"Trust the car, and don't let off the accelerator."
Those were my driving instructor's final words before he sent me in motion. And who am I to argue with a professional? Besides, I've been waiting my whole life to hear that kind of advice. But it's just business as usual at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
The eight-year-old Petty program is a fantasy camp for piston heads, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to jockey a 600-horsepower NASCAR Winston Cup stock car around the banked asphalt of a real track. King Richard himself doesn't take part in the classes. His name and his cars are the main attraction, and 40,000 people last year paid to drive around Charlotte's famous 1.5-mile tri-oval. The demand for wheel time is so great that Petty has set up shop at seven other Winston Cup racing venues, including Disney World and Las Vegas. It's probably just a personal preference, but Mickey Mouse and Wayne Newton lose some of their drawing power once you've made a left turn at 140 mph.
Happily, Petty has priced the deal in a way that respects the sport's blue-collar roots. The Rookie Experience that I'm taking costs $330; it's a three-hour program that includes driving instruction, eight laps behind the wheel and photos of my encounter with the eight-cylinder beast. Folks with more loose cash can choose more elaborate plans, ranging up to $2,200 for two days and 80 laps of driving. But make no mistake. This is not a school for experienced racers or people who might be looking for a new vocation. It's just a chance to give NASCAR fans a kick, a chance to be King for a day.
Like other NASCAR fans, I'm here because I've always longed to grip the wheel of a genuine race car. I've had enough of the pale imitations; trading paint with 12-year-olds at amusement park Go Kart tracks and pumping quarters into video-arcade driving simulators. I've probably spent a thousand dollars over the years on such nonsense. So what's $330 for a shot at the real thing?
On an overcast Monday morning I get my first infield view of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But it's not the big oval that most impresses me. It's the high grandstands hugging the track's walls and the bank of luxury boxes and condos that tower above turns 1 and 2. The 150,000 seats give the track a cavernous feeling, as if it could swallow Jack Kent Cooke Stadium whole.
I meet my classmates in an infield conference room. There are 30 of them; all but two are men. One of the women is Diane Denlinger, a school bus driver from Arcanum, Ohio. As we wait to be issued our racing suits, she tells me about her own dream of popping the clutch on a race car.
"My husband knew that I've always wanted to do it," she says, "so he brought me here for my fortieth birthday. It was a total surprise. He didn't even tell me why we had come to Charlotte until he drove me to the track last night."
"If you drive this track like you're going to the grocery store, you'll be wasting your money," he says. "These cars were built to make left turns at high speeds. They'll actually handle better the faster you go."
Calkins points out a sequence of white squares painted on the track to mark the drive line we're supposed to follow. While it may appear that there's nothing more to driving a stock car than jumping on the gas and turning left, a concussion will teach you better. A safe ride depends on following a proper drive line: Not too high in the turns, not too low in the straightaways.
Only three cars will be sent onto the track at a time; one instructor followed by two students. The drivers have to keep a distance of at least five car lengths at all times. Tailgaters will be flagged into the pits. If we maintain the five car-length distance, the instructor will gradually build speed with each lap. If we max out, we should reach 140 mph on our eighth and final orbit.
After the van ride, we're tutored in flag signals; slow down, speed up, last lap, etc. Finally, we're shown the cockpit of a car. It's cramped and bare, except for gauges, toggle switches and the web of steel safety bars that surround the driver. I pay close attention to the instructions on how to engage the fire extinguisher.
It has been only an hour since we checked in, and the first drivers are already strapped into their cars. The rest of us stare open-mouthed at the Grand Prixs and Monte Carlos lined up on pit row, all of them tricked out in brilliant colors and sponsors' logos. Two of them rumble to life and fill the pit area with fumes. I think I can feel the ground shake, and I take a step back. For the first time today, I wonder if I've got what it takes to handle a 600-horsepower car.
