washingtonpost.com
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

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.

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.

Now we're out on the track infield, country tunes are pumping out of speakers, and here are our cars. Instead of listening to the lecture about fires, about escapes from the seat, I am admiring the modified Ford Taurus I will be racing.

Yellow and black. A Nextel Cup car equipped with Goodyear Eagle tires. It is like a wasp that has been washed and waxed.

"Pennzoil," says my car on its hood, and "Die Hard" on the roll bar. That is me.

It is time to start the engines.

Head sock: check.

Helmet: check.

Neck brace: check.

Seat harness: check.

We're in the pit lane, and everything is happening fast. My chin strap is cutting into my jowls, but there isn't time to complain. I'm being made to climb in the window of my car. And not that I'm fat, but the steering wheel is removed to let me do it.

"Why can't we just open the door?" I ask.

"It's welded shut for safety, like in all stock cars," replies the pit guy.

He looks as if he is having second thoughts about letting me drive.

The dials on the dash say WATER, FUEL, OIL, RPMs and BATTERY VOLTAGE. I am strapped in low and tight and am told to put the car in first. I slot the shift up, trying to be fast yet smooth, and click it into gear.

I'm there -- a green light says so -- and here's my pace car rumbling in front. Seamlessly, at the precise split-second of starting, I punch down on the gas.

The pit guy is staring. I have stalled out.

We try again. This time, when I get the hand signal, I am careful, but I see the pro guy in his pace car already out on the track, and I am not yet in third. I gun it, squealing the tires, chasing him as hard as I can up to the top of the first turn.

I am slammed against the harness, struggling to spin the wheel and get up closer to the back of the pace car, which is chewing up the track on straightaways and cutting in at carnival-like slants at every turn.

I get a flag. It's blue.

What does it mean? I can't remember and I am dumped into another turn, and there is no time to think. The pace car is down in the curve, way down, and I am up near the wall.

That's it! Blue flag: Get back in the tracks of the pace car. I try and try and give my engine some more gas. I get a hood-length closer and I am tucked in tightly, not so far out of line.

No flag for me on the second or third laps and I am feeling confident on four and five and six, reminding myself the pace car has a timer ticking away. The engine of my Pennzoil sounds like singing, low and strong. It is humming 100, 100, 100.

I have got to break 100 on the time sheet I'll be given. 100 to show Renata. 100 to say "a piece of cake" to Al.

I am hungry for 100.

On my last lap, I give the Pennzoil everything I can. This is the Air Force. I am jetting into clouds of exhaust that puff from the tail of the pace car. I am flying so loud and low and hot that I forget to get off the gas before the final turn.

Something is off. I feel like the Pennzoil is angry. It is handling like my Nova, starting to slip, and I am looking up at ads for Winston and Mr. Goodwrench instead of at the gray of the track.

"Trust your car," I say out loud. And just as I'm talking I hit the turn.

There is a second when the speedway is black. No one is smoking Winston. And Mr. Goodwrench is gone.

I brace for something. An explosion? But there is nothing. Only the 100 hum of the engine droning on and on.

The Pennzoil has taken the turn all by itself. And we are safely in the stretch and getting waved at by the checkered flag.

I keep staring at the printout of my lap times. Clutching it hard. Al has gone faster. From what I can find out, I'm in the slowest third of the class. But there it is in print:

Peter Mandel -- Rookie Experience

Top Speed: 109 mph.

The Pennzoil and I have done it. We have broken 100, though barely. I can grin at Renata. And I am alive.

More important is a need I seem to have for spaghetti. For a hearty Ragu with meat.

I am the hungriest I have ever been.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on Akron, Ohio.

Details: Stock Car Experiences

Richard Petty Driving Experience programs, which let you drive a pro stock car on a NASCAR circuit track, are offered at 25 racetracks across the country, including the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, where I took mine. The closest tracks to Washington are Richmond's International Speedway and Nazareth Speedway in Nazareth, Pa. You can also sign up at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Walt Disney World Speedway.

For general information, annual schedules and more: 800-BE-PETTY, www.1800bepetty.com.

Petty is one of the larger racing programs, but other companies offer similar experiences at tracks around the country, including the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure (888-GO-RACE-1, www.racingadventure.com) and the Buck Baker Racing School (800-529-BUCK, www.buckbaker.com). For an overview, general info and ratings of most of the "racing schools" and experiences, go to www.racingschools.com.

REQUIREMENTS: No racing experience is needed, but you must have a driver's license, and you must be able to handle a standard transmission.

PROGRAMS AND COSTS: The introductory "Rookie Experience" costs $379 at most of the tracks ($499 at the Indianapolis Speedway), lets you race eight laps around the track chasing a pace car and lasts about three hours, including instruction. The more advanced "King's Experience" costs $799 at most locations, lets you race for 18 laps and lasts about five hours. The "Experience of a Lifetime" is $1,249 at most venues, allowing you 30 laps at the wheel.

RIDE-ALONG: If you're not up to actually taking the wheel, Petty also offers the "Ride-Along" ($99-$125), in which you ride in a two-seat stock car driven by a professional instructor. There's also the "Ultimate Race Experience" ($199-$249), where you take in an actual race from the passenger's seat.

TIPS:

• All participants are given a regulation helmet and neck guard. If you're taking one of the driving programs, you'll also be issued a driver's suit, but you will need to wear socks and closed-toe shoes.

• During summer it can get extremely hot on the track, and the temperature inside a stock car is typically 15 to 20 degrees higher than outside. Petty suggests wearing loose fitting shorts or pants and a T-shirt under your driver's suit.

• I blew this, but in the interest of focusing on what you have to do and on safety measures, it's a good idea to do your picture-taking or videoing before or after the classroom and on-the-track instruction you'll be given before you drive.

• Ask any questions before you get behind the wheel, since there's no radio contact with your instructor once your driving experience begins.

RULES AND RESTRICTIONS: Stock car doors do not open, so participants must be able to climb through a 15-by-30-inch window that sits 36 inches from the ground. According to Petty, "as a general rule, people who are less than 6 feet 8 inches and 280 pounds are allowed to participate."

Driving program participants must be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver's license, and riding program participants must be at least 14. (Participants at Daytona International Speedway and Walt Disney World Speedway must be at least 18 to drive and 16 to ride.)

© 2004 The Washington Post Company