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.
* 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.)
-- Peter Mandel