Can you hear that creaking sound? That’s the sound of me opening Pandora’s Box once again. At the risk of alienating oh, maybe 95% of our readership—I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that, in my opinion, Formula Ford drivers are among the best drivers in historic racing today. Now, before you start organizing your local editorial recall campaign, let me explain my rationale why.
At the end of June, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to race one of Sabina Precision Preparation’s 1976 LeGrand Mk21 Formula Fords at the HSR-West Historic Festival at California Speedway. Since it’s been over five years since I raced Formula Ford in my Lotus, I came into this race with pretty low expectations and a fair bit of trepidation as the Historic Festival utilizes all of California Speedway’s Long Course—including 75% of the high-banked oval. For those of you who have raced at Daytona or California Speedway, you know what I mean by trepidation. Having never raced on a super-speedway before, my mind was filled with images of any one of a million speedway crashes that resulted in the car going backward (or worse—forward!) into the wall, with the hapless driver having an early Monday morning appointment with the tailor to have all his pant cuffs shortened by a couple of inches. In fact, for the entire first day of the event, every time I entered the Turn 1 banking—flat out in fourth gear—I found myself reciting a new mantra, “Please don’t break. Please don’t break. Please don’t break…” However, once I realized that the car wasn’t going to break, and that I wouldn’t need that appointment with Terry Trammel after all, I was able to get my head around actually racing the car. And what great racing it was.
I had forgotten how much concentration and skill it takes to really drive a Formula Ford fast. Unlike some categories of racing, where horsepower can hide a myriad of driving sins, Formula Ford requires you to “hussle” the car and carry speed through every corner if you’re going to be competitive. This was underscored by the fact that the top six of us in a 25 car field were covered by just a second or so a lap, on a track where a good lap time was in the 1:53 range. But what made this race even more exciting and interesting was the fact that because we were using about 75% of the super speedway, drafting became ultracritical. Since Formula Fords “ideally” all make about the same horsepower, that mile and a half of speedway that we ran through each lap was spent flat out in top gear, usually in a 3-6 car draft. This is not something that we as historic racers get to experience very often, and as such this means that you have to have a tremendous amount of trust in the capabilities of your fellow drivers. I really had to marvel at how well everyone did in our group. In our Sunday race, we ran sometimes two and three abreast through the banking—six cars nose to tail or wheel to wheel—without incident and with countless lead swaps.
Looking back on it after the race, I became more and more impressed with the quality of driving that I witnessed both that weekend and over the years in historic Formula Ford. I think one reason that historic Formula Ford drivers seem so proficient is that so many of them have been driving these cars for so long. When I look at the sharp end of many of this year’s historic Formula Ford fields, I see drivers who have not only been racing these cars for a decade or more in vintage racing, but many who raced them when they were new! While many drivers in other categories tend to move up the “historic food chain” to ever-faster machinery, there is something about Formula Ford that keeps these drivers in their Kent-powered cars, year after year. Maybe it’s the low cost, or the ease of maintenance, or even just the purity of the category that coerces them to stay put. However, if what I was fortunate to be a part of at California Speedway is any indication, it is the “hammer and tongs” racing and the confidence to know that you can go three abreast into a turn—flat out—and exit out the other side with all your body parts in the same place, that keeps these men and women coming back for more.