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Lapping It Up

You'll see, I say, flexing my fingers, sliding around an invisible gearshift.

You will see.

It is race day and some of us NASCAR rookies may be slightly edgy.

There is a men's room in the infield of the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon that says "Drivers and Crew Only," and we are in and out of it during our hour of instruction.

The panther growl of 600-horsepower engines is in the air everywhere around us, rattling the room, keeping us silent as we suit up in official red-white-and-blue Richard Petty overalls. "Made from Proban Flame-Resistant Cotton," says the tag. And in ominous small print: "Recyclable."

There are nine of us, all in our forties and fifties and all guys -- although I'm told there are occasionally women. Maybe it's the roar of the engines outside, or maybe it's nerves, but no one's cracking jokes. No one's boasting. No one's saying a word.

You can hear the sound of flipping pages and of scribbling as we sign the release forms. I understand "that driving . . . a race car at a high rate of speed . . . is a dangerous activity." I understand "that I can be injured or killed, EVEN IF I DO EVERYTHING AS I WAS INSTRUCTED TO DO."

But what exactly am I going to be doing?

Our instructor is a twenty-ish driver, Derek Slade. "You'll drive behind a professional in a pace car during your laps," he tells us. "If you keep up, if you stay in his tracks, he'll go faster. You'll get up to a 41-second lap, if you can do it. That's 110 to 115 mph."

115 mph. I think of my Nova, which starts to vibrate at 65.

One warning, says Slade. "Going 100 on this track will feel like 180 at the Daytona Speedway. At Daytona you've got 31-degree banking around curves. Here the slant is only 12 degrees. It'll feel like your car won't stick. But you've got to trust it."

We circle the track in a van, to get the lay of the thing, and we are reminded about manual shifts. "Do you have an automatic?" asks one guy, hopefully, but Slade glares at him. "These are stock cars," he says.

When we are driving we must watch the flag stand: A rolled-up green flag means "faster." A yellow one says "back off." Blue means we're not behind our instructor and we need to get there.

"What do you think?" I say to one of the other rookies, Al Holton, who is maybe in his late fifties, with an air of regal calm. "It's gonna be a piece of cake," he says. "My daughter, Diana, races vintage motorcycles. Now that's hard."

Um, yeah, I say. Piece of cake.

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