When I was offered the chance to drive a NASCAR-type race car, I expected it to be fun, but not necessarily the ultimate in motoring excitement. I figured that I had already experienced the ultimate in motoring excitement: driving on I-95 in Miami.
I-95 is no place for the faint of heart. You’re out there with people who apparently took Driver’s Ed from Saddam Hussein; people who observe the traffic laws to the same degree that Ted Kaczynski observed the postal regulations; people who refuse to allow trivial matters such as steering to interfere with their cellular phone conversations, hair care, nasal hygiene, narcotics ingestion, etc. And you cannot get away from them, because your path is inevitably being blocked by some elderly or possibly deceased retirees on their way to the Blindness Clinic, oozing forward at the speed of rust in their 1974 Chrysler El Humongo. And then comes that awful moment when you glance into your rearview mirror and see, growing rapidly larger as it hurtles toward you, swerving violently from lane to lane like a testosterone-fueled missile with a defective guidance system, the scariest sight of all: the Teenaged Male Death Wish Idiot - a person who cannot grasp the difference between a car and a video game, and thus believes that the worst thing that will happen if he crashes into you is that he’ll see a sign saying GAME OVER, PLAY AGAIN? Oh yes, it’s pretty exciting out there. And so, as I say, when the Richard Petty Driving Experience offered me a chance to drive a real race car on a real racetrack, my initial reaction was that, for a veteran Miami driver, it would probably not be a big deal.
I was wrong. I can admit this, now that I have returned home and changed my underwear. It WAS pretty darned exciting, after all. Strap yourself in, get a good grip on your newspaper, and I’ll tell you what it was like.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and I’m pulling into the grounds of the Homestead-Miami Speedway. This is in South Miami-Dade County, although the complex itself feels more like Alabama, in the sense that everybody seems to have a Southern accent, and the Billy Ray Cyrus hairstyle is still in semi-vogue. To get myself into the right frame of mind, I am eating what I consider to be a NASCAR-style breakfast, consisting of black coffee and a Slim Jim the length of a pool cue.
I check in at the Media Center, where the Richard Petty Driving Experience has set up headquarters during its stay here, Feb. 14-20. The Richard Petty Driving Experience is a slick, well-organized, marketing-savvy operation that runs classes for wannabe racers at various racetracks around the country. The Petty folks will basically take anybody who’s 18 and has a driver’s license, put him (or her) (although it’s usually him) behind the wheel of a Winston-Cup-type race car with a kick-butt engine, and send him out onto a racetrack to see what he’s got.
Of course first you have to turn in your paperwork. This consists of a lengthy legal release, which you have to sign and initial in about 300 places, and which basically says that, in legal terminology, you are out of your mind. Right at the top, in bold letters, it offers this happy greeting: “YOU COULD BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR EVEN KILLED.” (Note to Florida Department of Transportation: This would be a good sign to put over the entrances to I-95.)
There are about two dozen paying customers in my class, all of them middle-aged guys. As we wait for the 8 a.m. starting time, we pick Slim Jim strands out of our teeth and watch the Petty staff fire up the cars, which are stripped-down, highly modified Chevrolet Monte Carlos. These cars have no windshield wipers or headlights or turn signals or radios or air conditioning or door handles or mufflers or emission controls or any of that other wussy minivan crap. What these cars have are 358-cubic-inch engines that crank out 600 horsepower and a LOT of noise. These cars make more noise when they’re idling than your car would make if the gas tank exploded. These cars want to run.
But before we can drive them, we have to go through an orientation. We’re issued blue racing jumpsuits that zip up the front, and then we go into a classroom, where we meet the professional drivers who’ll be teaching us, a group of loose, friendly young guys with mandatory Southern accents. They tell us we’re going to have fun, then show us a video in which Richard Petty himself, the King of racing, welcomes us to the school and tells us that we should not hesitate to ask questions.
“There is no such thing as a dumb question, “ he states.
The only two questions I can think of are:
1. Will I be seriously injured or even killed?
2. Does this jumpsuit make my hips look big?
So I keep my mouth shut. Nobody else has questions, either; these guys didn’t come here to sit around a classroom. So we head outside to the pit road, which runs parallel to the straightaway in front of the huge Speedway grandstands. There we gather in smaller groups around the cars to receive our briefing.
