crew that testing the design limits on his fleet of 2018 racecars wasn’t a requirement for my coming away with a good story. Indeed, I embraced the philosophy of Heather Satterfield, Formula Experience’s business manager who noted that, “even if you’re only going 25 mph you’re still in a race car.”

I well exceeded that speed, though I was routinely lapped by my fellow drivers. Then again, unlike several of them I didn’t fish tail, spin out, lose my breakfast, or incur any damage that would test the limits of my car insurance policy.

I’m pleased to report that, while I’m glad I made the trip down south, I’m relieved to be back upstate, trying to identify the birdsong outside my window and contemplating a walk to the pond in the company of my dog.

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