In a Formula I racer, speed thrills


Paul Teets pulls on a helmet, buckles himself into car No. 52 and eases on the gas, pulling up to the starting line.

As the light flashes green, the 29-year-old maintenance technician from Towson squeals away, rounding the first in a series of curves as though he's Mario Andretti at the Indy 500.

He's at the wheel of a sleek, blue Formula I race car -- an Indy-style car with a lightweight tubular steel frame and a fiberglass body.

Is Mr. Teets playing out a secret life a la Walter Mitty or is he really cruising around a Grand Prix track in a Formula I race car?

Mr. Teets isn't daydreaming -- he's racing a replica of a Lola T560B, a scaled-down version of the English-made Lola's full-size car, on a mini Grand Prix course, one of the newest attractions at Speedworld.

"It's by far one of the wildest things I've ever seen," says Mr. Teets.

Mr. Teets has come as close as an armchair racing buff will ever come to the real thing, says Dick Sexton, owner of Formula K Raceway, the Mattawan, Mich.-based manufacturer of the race car.

"It's an exciting ride," Mr. Sexton says. "You have to have some talent to get around [the course] in a decent time."

Racers compete against themselves. His first time out Mr. Teets crashed into cones lining the course and veered off the track, stalling. He completed the half-mile course in well over -- well, never mind.

"It went faster than I expected," admits Mr. Teets, who later improved his time to just below 50 seconds. (The fastest speed attained by a customer is 46:01.)

The Formula I is no toy. The car has four-wheel independent suspension, an aluminum block overhead valve, 16 horsepower engine and rack-and-pinion steering.

Riders must be 16 years old and have a valid driver's license to operate the cars, which can reach speeds of 30 mph at Speedworld.

The cars are the same ones used for training by up-and-coming European racers, says Jim Loomis, general manager of Speedworld.

The cars, which carry a $14,000 price tag, made their debut at Speedworld, adjacent to Jolly Roger Amusement Park, earlier this year along with four other new go-kart tracks.

"We have to compete with the ocean in Ocean City," says Buddy Jenkins Jr., vice president of Bayshore Development, which owns the amusement sites. "We were at capacity with the other tracks and had to give people something more to do."

Mr. Jenkins says company officials traveled the country looking for the latest developments in amusements. What they found were the Formula I cars.

"We want to be on the cutting edge," Mr. Jenkins says. "As the popularity of [amusement] rides has decreased, interest in self-contained rides has boomed."

Go-karts and related rides, such as the Formula I cars, are part of a new phenomenon called family entertainment centers, which offer everything from amusement rides and miniature golf to go-karts, says Susan Mosedale, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, based in Alexandria, Va.

She says amusement centers such as Jolly Roger and Speedworld, which offer a variety of family-oriented attractions, represent the fastest growing segment of the amusement industry.

"It's the up-and-coming thing," Mr. Sexton says. "Because of the economy, the trend is toward this size park [Jolly Roger] vs. the giant park."

The cost, though, is astronomical.

"It's not a ride you see every day," Mr. Sexton says. "Because of the expense of putting the rides together you don't see a lot of them. They're expensive. Three acres of land in some places could cost a million bucks."

Other Grand Prix tracks are located in Virginia Beach, Va., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Speedworld has the only one in Maryland, he says.

The Formula I has proved popular at Speedworld, drawing long lines, Mr. Loomis says.

"Where else can you rent a $10,000 [used price], true-to-life race car for $2.50?" he says.

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