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Formula Vee is for victory if you catch the racing Bug

For the past 50 years, a simple, little, open-wheel racing car, contrived from Volkswagen Beetle parts held together with a few lengths of welded pipe, has transported thousands of would-be-racers like Markham's Peter Viccary over the pit wall and on to the track.

When the idea for Formula Vee – which marks its official half-century this year with events around the world – was first floated in the United States in the early 1960s, it was probably greeted with skepticism.

Who'd want to race something powered by a 40-hp, VW Bug engine? But people did try this new form of racing on the cheap-and-cheerful, and the result was the creation of the most popular open-wheel class in the amateur racing world.

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Yet spectators, and drivers of more macho machinery, are still asking FV racers like Viccary how anybody could get their racing kicks piloting a low-powered car that hasn't changed in any meaningful way in half a century. And the reply they get is still, "Try it."

Anyone watching Viccary arc through Turn One at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in his 1966, Canadian-built Kelly vintage Vee racer might think it's about as excitement-inducing as observing the proverbial duck crossing a mill-pond. Only the really observant will realize there just might be something more going on below its fibreglass surface.

There is. "I know what it looks like," admits Viccary. "It doesn't look like much. If I do it right, it's like I'm on a rail. But inside the car, I'm working like a dog and sweating bullets. If you haven't done it, you can't know what it's like."

What it's like is sitting jammed into a birdcage of bruising steel tubing, wrapped in buzzing bodywork, with your vulnerable Nomex-clad butt a couple of inches off the track, You're looking ahead between a pair of front tires twitching and squirming for grip at maybe 120 km/h; and those tires are trying to twist out of your hands the toy-tiny wheel you're using to keep them on that thin, invisible "line" separating fast through the corner from disaster.

Yeah, but 60 hp? Well, it's enough to accelerate a lightweight FV car surprisingly quickly and, given enough straightaway, to get it to about 200 km/h. Say 160 km/h or so over the crest of the track's Turn Four, and down the chute, perhaps wheel-to-wheel with someone actively involved in disputing the turn-in point for the hairpin with you.

FV's genesis was a 1959 commission from Florida racer and VW dealer Hubert Brundage to engineer Enrico Nardi of Italy (best recalled today perhaps for his classy Nardi steering wheels) to come up with a Formula Junior car based on VW components. When it arrived, it proved uncompetitive, but delivered one of those light bulb moments for Brundage and his buddies, who thought it could provide the basis for an inexpensive "spec racer" class.

Brundage sold the Nardi, reputedly for $1, to Formcar Constructors of Florida which, within a few years, built hundreds of them and spawned competitors in the United States and Canada. FV became a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) class in 1963, and grids were soon packed with them. They took Europe by storm, with VW backing, a few years later.

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SCCA specs mandated mid-60s, 1,200-cc, VW Beetle, air-cooled engines, with limited improvements to push output to about 60 hp, mounted behind the driver, the stock four-speed gearbox and swinging-arm rear suspension, stock front suspension, drum brakes, tubular frame, fibreglass bodywork, and a weight of 472 kilograms.

And that's exactly what Viccary has to work with in vintage races. His son Shane races a car built to essentially the same specs in FV's modern incarnation Formula 1200 (still a great low cost/starter series). He also operates AVR Motorsports arrive-and-drive program (another is operated by Vallis Motor Sport in Welland), which make going F1200 racing even easier.

Toronto-born Viccary, a recently retired Beer Store manager, is a lifelong racing enthusiast, whose British father took him to races at Edanvale and Harewood in the 1950s, and who as a teen enjoyed going to Mt. Tremblant and Mosport, where he watched Formula One, Can-Am and Trans-Am races. "But I always enjoyed the grassroots level, watching guys who were doing it as a hobby," he says.

For most of his life, while interested in going racing, he was "content on the other side of the fence." That changed in 2005 when he spotted the Kelly FV car for sale in Kingston. Wayne Kelly, who lost his life on a sad day at Mosport, was among a number of Canadian Vee builders – among them Altona, Ferret, Huron, Chinook and TSV.

FV was about to do for Viccary what it had done for thousands of others who wanted to go racing, but didn't have a big budget.

After acquiring the car (for $6,700), he ran a couple of times at Shannonville Motorsport Park in Vintage Road Racing Association of Canada (VARAC) events, before turning up for its big annual vintage festival.

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"It was my first time racing at Mosport, and there were 50-plus open-wheel cars on track, from [super-fast] Formula Bs to me, at the tail end. It scared the crap out of me. It felt like I was in a video game with things darting all around me. But by the end of the weekend, I was fine."

And apart from a crash that sidelined the car for a year, it's been "fine" ever since. He races in VARAC's Vintage Historic Class, against a mixed bag of machinery, "at or near the back. Which is okay, I'm having a good time, and that's what it's all about."

Viccary and his son are looking forward to starting their racing year this weekend at the season-opening British Empire Motor Club's Spring Trophy Races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

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