I'm in the 27th driving position, which means that I'll be waiting for a while. In the meantime, I walk to the end of pit road, where the school's ride-along program has attracted a throng of people. It's just like the NASCAR Ride Along commercials on ESPN. In fact, some of those commercials were filmed in Petty Experience cars. For $80, you get to ride shotgun with one of the school's professional drivers as he hurtles around the track side-by-side and bumper-to-bumper with another driver. These cars and the student-driven cars are sent off at different intervals, so they don't interfere with one another. It's a three-lap ride, with a top speed of 170 mph.
I watch several people climb out of the ride-along cars, all of them giddy and floppy-kneed. After reeling off a string of expletive-laced kudos, one of my classmates stumbles away from the car looking as if he had been planted on a bar stool all afternoon.
"That was the most fun I've ever had in my life," he says. "I thought I was going to die, but it was so much fun. You have to do it."
Since I'm still waiting for my
turn to drive, I don't need further persuading. Minutes later, I'm being strapped in beside Mark Claussner, a full-time driver for the school. The crew members tighten a five-point safety harness around my chest and crotch, check my helmet strap and wrap a stabilizer around my neck. Suddenly, I'm a little nervous. I don't feel like I'm going for a ride in a car as a much as a trip on the back of a rocket. I try to hide my apprehension.
"Don't worry about a thing," Claussner says. "I used to drive a cab in Chicago."
Before I can even turn my head to see if he's riding on a beaded seat cover, he stomps the gas. The force nearly snaps my head off as the car rockets out of the pits and barrels into the first turn, high on the embankment. A red car shoots down below us, and we swing outside of him coming onto the backstretch, just inches from the wall. I'm pinned to my seat. I'm fearing for my life. I'm thinking that Claussner has the greatest job in the world.
The ride lasts less than two minutes, but I'm sure I'll remember every harrowing second of it for the rest of my life. As we pull back into the pits, I'm dizzy from the speed and the G-forces and the fear. Claussner says, "I tried to give you the scenic tour of the walls. Did you like it?"
Like my classmate, all I can do is spit a delirious, enthusiastic string of expletives.
Once my equilibrium returns to normal, I start to feel better about my chances of having a decent run once it's my turn to drive. The ride has reinforced my faith in the car's abilities. It seems I've met God, and God drives a Pontiac.
Finally, my name comes up. I put on a helmet and climb through the window of a number-53 yellow Monte Carlo. Once I'm strapped in, the only thing that's missing is the steering wheel. A crew member snaps it into place, no more than a foot from my chest. He points out the fire extinguisher one last time and then hangs the safety netting from the side window (to keep my arms inside the car in case of a crash). With the flick of a toggle switch, he ignites the big V-8. The car rumbles like a volcano.
Calkins walks over and gives me that final command: Trust the car and don't let off the accelerator. He slaps the hood and points to the end of pit road, where the instructor's car is waiting. I shift into first (no automatic transmissions here) and give the big hoss just a little bit of gas to start it rolling.
We cruise slowly around the bottom of turns 1 and 2. From below, they look like tidal waves of asphalt. It's still hard to believe that a car can hurtle around these hairpins and spit the driver onto the back stretch in one piece.
Coming out of turn 2, the instructor punches the gas and roars out onto the backstretch. I follow suit. The engine screams and we're flying. I see the white squares on the track but quickly find it's easier to just follow the line of the instructor. He arcs into turn 3, still gaining speed. I'm right behind him, repeating my mantra: Don't let off the accelerator. Don't let off the accelerator.
My faith is rewarded. The car sinks down into the track, hugging the asphalt like a panther. I'm barely turning the wheel. It's like the car and the banked turns are doing all the work for me. It's an amazing feeling of security. I feel much safer than I have any right to feel while traveling at such speed.
