The Thrill of Open Wheel Racing

Open Wheel Racing

Story & photos by Peter Viccary, Moto/ology Contributor

“Real race cars don’t have doors.” I don’t know how many conversations with our illustrious publisher have started with this disclaimer, usually as we are about to discuss/debate the relative merits of a specific race car, and quench our thirsts with an adult beverage.

Stock cars are real race cars, and they don’t really have doors. But they do have fully enclosed bodies and there is a spot where the doors would go.

Race cars built to look like their road going brethren are inherently inefficient because their dimensions, shape and appearance must conform (at least approximately) to their road-going counterparts.

Open-wheel cars tend to be a lot easier to maintain. I can have the body off one of our cars in literally a minute, and two people can lift the engine off the back of one of our cars. Because the cars are smaller and lighter, they tend to be less expensive to repair. Tires also last longer and gas mileage is usually better.

Most significantly, these days real race cars have their engines behind the driver. An open-wheel car isn’t compromised as much as cars which have to conform to their production, road going versions in many ways.

Open-wheel cars are often referred to as Formula Cars, because they are built to conform to a certain set of rules, or a Formula. Back in the day, sports cars and touring cars were modified production cars. Pure racing cars, prototypes and formula cars, were built with a lot more specialization, the ultimate formula being Formula 1.

In reality, to some degree all race cars are formula cars, be they modified street cars or Formula 1 cars, they are all built to a very specific, and usually very restrictive, set of rules.

Open-wheel race cars are more thrilling. The driver and car are sympatico. Only in an open-wheel car can the driver get a heightened sense of what the car is doing. My personal experience is limited to open-wheel cars, and low powered ones at that. But I can attest that being able to see your wheels from the cockpit is one hell of a thrill, one that I have never duplicated in any road car I have driven, no matter where, or how fast I have gone.

There is a very fine line between thrilling and terrifying. The Oxford Dictionary (remember the dictionary? It was a book we used to use to expand our vocabulary and broaden our minds, before Google. I keep mine beside me whenever I write something. However, I digress.) defines thrill as: “noun. 1. wave of nervous tremour of emotion or sensation. 2. throb, pulsation. Verb. 1. (cause to) feel a thrill. 2. quiver or throb with or as with emotion.” Terrifying is pretty much the same, just more.

Formula 5000 was a late 1960s invention of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). All SCCA sanctioned race cars ran in very specific categories, and still do. Over the years, the rules have morphed with the changing times. Each year, races are held across the USA where drivers can earn an invitation to the “runoffs”, where national champions are determined. Formula A, B and C were the amateur open wheel race classes. Formula A were mostly very outdated F1 cars and had very sparse numbers. The SCCA had to either drop the class or reinvent it to something racers would embrace. Enter the 5 litre (305 stock block (mostly Chevy) engines. Any self-respecting engine builder/hot-rodder of the late 1960s could pull 500 horsepower out of one of those things and do it for a relatively reasonable cost.

Formula A became a national class in 1968 and was successful enough that the SCCA announced a pro series for 1969, still branding the cars Formula A, a little difficult to say. The SCCA had been established as an amateur-only racing club after WWII and in the 1960s it was struggling with the notion of professional racing. It had great success with the highly professional Can-Am and Trans-Am series in 1966 and Formula A was ready to go in 1969. For 1970 someone finally realized the problem with the tongue-twisting “Formula A” and changed the name to Formula 5000. It ran as a pro series until 1976, when the SCCA erroneously decided it needed to revive the Can-Am series and decreed that the F5000 cars fitted with full bodies would fill the bill. Wrong.

1969 was the year of wings in Formula 1. Not to be outdone, F5000 cars sprouted them too. Imagine racing a car with that kind of horsepower and torque, with primitive wings and no ground effects, and great big fat slick tires of questionable adhesion. Now that must have been a thrill. I know it was to watch. True professionals such as Brian Redman and Mario Andretti dominated the series, but many semi-pro racers such as John Gunn and Horst Kroll were brave enough to take the challenge. Today there still some brave souls who race F5000s at vintage events. They were, and are, all bat shit crazy.

Paved oval short tracks have their own form of thrilling open wheel race cars. They’re called Super-Modifieds. They are basically modern dinosaurs with 650 horsepower engines offset and tilted to the left in a tube frame with huge tires and a wing the size of a dining room table. This flattens out on the straights to reduce drag and tilts up in the corners to create downforce. At the sadly now-defunct 5/8s-of-a-mile Cayuga/Jukasa Speedway, in Ontario, Canada, “Supers” would reach over 140 mph on a straightaway which wasn’t much longer than the distance from your kitchen to the bathroom. Talk about thrilling. At the start of a feature race, twenty-four tightly packed Super-Modifieds cut such a big hole in the air that the draft they created would actually try to pull you out of the grandstand and in behind them.

It’s true that the “Supers” play to an audience made up of mostly family and friends; and the F5000 Series eventually failed largely because it couldn’t draw a large enough paying crowd. I don’t know why that is.

All forms of racing cars are safer today than they ever were, and that is a good thing. Even our vintage cars are much safer today then they were in their day.  Driver harness systems, helmets and neck restraint devices, better gas tanks, superior tire technology, safer on track protocols all have made racing much safer today than ever before.

