Laguna Seca, Road America, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio—if you have the cash and the nerve, it’s not hard to find a good driving school at a solid race track. Over the past year, Austin, Texas’s Circuit of The Americas has stepped up its game for students of speed, and it’s added a whole new stack of toys to play with.
Sure, plenty of manufacturers like Cadillac and BMW rent out COTA for their own schools and experiences, and I’ve done pretty much all of them. But driving a super lightweight, Ford EcoBoost-powered, open-wheel racer around the circuit was the closest I’ve gotten to living out my Lewis Hamilton dreams.
Minus the dogs and the Instagram posts, of course.
(Full Disclosure: Circuit of The Americas wanted me to flog their Formula Americas cars so badly they made me come to the track, eat their snacks, and blast around those famous 20 turns while pretending to be a Formula 1 hero.)
Circuit of The Americas has gone through a growth spurt over the past two years, adding new features like a karting track, an upcoming USL soccer club, they’ve also added new racing events to the calendar. Rallycross was added this year too, and there’s a rumor buzzing around about IndyCar possibly making a second stop in Texas starting next season.
Taking their time to learn more about the driving experience landscape, and after renting the track out to a handful of big high-performance driving education (HPDE) schools and exotic car experience groups for over five years, Circuit of The Americas officials knew the manufacturers couldn’t be the only ones having all the fun hosting driving experiences and courses. They wanted a piece of the action.
Thankfully the 3.4-mile F1 circuit now offers a course for those who crave something a bit more pure than a street car, and it’s called Formula Americas. For 650 of your hard-earned dollars, you can try your hand at being a single-seater legend—or at least pretend to be one.
As a regular at COTA as a photographer, I’m also a guy that likes to hoon the fast things rather often. Normally I get to play with your usual exotic or sports car offerings, but open-wheeled stuff is rare for me.
Since most wannabe racing drivers don’t have much in the way of gear, COA gets you squared away with a loaner fire suit, pair of driving shoes, helmet, gloves, and balaclava. A fleet of Mygale Formula 4 cars are prepped for each participant, and a stack of capable instructors is ready to assist each student.
You aren’t required to have track experience somewhere, but the learning curve is super steep with these cars. Assuming that most of the participants have probably watched, but haven’t driven on COTA’s 20 turns, the staff first does a classroom briefing to get you familiar with the basics of performance driving, cone setups, braking points, and the important rules. There are Forza simulators set up for student to learn a bit more about the track between sessions too.
After the briefing, instructors take the students out in passenger cars, making sure you’re quickly informed about the course’s features, bumps, complex corners, and big elevation changes.
Once those are understood, you’re shown how a single-seat race car works, including pedal use, wheel operations, and how to pull away from a stop. Laugh now, but you’ll probably stall out the first few times you try to pull out of the pits.
The Mygale F4 chassis is powered by a 1.6-liter Ford EcoBoost engine and driven by a six-speed sequential gearbox. On paper, you may scoff at a mere 160 turbocharged horsepower, but that package will still manage 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds. The car only tips the scales at 1,276 pounds, about 1,000 pounds lighter than a Mazda Miata.
There’s enough aero designed to keep you firmly planted to any surface, and absolutely zero comfort features. They’re loud, harsh, stiff, and angry, which is exactly what they should be.
This isn’t a track day, bro road car. This is a race car.
This car demands your attention. Yes, the instructors do a lead-follow setup, driving ahead of three-car packs in a more-than capable Audi R8 V10 Plus, but if you step out of line at all, the car will quickly inform you of your mistake. The EcoBoost engine behind your head may have less power than a Fiesta ST, it’s responsive, and the throttle pedal is more sensitive than a spoiled teenager.
Power steering isn’t a thing here, so you have to work to get the car to rotate through slower corners. Once you’re up to speed, you can definitely give the car some throttle steer, but you better hope you’ve got the wheels pointed the correct direction before you mash the gas.
In faster bends—like COTA’s S turns 3, 4, and 5—you can fly through there much faster than you’d think was possible in a road car.
The brakes take some getting used to, but are strong yet communicative once you put some heat into them. And you do have to left foot brake. My right foot either had to rub against the outer wall of the tub in order to avoid hitting the brake pedal, but this car wasn’t designed for a wide size 11. It has been a while since I’ve driven anything open-wheeled, so maybe more time in the car could help me adjust my placement.
Gear changes are fierce. There are no synchros in the box, and each tap of the right paddle will give you a shove. Downshifts are even more brutal, especially when you’re scrubbing off a ton of speed from 6th to 2nd gear going into Circuit of The Americas’ turns 1 and 12, after the track’s two long straightaways.
Grip is insanely high. Far more than you’d expect from tiny 13-inch wheels and tires, but keep in mind there is a ton of adhesion in those slicks, and the car’s wings really glue the car to the tarmac.
The cockpit is cramped. I’m only 5'11" and 195 pounds, and I was jammed in there. Particularly with my head and shoulders. They didn’t supply HANS devices, and you technically don’t need them, but my head movement would have been greatly reduced when flying down the straightaways. Once I hit 110 mph the air flow really started to disrupt my brain bucket.
Formula Americas gives you some solid instruction, about 30 minutes of quality driving time in a pair of sessions, and the options of video footage of your experience and another session of laps for a few dollars more. That may not sound like a lot of time, but consider the average lap around COTA is a couple minutes, and what you’re throwing around, and the fact that you don’t have to own the car nor take care of it.
Sure, you can get to set up time at another HPDE for this sort of money, but then you’ve got to bring your own car, and manage keeping fresh brakes and tires installed so that its track-ready. Then you have to drive it home, hopefully in not-crashed condition. Those are good, sure, but this is a purer experience with less wear on your daily machine. Without question, the Formula Americas program is a blast, and worth all $650. Some track day groups charge you nearly that much just to take a fun Porsche or Ferrari for a few laps around the track.
Besides, how else are you going to get to play on an F1 track in a proper FIA-spec single-seater for that sort of cash?