Formula 500: Pint-sized car delivers gallons of fun

First impressions of F500

My first introduction to Formula 500 racing came when my wife and I went to the 2008 SCCA Runoffs at Heartland Park Topeka in Topeka, KS. The weekend was filled with all kinds of amazing cars and racing, but the strangest to me were these diminutive open-wheel cars running what sounded like chainsaw motors on steroids. They were small compared to the other formula cars on track and tiny compared to the production-based cars and prototype sports cars. The racing, however, was just as huge and just as exciting. Unfortunately, I didn’t think of them much past that weekend. It’s not a class of racing you’re going to read about at AUTOSPORT (read with a British commentator’s accent) or see highlights about on ESPN. You might see a blurb about them once in a rare while at Grassroots Motorsports. When I say “rare”, I mean one article once every two or three years. No exaggeration. So I can hardly be faulted for allowing these fun racing machines to fall off of my radar.

That changed for me when I started being more involved in my local SCCA region, the Kansas City Region, where we have a couple of F500 road racers and one Solo racer. I began to see that my initial assumptions about the platform weren’t too far off. It is one step up from a kart. In a kart, the only suspension is the air in your tires and the discs in your spine. In an F500 car, you are also permitted a one-inch thick, two-inch diameter piece of rubber to serve as your damper, but no traditional shock-and-coil type of suspension control. The motor really is a chainsaw on steroids. The class name derives from the displacement of the engine that is specified for the class, a 500cc two-cycle snowmobile engine (although now many use a 600cc motorcycle motor) mated to a CVT using a chain to drive the rear axle. The motors only deliver roughly 100 hp, but in a car that is light as a feather, the acceleration is amazing. Top speed is also eye-watering. A properly geared F500 car can reach speeds upwards of 140 to 150 mph! That might not sound like much for those of us accustom to watching Formula 1 and IndyCar, but when you’re in a car that is about one third the size, it’s impressive and terrifying. You can read the class specifications for the F5 club racing class and the F-Mod Solo racing class via the links below:

Racing action at 2015 SCCA Mid-States Majors

Ominous skies loom over the start of Group 1's Race #2 on Sunday morning.
Ominous skies loom over the start of Group 1’s Race #2 on Sunday morning.

There was great racing among many of the various classes at the 2015 SCCA Mid-States Majors at the Kansas Speedway, but none as tight and furious as the Formula 500 race between Dave Vincent and Jack Walbran. The two took the green flag side-by-side and it was an absolute knife fight. Jack’s front nosecone, with it’s extensions to shield the front wheels, provides less drag than Dave’s fully-open design which allowed him to pull away on the long straights. In the infield section of the Kansas Speedway roval, however, Dave was able to close the gap and overtake Jack. It went on like this for several laps until an error by Dave allowed Jack to pull into the lead for good.

Dave Vincent gets his #73 Formula 500 a nose ahead of John Walbran's #67.
Dave Vincent gets his #73 Formula 500 a nose ahead of John Walbran’s #67.

“The KVRG Kansas Speedway Race was looking like an uneventful win for me, including taking the lap record, until the double yellow. That took away my lead and for some reason caused me to get out of the zone, losing the lead on the restart to Jack. We had a good, fair, and hard fought battle, with many side-by-side runs until my motor shut off running down the main straight. I got it restarted, but Jack was long-gone by then. Jack and I have had many excellent races no-touch side-by-side through Heartland Park Turns 1, 2, 2a, and 3, and more significantly, Hallett Turn 3. My teammate Tim Friest and I look forward to every race weekend with Jack who is the epitome of a ‘gentleman racer’.” — No. 73, F5, David Vincent

This wasn’t the first time the two have battled on track. The two, although friends, find themselves pitted against one another frequently as they did in 2014 at the SCCA Majors race at Heartland Park Topeka. It was another case of the two battling fiercely and well until a misinterpreted mirror adjustment resulted in contact and some bent parts. Ok, a bit more than bent parts. A completely busted rear suspension that ultimately resulted in massive vibrations and loss of drive.

Experience Solo racing in FM

David Vincent was kind enough to offer me a ride in his road racing prepared Formula 500 at the Kansas City Region SCCA’s Solo Event #11 in September of 2015. I had no clue what I was in for, but I didn’t expect to break two cars within a span of two runs. The first piece of advice that was offered to me was to wear the smallest, narrowest shoes I had and that was no joke! Your feet are crammed in the nose of the car and you have to point your toes to clear the steering rack as you’re getting in. These are tiny cars! It’s not just the footwell that’s narrow. The cockpit is none too wide, either. Now I’m not a large guy, but I’m certainly not svelt by any means. It was a challenge cramming myself into the seat. I certainly didn’t have much room to stretch out, but then the only things that mattered were being about to reach the pedals and the wheel.

Once seated and belted, I was ready to make my way out of grid and to the starting line. My normal competition car is a Fiesta ST, which is great hot-hatch, but let’s face it. It’s no formula car! The launch off the starting line really caught me by surprise and I quickly realized that throttle control was going to be a LOT more important in an F500 that it ever was in the FiST. Unfortunately, that realization came to me immediately after I hooked the car into the first cone on the course. The car was far twitchier than I had expected as the rear danced all over the place. A mitigating factor was that the right rear hub was not completely secured. Thankfully, this was not my fault. I didn’t break it. Don’t believe the vicious rumors you may hear to the contrary.


(Yes, of course that’s an FBC decal on the sidepod!)

With Vincent’s car out of commission, a fellow F-Mod driver, Brad Smith, offered to let me finish my runs in his car. Brad’s car was geared for Solo racing as opposed to David’s road racing prepared car, so the acceleration off the line was much better. It was also significantly less stable and more prone to oversteer when piloted by an unskilled driver. …me. The result was a bit of rallycrossing, which I do not recommend in a formula car. The off-road excursion caused the drive chain to jump the sprocket and I endured the long Walk of Shame back to the paddock. My last run didn’t turn out so bad, but I was so gun-shy by this point that I was extremely conservative and posted a time a full two seconds shy of the car owner’s time.

Dave was kind enough to offer me another chance at our last event of the year, and a chance at redemption. With the car fixed, and with a set-up that was more forgiving than Brad’s, I was able to get comfortable in the car pretty quickly. These really are amazingly fun machines! If you’re used to driving a car with power steering and all-season tires, driving a formula car, even one as tiny as an F500, with manual steering and racing slicks will tax your forearms something fierce! There’s a reason why most professional drivers have forearms like Popeye. Although I’m sure Dave’s experience and race craft would have allowed him to easily best me on a road circuit, my experience autocrossing allowed me to win the day by 1.244 seconds.

So now, after my experience driving one of these crazy little machines, I’m on the hunt for a used F500. Club racing may still be just outside of my budget, the cost-effectiveness of these little machines have brought the potential of going road racing much closer. Even without committing to wheel-to-wheel action, the F500 platform is a blast on a Solo course, and that’s where I’d likely begin with such a car. If you ever make it to an SCCA Club Racing event, and why wouldn’t you, don’t ignore these pint-sized rocketships. Not only are they fun to drive, they frequently offer the best racing action of any of the classes.