Modern Indycars are, in my estimation, quite hideous to look at, but there is no denying that they are safe, and safety has allowed the racing to be more thrilling. Occasionally over recent years the Indycar race on Toronto’s lakefront has come into jeopardy. When CART and IRL merged, the Toronto race was cancelled in favour of Watkins Glen, which was scheduled for the same weekend. When this kind of thing happens, we hear rumblings about Indycar going back to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (aka Mosport). Now that would be thrilling, and just a little terrifying. CTMP is thrilling in any type of open wheel car. It is just so fast. Could you imagine a cluster of 200+ mph Indycars battling wheel to wheel into turn eight?

I came to this article with the intent of trying to convince you that open wheel racing is just as safe as closed wheel racing. I couldn’t do that, because I can’t convince myself. The simple fact is that open wheel cars are, generally more dangerous than closed wheel race cars. Maybe that’s part of the thrill.

But open wheel racing isn’t always perceived as dangerous. A number of years ago I was redesigning my financial portfolio and along with that purchased a more appropriate life insurance package. I was very up front with the insurance company about my hobby. No good having my life insurance voided when they found out I died in a race car of which they were not aware. I compared my racing with beer league hockey, and they were quite comfortable with that and made no adjustment to my premiums. Speaking of beer league hockey, I dislocated a finger in a game recently, and while driving to Markham/Stouffville Hospital I realized that I have been to their emergency five times for recreational hockey injuries.

One of my most thrilling moments behind the wheel of a race car came at Grattan Raceway in Michigan. We were racing with VSCDA, the Vintage Sports Car Drivers’ Association. This would be my first experience in a large Formula Vee only group. We were having issues with the car, and I’m not particularly fast anyway, so I started near the back of about twenty-five cars. Grattan is a busy track, but the start/finish is on a long straightaway. Twenty-five race cars in a group create a lot of draft, even FVs. As we approached turn one, a 90 degree slightly up hill right hander, I realized I was going quite a bit faster than those around me and passed about six cars. It was exhilarating, and not scary at all. Unfortunately, a persistent throttle linkage issue made shifting from 3rd to 4th very difficult and I had to pit for repairs, ruining my race. But it was thrilling while it lasted.

At Calabogie in 2017 we used the short track for Saturday and the long version on Sunday. I qualified reasonably, 13th in a mixed vintage/historic grid of fifteen. I much prefer the short track at Calabogie. Two of the long straights, which are not my friends, were eliminated. Calabogie’s start/finish is on a medium length straight. The short track breaks off to a sweeping 90degree right hand corner which is quite fast, followed by a fairly long straight. I was pretty much holding my own. The track makes a quick, almost flat out, right hand turn into a complex known as the head of the duck, because on a map that is what it looks like. I stuck hard to the right, not normally the racing line, jumping over the rumble strip to avoid a car which had the same idea. The cars on my left, taking the normal line, seemed to stumble over each other, and I came out of the turn in 4th. As we exited the head of the duck, a Lotus Super 7 had spun off to driver’s right, and I was 3rd. Pretty lofty heights. Needless to say, it didn’t last long. The field dusted itself off, regrouped and chased me down. I finished 12th, but less than 3 seconds from 9th, as four of us had joined in a great battle. It was thrilling.

Racing an open-wheel race car in the rain is an extraordinary experience, one that could not be duplicated in a closed car. The rooster tail from the front tires is plainly visible, as is the slip angle of the wheels. The driver really feels as one with his car. It is both thrilling and terrifying.

Watching someone you care about race is thrilling. Don’t allow terrifying to come into the equation. My son Shane races our ’81 Zink Formula Ford. The plan when I bought it was for us to share it, but he is so passionate about his driving the car that I am happy for him to drive. He is a true student of the game. He is mature, and fully aware of the consequences of bad judgement on the track. Shane and the car are competitive enough that he is usually at or near the front of a vintage Formula Ford field, which is thrilling and a little nerve wracking. I know now how his mother feels.

It isn’t too difficult to find events with FF only fields, but generally you must go Stateside to find them. Before the pandemic, we travelled to Watkins Glen to race with VRG, Vintage Racers’ Group, where they attract 40 plus Vintage FFs. Shane has won races both times we were there, and we hope to go again, now that travelling is back on the table. In the Fall of 2019, we travelled Road America for the 50th anniversary of FF in the US. Over 200 FFs participated. Shane raced in a 61-car grid of Club Fords and came home 16th. Road America is a long track, nearly four and one-half miles, but sixty-one cars is a huge number. There were cars everywhere; everyone had a group to race with. Touching wheels was not an option. I saw one wheel to wheel contact, fortunately without much damage or injury, but for a second it was quite terrifying. Overall, the racing was thrilling.

If you are interested in finding out first-hand how thrilling open wheel racing can be, plan to attend the VARAC Vintage Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park on the Father’s Day weekend in June. The VRG Formula Ford Challenge Series will be attending, joined by a healthy group of Canadian FFs. In addition, the Toyo Tires F1600 series of twenty to thirty modern F1600s will be attending, and there will be a race for a mixed group of Vintage and Historic open wheel cars.

Or, take in the Indycars which will be returning to the Canadian National Exhibition circuit this summer, after a two-year pandemic-related absence.

There’s also to be a gathering of the vintage/historic Formula 1 cars of the Masters Series at CTMP’s Chevrolet Grand Prix for Sportscars weekend on July 1 – 3, 2022.

That’s just a few of the many interesting opportunities to see many different kinds of open-wheeled race cars in action. Just get out there and be thrilled.


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