Add the words “open-wheel” to any form of racing and you can usually tack on a few more zeros to the price tag. Inherently pricey, due to low production numbers, and specialized construction — open-wheel cars often embody the leading edge of chassis design, geometry, and suspension, but if you are sick of working around a gutted body there is a another affordable option.
The Volkswagen Beetle is not a performance car, and no one will argue that point for very long. However, it offers many design foundations and features that lend it to modification into one of the most modular race car packages. In the deserts, the Meyer’s Manx dune buggy won the first Mexican 1000, on the drag strip gutted Type 1 Beetles set blistering 60-foot times with a little coaxing from pumped up engines, and on the road course we find something different all together.
The Formula Vee has been a staple in grassroots level road racing for decades. These humble little cars offer tight, competitive, open-wheel racing on a shoestring budget. Lets have a look back at the history and design of these lovable cars.
Where It All Began
The VW Beetle had been imported since the late 1950s, but naturally it took the American market a while to warm up to the idea of a little German car. However, once it became a pop culture fixture on American highways, the intervention of the geared and grease-monkey was inevitable, and the Formula Vee was born in 1963.
Tuning up the 1.2-liter engines used in the first Beetles lead to full body-off chassis modification. Because the Type 1 is consists of a “pan” with a central backbone or tunnel, the car ultimately acts as a donor for its driveline and suspension, and little else.
The first ever Formula Vee built is attributed to Hubert Brundage, a Floridian car salesman. The platform went on to acquire SCCA sanctioning and the official first running of the new class debuted at Daytona International Speedway in August of 1963. The appeal of these cars not only resided in their affordability, but in the accessibility of kits.
In an era where do-it-yourself really meant something — and stood for American pride — would-be race car drivers could pick a kit from a multitude of suppliers like Lazer, Formcar, Citation, and Autodynamics. With a tubular chassis, and some fiberglass body panels they could embark on a garage project unlike any other.
The Rule Book: Engines
The rules of Formula Vee are fairly simple — and take the model of a limited class structure — meaning, if a modification is not specifically listed as allowed, then it isn’t allowed. We spoke with some veterans of the class to get a better understanding of the constraints.
Dietmar Bauerle is a Formula Vee Racer hailing from Canada. Since retiring from his day job he has taken up his hobby as a business, and is now an authority on engine building for this long-lived class. His business, Quixote Racing, supplies power plants to racers across the country. Because the tribal knowledge surrounding air-cooled VW engines is something that is becoming more and more rare, we asked Bauerle to fill in a few gaps.
What are the general restrictions on engine building in Formula Vee?
Dietmar Bauerle: To begin with, Formula Vee is a spec class. You start with the premise that everything in the engine is stock. You may lighten and balance the crankshaft, flywheel, and connecting rods. Blueprinting is allowed, but you are restricted on the size of the cylinders — they have to be 1200 cc stock, but you can bore them to a specified maximum size retaining stock pistons. You have to run either a piston that has a 2 mm or a 2.5 mm ring groove. Rings and bearings are free.
Since the 1200 VW parts are among the oldest, is availability getting scarce?
DB: Over the last few years we started using the universal case — so you’re allowed to run the 1600 case, but in order to run the 1200 barrels you have to have a spacer or some sort of divider. We use a rubber O-ring that fits around the barrel and into the case that locates the cylinders.
They are all single port cylinder heads, and they’re still around. They made millions of these cars, and you really don’t go through heads very often. There are some builders who specialize in head work … it’s very time consuming and it’s a combination of the heads manifold and carburetor.
What sort of head work can be done to increase power?
DB: Deck height is established, you can not go less than .039 average across all four, your combustion chamber volume is limited to 43 cc average, but you are allowed to port and polish. However, you are restricted by the opening not only at the manifold, but also at the valve seat. You are restricted to a 31.5 mm intake and 30 mm exhaust valves.