My group is briefed by instructor Adam Andretti, a member of the famous Andretti racing family. He explains that the car doors don’t open, so we’ll have to climb in through the side window. To give us room to get into the seat, the steering wheel comes off the steering post; once we’re inside, we reattach it to the post. Adam says it’s important to make sure the steering wheel has clicked firmly into place on the post before we drive off. He notes how silly we’d feel if we were going around the track at 130 miles per hour and suddenly found ourselves waving the wheel in the air. We all laugh nervously.
Aside from the wheel, there’s not much in the car: bucket seats with aircraft-style safety harnesses; heavy black netting to cover the space where the side windows would be; a big, serious-looking gearshift lever; a few gauges and lights; and a switch for firing up the engine (there’s no ignition key). The most unnerving thing is a prominent fire-extinguisher system, with nozzles pointing right at the driver. Adam explains that we should activate this in case we happen to notice that we are burning. He adds, “I’m not saying that every time you go out, the thing’s gonna catch on fire.” Thanks!
Next our group loads into a van for a tour of the track, conducted by instructor Rick Calkins, who sets us at ease by announcing: “This is my first day! I was delivering pizza last night!”
In fact Calkins seems to be quite experienced, as evidenced by the fact that he pilots the van expertly around the track at a fairly high rate of speed while sitting sideways and looking backward at us students. He shows us the path we should follow: Close to the wall on the straightaway, then decelerating at the start of the curve and swooping down to the infield, then accelerating out of the curve back to the wall for the next straightaway.
There are orange cones at various points to show us where to decelerate and accelerate; there are also little marks on the track to help guide us through the turns. Also, each of us will always be following a car driven by one of the professional drivers, who’ll show us where to drive and monitor our speed; we’re supposed to try to follow right in his tire tracks, three or four car lengths behind. We’re not supposed to get any closer than that, but we’re also not supposed to fall too far behind. And we’re supposed to remember to breathe and try not to be nervous. We’re apparently not supposed to notice that at various points on the track there are large black skid marks leading directly into the wall. I am definitely nervous. In my stomach, I feel my Slim Jim writhing.
For the first maybe three laps, I have virtually no coherent thoughts in my brain, unless you count terror as a thought.
When our tour is over, we gather under a tent next to the pit road and find out the order in which we’ll drive our first turns, which will be eight laps each. I’m driver No. 18. This means I have plenty of time to get even more nervous.
The Petty crew has set up a boom box, which blasts out driving-related songs, such as the Beach Boys’ 409 (“She’s real fine, my 409; my four-speed, dual-quad, posi-traction 409!”). We listen to the music and watch a Petty crew help the first student driver put on his crash helmet and climb into his car. In front of him is a man holding out a STOP sign; behind the man is the instructor-piloted car. The student is strapped in tight and the crew fires up his engine. When a man up on the flagman platform, high over the straightaway, gives the signal that the track is clear, the instructor-driven car roars forward; the sign man flips the STOP over to GO; and the student car, after a stuttering jerk, takes off. In a few seconds, the instructor and student are out on the track, disappearing around the curve, and the crew starts getting the next driver ready.
LOOK OUT BELOW!
I’m getting that feeling you get when you’ve just climbed into the roller coaster, and now it’s starting up the incline.... click-click-click.... and you know that a steep, violent, stomach-grabbing drop is ahead, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. Most of my fellow students are also looking pretty serious. One of them says to me, over the boom box and thundering engine noise, “I still can’t believe they take people off the street and just send them out there!”
“Ha ha!” I say.
The first drivers come back, and some more go out.... click-click-click.... and then some more click-click-click.... and some more click-click-click....And now finally I hear my name called. I’m so nervous I can’t buckle my helmet. The head crew guy, Chris Troyer, has to do it for me as he gives me my final instructions.
“Stay right on the instructor’s bumper on the way out, “ he says. “When you’re on the track, space it out a little. Don’t be nervous.”
“How do I not be nervous?” I ask.
“Well, “ he says, “the first time I did it, I sang.”
Now I’m climbing feet-first into the car, which there is no graceful way to do, and I’m worming myself into the seat, which feels as if it’s 10 feet from the windshield. A crew member straps me in tight - VERY tight - and puts the steering wheel on the post. Then, just before he attaches the netting over the window, he flips the ignition switch and VRROOOOOM-BLATTT that mother is loud. The whole car shakes when I touch the gas pedal.
