by Tim Sager
Formula Vee has been an exciting, low cost racing class for more than five decades. However, by around 2010 a lot of experienced drivers were coming to a realization- it wasn’t fun anymore.
Greg Davis and Ray Carmody, two veteran Vee competitors got together to do something about it. They started planning a series to revive the spirit that originally attracted people to the class.
Looking back, there were a few things that contributed to the somber state of Formula Vee. Competition at national events had become more intense, creating an arms race of car prep and expensive tweaks. Tire performance improved a lot in recent decades, but at great monetary cost. These costs trickled into all levels of competition.
At the national level the intensity of the hardware war had dampened the camaraderie common in the Vee paddock. Overall, participation was way down. “Fields started dying off. You’d show up at the track and there would be 3 or 4 Formula Vees”, said Carmody.
It got worse before it got better. Davis told a story of towing his car to an event and realizing he was the only Vee to show up. Not wanting to just drive around alone he went home.
But even dark periods have occasional relief. Davis recalled an event in 2012. “We had a race at Nelson Ledges, in the fall and it was just a blast”. He continued, “it was kind of a buzz afterwards. We had about a 12-car field. Everybody was kind of hyped up”.
Hopes and Dreams Becoming Plans
After that race a dialogue started on Apexspeed and continued through the following winter.
“We started chatting on the internet about how it might be great to get together and do some sort of series. That was kind of the nucleus of the whole thing, going back and forth on Apexspeed”, said Davis. Though he knew he’d need some qualified help.
“Greg Davis reached out to me and asked if I would help him”, Carmody recalled. Davis described the importance of the connection, “I knew if we were going to have any credibility we would need someone with credibility in Formula Vee and that’s where Ray came in. He had a lot more contacts in the Formula Vee world and he was a big factor in getting the thing off the ground.”
They started thinking about what racers needed to compete, then looked at ways to cut costs and get cars back on the track. Tires were the first consideration.
While the slicks could be run for several events, brand new tires were faster. “People felt obligated to buy new tires all the time”, said Davis.
They also worked on crafting an intake manifold rule to discourage big spending in that area. The tweaks on those had escalated to cost nearly as much as an engine rebuild.
The “Early” Years
For 2013, plans came together with SCCA regions by spring. In May on Apex, four late-season events were announced as the Autumn Challenge Cup series, two each at Watkins Glen and Nelson Ledges. Guidelines were established with a basic tire clause, “no sticker tires”.
Carmody and Davis worked on organization and Rob DePalma handled financing for the first two seasons.
Swag in the form of t-shirts were provided by an arrangement made through DePalma, trophies by Davis. Trina and Ray Carmody, and Davis catered Saturday evening dinner parties at the track. Chris Elwell helped with outreach and points keeping duties.
An eventual goal, and a motivator to get participation up was to have Vee-only groups on track. “We started getting tired of formula fords and F500s running into us all the time and taking us out of races, and we started trying to get our own track time”, said Carmody. Having their own group was still a difficulty, but split starts for the Vees were negotiated.
In this first year car counts averaged 10.5 per event. With the field sizes came restoration of real racing and enthusiasm. Still, they knew the series needed to grow to survive.
This auspicious beginning came along with a sentimental note: In commemoration of Formula Vee’s 50th anniversary in 2013, at the Watkins Glen event, the group started the Sunday race paced by a vintage Formcar, nearly 50 years old itself.
With the success of the first year, 5 events were scheduled for 2014, spread throughout the season starting in June. The series visited Nelson, Mosport, Pocono, with two dates at the Glen. They rebadged the full season series and trademarked the name Formula Vee Challenge Cup. The series was also organized under an LLC.
With the Canada connection to their F1200 series came a plan to further reduce tire costs. F1200 rules had adopted a 14”, spec Falken radial tire. These tires were about half the price of slicks and lasted much longer. The 2014 Challenge Cup guidelines included an incentive to run the Canadian wheel/tire package with a 50% bump in points. Both those factors attracted several Canadians. Carmody was particularly interested in running the Falken radials but said it was a hard sell at first. To test and promote them he ran the entire season on the radials. Participation in 2014 experienced a mild bump to 13 per event.