The carburetor is restricted to a 28 PCI which came off the 36-horse, and you are allowed to modify certain components such as the venturi, throttle shaft up to a certain dimension — everything is specified and spelled out. There is nothing that allows you to do things other than what is specified.
Cam is restricted to stock, you can have it profiled to maximum specs, but they are as specified by VW as original specs. The engine starts off as a 40-horse, and it ends up putting out (depending on whose dyno) around 60 horsepower.
Are these engines high strung, requiring a lot of maintenance?
DB: I tell my customers do 10 weekends, then bring it back. That way it saves the extra expense — I may have to polish the crank as opposed to grind it, the valve seats may only need to be touched up. I had one customer who did 20 weekends, and when I took the engine apart I looked at the bearings and they were immaculate.
The Rule Book: Chassis
The running gear of a Formula Vee is similarly minimalist as the engine. A fabricated tubular frame and some sheetmetal or fiberglass body work encapsulate the driver, but suspension, brakes, steering, and all the associated geometry is OEM Volkswagen.
The mid-engine layout of a Formula Vee echoes the weight distribution of top-tier open-wheel race cars. Employing a flipped “swingaxle” transaxle, the axles articulate at an inner pivot using a side gear and fulcrum plate arrangement, but remain fixed at the outer. This system is rugged simplicity at it’s finest, but forces travel to be limited carefully due to the drastic camber change throughout the rear suspension stroke.
“The transaxles are bulletproof with only 60 horsepower, mine has been in my car since 1984 and I haven’t touched it. You can run two different ring and pinions — most of the time people will run a short box. You have three gear options for third, one for first, second, and fourth,” Bauerle said.
The front end suspension employs the earlier link-pin design trailing arm design and torsion bar assembly. The VW beam suspension consists of two parallel tubes through which leaf packs of torsion bars run. To lower the ride height for stability and aerodynamics it is customary to remove one of the two leaf pack assemblies, and replace it with a solid internal swaybar.
The steering assembly must remain stock, which means no rack and pinion — rather, an old-school worm gear steering box takes the place and makes for some hand over hand steering action.
There have been a multitude of chassis manufacturers over the decades, from known names like Lola to less-than-household marks like Lazer. The later of which has recently been re-invigorated by an entrepreneurial Fiat Chrysler Engineer, Barret Hendricks.
“I originally got started with Formula Vee back in high school, when carts started getting too expensive. I rented a car and ended up buying the car I rented — I got hooked because it’s a great sport,” explained Hendricks. “I think the biggest complaint people have about the Lazer is the cockpit space. The space is supposed to be equivalent to most Formula Fords, so I think a race car should fit like a glove,” he continued.
Some makes are outdated by today’s standards and are relegated to the vintage class, while others endure to race SCCA, however they’re often mixed with disproportionally faster cars. “I would love to see more people come out and compete in Formula Vee, I think its a very comfortable class. The only problem is we are now running in mixed groups with SCCA which complicates the situation a lot — it’s pretty scary out there sometimes,” lamented Steve Davis of Formula Vee.us.
“Each one is a car in itself, Formcar was one of the first cars ever built — it’s not raced competitively any more but people still run them in vintage. The cars today — there’s the Lazer, Mysterian, Citation, they are all unique in themselves. The Lazer is one of the more aesthetically pleasing cars, but it takes a lot to make them work. The Vortech seems to be the fastest car, yet the Mysterians have won the runoffs. A lot of it depends on the driver and their size,” Bauerle concluded.
The Everyman’s Race Car And Class
The competitors that make up a typical Formula Vee field are diverse, but all have a common interest, and share a camaraderie seldom found in other cutthroat racing fields. Men and women, young and old, all find enjoyment racing these economical, fast cars.
“It started off as a driver class to emphasize the ability of the driver, and it still is. It’s a very popular class, in some places it’s growing and other places it’s dwindling. It’s the cheapest form of racing — at least open-wheel,” Bauerle said.