I put the clutch in and shove the big shifter into first, praying that I won’t embarrass myself by stalling the car at the start. Then I look ahead at the STOP sign man, waiting, waiting, waiting, and then he flips it to GO and VROOOOOM I’m lurching forward, barely avoiding the stall, and I can see that my instructor’s car, which I’m supposed to be right on the bumper of, is already disappearing down the pit road, so I slam it into second VROOOOOM third VROOOOOM fourth VROOOOOM and now I’m out on the track, trying to catch the instructor, and things are happening WAY too fast and OHMIGOD THERE’S THE WALL and I’m still trying to catch up but he’s going even faster and I’m trying to stay in his tire tracks but DOES HE KNOW HOW CLOSE WE ARE TO THAT WALL??? And then suddenly an orange cone blurs past and WHOA we’re into the turn, slicing down toward the infield and my body is being jerked sideways and I can barely hold the wheel and IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE GOING INTO THE INFIELD and WHOA now we’re accelerating again MAN ARE WE ACCELERATING and I’m fighting the wheel and LOOK OUT FOR THE WALL WE’RE AWFULLY CLOSE TO THE WALL and WHOA is this ANOTHER TURN ALREADY????
For the first maybe three laps, I have virtually no coherent thoughts in my brain, unless you count terror as a thought. All I am trying to do is survive the next few seconds, the problem being that when you’re going considerably faster than 100 miles per hour, a great many things happen in a few seconds. But around the fourth lap, for reasons that I cannot explain, I start to think to myself: Hey, maybe I can actually DO this. In fact, I CAN do this. In fact, this is kind of.... FUN!
And right there, accelerating into the grandstand straightaway of the Homestead-Miami Speedway, I begin to sing. Specifically, I sing the Beach Boys’ drag-racing classic, Shut Down. “It happened on the strip where the road is wide, “ I sing, “two cool shorts standin’ side by side.” I am bellowing this over the roar of the engine as I blast down the straightaway, stomping on the gas. I can honestly say it is one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
When my eight laps are over, I follow the instructor back into the pit road, stop, unbuckle myself and basically float out of the car on a wave of relief and elation. I exchange stories with my fellow students. We agree that this is a truly wonderful thing, and that we are a bunch of studly automotive hombres.
We then have a halftime break, during which the driving instructors assess our performance and make the following points:
1. We should go faster.
2. We should pick up the speed.
3. We should get out there and STAND on it.
We students cannot believe our good fortune. Here is, a working day, and we’re at a racetrack, and these men are letting us drive their race cars, and THEY WANT US TO DRIVE THEM FASTER!
This time I am not nervous about driving. I want to be out there. To pass the time while I’m waiting, I chat with the other students. One of whom is a lawyer, who tells me that he once represented a client who had sued a bar that had let him ride a mechanical bull even though he had consumed numerous alcoholic beverages. The ride did not go well; the client wound up with a medical condition called “diminished penile sensation.” This has nothing to do with the Richard Petty Driving Experience. I mention it only to remind everybody of two important points:
1. Alcohol and mechanical bulls do not mix.
2. Diminished Penile Sensation would be a good name for a rock band.
Eventually it’s my turn to drive again, and this time I am ready. This time I am stomping on the gas and staying right behind the instructor on the way out; this time I do not fear the wall; this time I am singing on the first lap (“She’ll have FUN FUN FUN ‘til her daddy takes the T-bird awayyyy.”) We do 10 laps, picking up the speed every time; on the last lap, I hit my top speed of the day - of my life, actually - 134.1 miles per hour. I know this because at the end, every student gets a certificate showing his computer-measured top speed. I am more proud of my 134.1-miles-per-hour certificate than I am of my college diploma.
In other words, it was pretty cool. The only problem is that I am no longer satisfied with driving an ordinary civilian car. When I’m on I-95, I find myself wishing I were driving my high-powered Petty machine. THEN I’d like to see some teenaged idiot try to tailgate me! Ha ha! I’d just wave bye-bye, stomp on the accelerator, and VROOOOOM I’d shoot forward like a rocket.
Directly into the rear bumper of a 1974 Chrysler El Humongo.
(c) 2000, Dave Barry
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