Into the dogleg on the front stretch, the instructor takes it up another notch. I push harder on the accelerator and close the gap. I don't want to lose my five-length distance, but I don't want him to think that I'm out for a Sunday drive. We build speed for several laps. Each trip down the backstretch, the instructor inches the driving line higher onto the track. We're above the squares on the final lap, close to the wall. I can feel its presence, but I don't think that I can afford to look. I'm almost at the top of the track when I swoop down into turn 3 for the last time. Here come the G-forces, bending my neck and rearranging my internal organs. It feels like a ride at Busch Gardens. I can't help but laugh.
The car slingshots into the dogleg. I punch the accelerator one last time as I see the checkered flag being waved. It's a sad feeling knowing that I'll finally have to use the brakes.
As I roll into the pits, the crew is whooping and hollering and banging on the car. They make me feel as if I just won a million dollar purse. I climb out onto the asphalt, and a crew member hands me a sheet of paper bearing my results. Top speed: 142.5 mph. Fastest lap time: 44.09 seconds. The numbers wouldn't come close to earning me a ride on the Winston Cup circuit.
But it makes no difference. I can't imagine Petty feeling any more exhilarated after claiming one of his 200 race victories. All I need is a cowboy hat and a pair of wraparounds to complete the experience. It's good to be King.
Ride Along Program: Three laps riding shotgun as a professional driver streaks around the Speedway, $89.99.
Rookie Experience: Eight-lap driving program, $329.99.
Winston Experience: Sixteen-lap program, run in two eight-lap sessions, $699.99.
Experience of a Lifetime: Thirty-lap program, run in three 10-lap sessions, $1,099.99.
Racing Experience: Two-day program, consisting of 80 laps run in eight 10-lap sessions. This course includes exercises in side-by-side driving and a final-session duel between the student and instructor, $2,199.99.
Schedules and program availability vary throughout the year, subject to weather and speedway events. You must be at least 18 years old and able to drive a manual transmission to take part in a driving class. Considering the school's popularity, try to make reservations at least two months in advance. June and August are the busiest months. For information on Charlotte and other program sites, contact the Richard Petty Driving Experience, 800-237-3889, 6022 Victory Lane, Harrisburg, N.C., 28075, or http://www.pettyracing.com.
Charlotte for Lead Foots Getting There: Of course, you'll want to drive. That's what this trip is all about. Take I-95 south to I-85 south. If your pit stops are efficient and a state trooper doesn't put you under the caution flag, you should hit Charlotte in about 6 1/2 hours.
Where to Stay: The Hampton Inn at University Place (704-548-0905, 8419 N. Tryon St., Charlotte) is five miles from the speedway and offers Petty students a $66 per night rate.
Where to Eat: Just down the road from the speedway is the Sandwich Construction Company Sports Bar and Grill (704-597-0008, 7801 University Blvd., Charlotte), a favorite pit stop of Winston Cup drivers and crew members. The walls are covered with racing photos and NASCAR memorabilia, and the kitchen turns out salads, sub sandwiches and burgers the size of hub caps.
What to Do: Almost all of the Winston Cup teams are based in or near Charlotte. Most open their facilities to the public free of charge. At the Petty reservations department, you can get a list of team facilities (called shops) and auto racing museums. The shops typically have observation windows overlooking their work areas, so you can watch mechanics prepare cars for races. Hendrick Motorsports (704-455-3400, 4400 Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd., Harrisburg, N.C.), two miles from the speedway, also has a museum and large gift shop.
The greatest concentration of racing teams is in Mooresville, N.C., about 30 minutes north of the speedway, off I-77. There, you'll find the headquarters of Penske Racing South (704-664-2300, 136 Knob Hill Rd.), Roush Racing (704-664-3800, 122 Knob Hill Rd.) and 10 other Winston Cup Teams. Also in Mooresville is the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame (704-663-5331, 119 Knob Hill Rd.), which houses a collection of 37 cars from all eras of stock car racing. About an hour north of Charlotte, off I-85, is the Richard Petty Museum (336-495-1143, 311 Branson Mill Rd., Randleman, N.C.). If you're driving back to Washington, stop and tip your hat to the man who put that big V-8 in front of you.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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