“2015 was a breakthrough year…We really started getting organized.” – Ray Carmody.
In the off season the efforts to organize continued with the formation of a board of directors. The board wanted to move forward with plans to further reduce competition costs and increase participation. Getting the numbers up to where they could have their own track time would make the series more attractive and sustainable.
About changes for the 2015 season, Carmody recalled, “I said to Greg, let’s pull the trigger…if you’re going to run the Challenge Cup you’ve got to run the Falken tires at all our races.”
There was a lot of reluctance about the radial tires among competitors- a myriad of fears from the tires damaging suspension parts, to “they just won’t work”. “It’s crazy because they’ve been running them in Canada for years”, said Davis. “It was a big commitment asking people to change (their wheel/tire package). I was reluctant myself.”
For those not yet willing to commit, Carmody and Dermot Ennis bought six sets and made them available to rent at just $50 per weekend. “Ray and others were crossing their fingers hoping people would buy the tires and do it”, Davis recalled, “But it worked, and everybody saw the benefits of it. In hindsight it was a no-brainer.”
Other rule changes were planned or investigated. A Masters Division was created for drivers over 50, giving the youngsters a break from competing against the veterans.
The rule restricting the intake manifolds was considered again for the upcoming season, though it was tabled as many of the competitors had already conceded and purchased the meticulously altered units.
Sponsorship arrangements for the Challenge Cup were made with several companies. The series has been supported by suppliers: Castle, Carbotech, Falken Tire, GoNMF.com, LKQ, Millers Oils, Penske Shocks, Quixote Racing, Racer Wholesale, Shell Oil, Summit Racing, Engine builders: Autowerks, Dawes Motorsports Development, Quicksilver; Race teams: Maloney Racing, Winding Road Racing; and additional firms: International Insulation Products and Complemar Partners.
Thinking back to 2013-14, Davis said “We were trying to get our own group, but it was really almost impossible back in those days, we just didn’t have the fields.” Some help came with a significant addition to the 2015 schedule, an event with FRP (Formula Race Promotions). This collaboration continued in the following years and provided the Vees their own group.
2016 continued with a 5-race schedule featuring events with SCCA Pro Racing and again with FRP. The steady climb in entries saw average car counts at 17.
Participation Jumps Up, and An Intercontinental Formula Vee Program
Vee racers may be the last to consider themselves among international playboys. But during the North American off-season beginning fall 2017, an intercontinental series began, organized by Johan Wasserman. Johan, a seasoned Vee racer, and South African expatriate now residing in Ontario, Canada, has experience and connections in South Africa, Brazil and in Europe. Johan organized a driver exchange program that sent 3 North American Challenge Cup drivers to Zwartkops and Killarney S.A, in December 2016 and to the Interlagos F1 circuit in Brazil, January 2017. As part of the exchange, drivers from those two countries planned to race with the Challenge Cup back in North America.
Positive growth and interesting events continued in 2017. The five-event schedule was augmented with an exhibition event during the Indycar weekend at Pocono.
Participation experienced a big bump with a 23.5 average car count per event, and membership of active drivers increased by 50%. More curiosity came from SCCA Majors competitors, including five-time Runoffs champ Michael Varacins.
The intercontinental program welcomed Brazilian, Murillo Grandino Latorre, to fly in for all the North American races. Murillo’s wins and consistent performance rewarded him the championship in the youthful division.
The intercontinental program has scheduled events at Brazil’s Interlagos for December 2017, and February 2018.
The North American series is intent on visiting the most interesting and heralded courses in the North East U.S. and South East of Canada. Another aim is to provide some variety of venues each season. The 2018 schedule is set with races at Mosport, the newly repaved Nelson Ledges, Mid Ohio, New Jersey Motorsport Park, and Summit Point.
Looking Back and Ahead
Ray Carmody summarized the series’ goals, stating that he, Greg Davis and Rob DePalma wanted to grow Formula Vee again by decreasing costs and increasing the fun.
The Challenge Cup Series has taken an ailing culture and nurtured it into a thriving one. “If you look at the Northeast and all the other classes, they’re all dropping off and the Challenge Cup is growing”.