Season five, episode nine of the Brit’s Top Gear—that’s when car lovers fell for the Ariel Atom. And do the guys and gals who put on the Virginia International Raceway (VIR) Driving Experience know it. It’s one of the first things they mention during the driver’s meetings before their half-day sessions, where participants get three short stints on a road course behind the wheel of an Ariel Atom.
Home of the hand-built Atom.
Virginia International Raceway is home to TMI AutoTech, where every Atom that’s sold in the states is built. Brammo Motorsports in Oregon was the first company to churn out American-built Atoms, but they left that game in 2008 to focus on building all-electric motorcycles. TMI AutoTech stepped right in and started building the little buggers at its shop. And it just so happens that the southern Virginia shop is catty-corner to Virginia International Raceway’s front gate. So TMI put a few Atoms out on VIR’s road course, and told people they could pay to drive one of the most bizarre cars ever built at one of America’s best tracks. Naturally, we were lured in.
Summer in the south.
And as we wiped sweat from our forehead with the sleeve of the Nomex racing suit the track provided, we wished we’d been lured there in fall. Courses run from spring to fall, but we ended up joining a course in mid July. Luckily, we were only doing a half-day session, not a full-day session. A half-day, level-one session costs $525, takes place in the morning or in the afternoon, and gets you three, fifteen-minute stints in the Atom on the Patriot Course, VIR’s 1.1-mile short track. A full-day, level-two session costs $1695, and for that you run on VIR’s faster South course, you get instructor feedback, and you have four twenty-minute stints in the car.
The day started with a driver’s meeting, which was mostly a primer for people who’ve never been on a track. The half-day course is designed for those with no performance driving experience, so it’s all apexes, flags, and track safety. Afterward, we headed outside, where half a dozen Ariel Atom 3s were waiting. It’s rare to see an Atom in person, so six is quite a sight. All were painted different colors but were in matching racing guise, powered by Honda K24 engines (similar to the 201-hp engine in our Four Seasons Acura ILX). Weighing about 1350 pounds each, the open-cockpit two-seaters would absolutely fly, but we had a feeling we wouldn’t tap into our Atom’s real racing potential.
Follow the leader.
And we wouldn’t. The half-day course is lead-follow, which means there is an instructor in the front of the pack the entire time that you’re driving on the course. It’s comforting to know that the instructor is out there when you’re wheeling around with people who’ve never been on a road course, but it also means that you’re not going to be able to push the car. At all. The instructor is like a lifeguard at a pool—you want them there when you’re drowning but wish they’d scram when you want to have a little fun.
You’re supposed to shift now.
We put on our helmet, got into our car, and drove out of the pits. Although the Atom looks strange, there’s not much to figure out: three pedals, no ABS, no power steering—a very basic track-day toy. The first few laps were really slow. We never had to touch the brakes. The last couple of laps sped up a bit, but then the session ended. The second session was just as uneventful, aside from an old dude who kept nailing the rev limiter between shifts. We were having a great time—we were driving an Ariel Atom—but not really an exciting time.
A little room to run.
The third and final session was the most stimulating of the three, mainly because it was the fastest. Since most people learned the track after twenty or so previous laps, the instructor felt confident enough to start pushing his Atom a bit. That meant those of us behind him could start pushing it a bit, too. Finally, we were using the brakes. But just like the two sessions before it, the third session was done in no time. Our stint behind the wheel of an Ariel Atom was over.
Next time, a full day.
Before we’d even pulled into the pits, we were wishing we had signed up for the full-day course. We talked to a few people with previous track experience who felt the same way, but they said they couldn’t stomach the extra $1170 it took to upgrade. They just wanted to get into an Ariel Atom, and $525 got them that. We can say, though, that the over-revving old dude had an absolute ball. He told us it was the coolest thing he’d ever done.
It’s all about the car, not the course.
If you’ve never been on a track, try the half-day session. If you’ve spent any time on a road course, start saving your pennies and go for a full-day session. But, either way, drive an Ariel Atom. It’s a big-kid go-kart, which seems like an obvious and half-assed analogy only until you drive an Atom and discover that there’s no better way to describe it. Virginia International Raceway’s Driving Experience is the easiest way to discover that yourself. And since you’ll be wearing a full-face helmet, you don’t have to worry that your mug will look like Jeremy Clarkson’s did in season five, episode nine of Top Gear.