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Lapping It Up

NASCAR's rookie program provided the car. All he needed was a driver's license and a desire to go fast. But can a guy who drives a Chevy Nova make the pace?

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page P01

How do the hungry drivers of NASCAR fuel up? With Ragu Rich and Meaty spaghetti sauce.

I snap off the TV. I flip past the magazine ads screaming about speed and about the men in helmets who achieve it.



I am sure that America's top drivers burn calories thundering around tracks in sponsored stock cars. And, yep, I understand that NASCAR is hot. What used to be the sport of greasers is now more popular than basketball or baseball.

Thanks to its missile quickness, its danger and its constant action (no "game delays" here), NASCAR has become the country's leading spectator sport, according to car-racing groups, with an estimated 75 million fans.

But as a guy who goes at a turtle's pace in sports, trying to catch up with lazy softballs and footballs, I want to know more.

What's it feel like to have splinters of a second to nudge a wheel or jam down on a brake? Does it have to do with strength, like wrestling or boxing, or is it mostly reflex, like playing Olympic ping-pong?

In short, how do you wrestle a stock car? Are you physically wiped out? How hungry do you get?

It is my wife's car-buff secretary, Renata, who lets me know there is a way to find out.

"The Richard Petty Driving Experience," she says. "Named after the champion driver. For 379 bucks, they'll let you race on actual pro tracks . . . They will time you."

I do not like the idea. My 1988 Chevy Nova can go fast, but it is not good on curves. Or maybe it's me. I can't be sure.

Renata is waiting for my answer. So is my wife, who has been listening and who loves cars, too.

"I don't know," I reply, hoping someone will say it's unsafe and talk me out of it.

There is only silence. "Give me the phone number," I say.

Renata's not impressed when I sign up later for the eight-lap "Rookie Experience." "Bring your time sheet back here," she commands. "If you crack 100 mph, I'll be amazed. If you don't smack into a wall. Or spin out or blow a tire at the top of the first turn."

I am nervous about turns, but I do not tell her.


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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