Formula 1 Experience

Your senses are heightened,” was the enigmatic, but enthusiastic response I got from a friend, a past winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, when I asked what was the allure of driving 140 mph around a racetrack in the dead of night. However well meaning, it wasn’t very helpful. Of course, your senses are heightened. That’s what happens when you’re afraid of dying.

I was headed to Formula Experiences, a new racecar driving concept at Virginia International Raceway, home of the world’s first open-cockpit, night ride-along. Mingling the fragrance of the Virginia countryside with the smell of petrol, 2G downforces and hurricane-style winds, it is but one of the adventures. 

The brainchild of Peter Heffring, a software entrepreneur and amateur racecar competitor, it boasts a fleet of 2018 British Radical SR series and Ligier Formula 4 racecars, the fastest able to reach 173 mph. The idea is to get clients as close as possible to the Formula One or Indycar experience. “This isn’t a race school,” Heffring explains. “It’s a bucket list experience.” I can attest that he achieves that goal, if anything too successfully. When the brakes slammed going into a curve at 140 mph I knew what it would feel like to fly from New York to L.A.—in the open air.

And the course itself isn’t some monotonous oval. It alternates between straightaways and hairpin curves (a couple in rapid succession; one called the Bitch for good reason), and elevation changes that would test even a professional driver’s reflexes.

The one- and two-day sessions (starting at $1,495) include one-on-one coaching, pro simulator training to help drivers reach top speeds, dozens of laps around the track and a cool T-shirt. I didn’t reach the SR1’s 138 mph top speed. On the other hand I didn’t spin out, crack up cars or lose my breakfast as did several of my fellow drivers (mostly successful businessmen from the Raleigh-Durham area with a surplus of testosterone). 

Part of the fun of the spare-no-expense experience—from the equipment to the personnel to the sparkling garage—is the venue, a 1,300-acre luxury racecar driving resort on the North Carolina-Virginia border. “We like to call this the B&B of driving experiences,” Heffring said. After a day tempting mortality it’s nice to know that you can avail yourself of the pool, spa and some excellent Southern cooking.