Driving a car around a track is fun, on that we can agree. But one of the biggest obstacles facing would-be boy and girl racers is cost. It ain't cheap to go racing, and the higher you climb the ladder, the more expensive it gets.
But there is an affordable way to get your kicks on the track: Formula 1200 or, as it's known in other parts of Canada and around the world, Formula Vee. Affordable and fun-intensive, this is open-wheel, grass roots racing at its purest, and has been the starting point for more than one high-profile racer - Bobby Rahal, Niki Lauda, and Emerson Fittipaldi, for example. And it's all thanks to the legendary VW Beetle flat-four engine.
It's also growing in popularity. Harry O'Neal, president of the Formula 1200 Driver's Association of Ontario, reckons there are at least 20 cars campaigning regularly on tracks like Shannonville, Calabogie, and Mosport, and - surprise - it's drawing younger people into the fold.
"Over the past few years, we've seen more and more drivers enter the sport - of all ages," he says. "If you've grown up racing go-karts, for example, this is the next logical step."
You can get a used but reasonably competitive and race-ready Formula Vee racer for around $10,000 to $12,000 and, typically, a race weekend will cost you $350 to $500 in expenses, barring catastrophic breakdown or collision damage - $5,000 should cover all your expenses for a season.
Even if you do go off the track and hit something you shouldn't, it isn't the end of the world. "You can rebuild the entire front end of most Formula 1200 cars for about $500," O'Neal explains. "A Formula Atlantic or Ford would cost you about $1,000 a corner, and you'll pay at least $40,000 for a decent car."
The rules for Formula 1200 are simple but ironclad, and rigorously enforced. The cars can weigh no less than 464 kilograms and must be powered by a stock-specification, horizontally-opposed, air-cooled Volkswagen four-cylinder engine displacing no more than 1,200 cc.
Power output is around 55-60 horsepower, and the cars utilize a stock VW transaxle with stock wheels and brakes. No aerodynamic down-force devices are allowed, and the engines cannot have electronic ignition or a larger carburetor. Things like a lightened flywheel, balanced engine internals, ported heads and so on are okay, but if you try to pull a fast one and fit your car with high-performance goodies, the other drivers will know right away, and you may be asked to tear down your engine and prove that it's kosher.
Racing in this class is all about providing a level playing field, and may the best driver win. "The secret to success in Formula 1200," says O'Neal, "is being smooth. This is a driver's series and everyone starts out pretty evenly matched."
Which doesn't mean the cars are slugs. You can top 200 km/h on the back-straight of a track like, oh, Mosport and, like any small race car, you feel like you're going like the clappers even when you're not.
It's also a good way to get your feet wet or fulfill a dream. Drivers span all age groups, from 20-year-olds fresh from the go-kart tracks, to old-timers driving into the sunset.
"The go-kart drivers have to learn to respect the bigger wheels," adds O'Neal. "Contact between cars is not going to work in this class. This is gentleman's racing."
And some of those gentlemen are getting up in years. O'Neal tells of a 70-year-old driver who competes at one of the Ontario tracks and is still going strong. "Until about halfway through the race, then he starts to get kind of tired."
Not slowing down is 64-year-old Gayle Baird, who recently purchased a vintage AutoDynamics racer and plans to drive it on courses in B.C. and Washington State.
"I'm just a little old lady who drives to the mall," she jokes, "and I'm at the time of my life where I don't have a lot of time left. I figure if you're going to do it, then do it. What else am I going to do? Sit around and knit?"
Baird's car was actually built in the 1960s, but it doesn't matter, because the specs and style of racing haven't changed much over the years, and her car is still as competitive as a brand-new model. "It was actually owned by a well-known American driver named Dick Ryan," she explains, "and was raced on tracks in California and Mexico."
One of her fiercest rivals on the track will be her daughter, Pam, who also drives a Formula Vee. These two have got it bad; in addition to her Formula Vee racer, Gayle runs a Honda Civic in the Production class, and Pam has a Formula Atlantic car.
So how does one get involved in Formula 1200 racing? In addition to various professional racing schools throughout the country, the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs offers driving courses in Ontario, and the Formula 1200 Drivers Association of Ontario can also point you in the right direction.
For more info, go to: Formula1200.com, or casc.on.ca.