Everything about the class is designed to make it affordable and accessible. There are no exotic specialty parts, and what tribal knowledge does exist is openly shared — for the most part. Teams look out for each other, and strive to build their community and foster a sense of family.
Bauerle relayed an anecdote of this very character, “In many ways it’s family-oriented — there was a race at Willow Springs where one of the guys went over the top of somebody else and literally tore off the right side of the car. Every Formula Vee racer that was there in some way or another helped put that car back together well enough that he could win the next day.”
Bauerle’s story about getting into racing is one shared by many. He grew up racing with his father in Canada before moving to San Diego in the late 1960s. After graduating from college, and a hiatus from ‘Vee, he decided to build his own car and become active in the community once again.
“I started dabbling while still in high school, and then we moved to San Diego in ’68 and my dad had sold the car, but got hooked into SCCA and we started over again. He never really wanted to spend any money. Around ’74, I graduated from college and started thinking about building a car myself. I campaigned the Autodynamics car for a of couple years — but at 6-foot 1-inch tall, I never fit in the car, and came out of my first race (which I won) with black and blue ankles from the tie rods hitting them,” Bauerle recalled.
As Formula Vee racers caught on, and sought to advance their sport, offshoots of the class began to develop. The most well-known of which is Super Vee, a class that borrowed many of the parts and concepts from Formula Vee while ramping up the power and expense.
These cars hit the scene in the 1970s and featured either air-cooled Type IV Volkswagen engines like those that powered the Porsche 914, 912E, and VW Busses, or water-cooled variants of a similar nature. This class was short lived and has almost zero presence today, but it spirited well-known drivers through the grid like Niki Lauda, Kiki Rosberg, and Al Unser Jr.
In recent years Formula Vee has given birth to a regional sect known as Formula First. “A number of years ago there was a group in the Midwest that decided Formula Vee was getting a little too expensive and the parts were getting hard to come by. They started a group called Formula First — the Formula First is a 1600 cc engine, dual port, and also a restricted class. They had a rule change where they could lengthen the car by two inches, that gave the taller driver the opportunity to race where as before they were limited,” explained Bauerle.
There is debate on whether this offshoot was a positive for the sport or not. In any case, the current demographics of up and coming racers don’t lend themselves to working on their cars.
“I have mixed emotions about it. I feel really loyal to Formula Vee, I love the class, and there’s argument that it could sort of dilute the class and take away competition, but they are only a regional class at this point,” Hendricks said. “I think the bigger tires and engine do attract the younger crowd. Maybe you can’t afford to get into Formula Ford, and Formula First is a little more similar than Formula Vee.” .
Formula Vee may not be the emerging technological wonder of budget racing, but it is an enduring class that offers opportunities to all. One would be hard-pressed to find an avenue into real road racing on a tighter budget.
“You can get a car for $5,000 to $6,000 that will be competitive if you take care of it. It may not be competitive the day you get it, but once you learn how to drive it you can be competitive,” Davis explained. “They’re very unique and tough to learn how to drive well — the good part is once you learn how to drive a Vee well you can virtually get into anything, and be decent at it,”
The expenses are minimal, other than consumables like tires, which one can expect to go through in any racing class. Formula Vee is widely known as a fantastic stepping stone and learning tool. Many who get their feet wet racing these little VWs go on to other classes.
“A lot of people get started in Formula Vee, it’s an entry class that really demands that you are a decent driver and want to be up front. It’s a stepping stone for a lot of people to go into other things. Because it’s a momentum car … if you lose your momentum you’re done and can’t pick it up,” Bauerle emphasized.
Like most forms of grassroots-level racing one can expect a support network of people who want to see you at the races, after all it’s about fun — this isn’t the Formula 1 world championships. “I think you learn so much more than just jumping into another class, I think that the competition that I’ve seen in Formula Vee is world-class, on and off the track,” concluded Hendricks.
Go out and search the classifieds, talk to racers, and attend a race. Formula Vee may just be your avenue into real racing enjoyment.