RICHMOND — The car was a Toyota Camry hybrid, so the engine didn’t unleash the throaty roar of NASCAR’s 850-horsepower machines.
And rather than drift up against the wall that rings the Richmond International Raceway track in search of maximum speed, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was instructed to keep the Camry squarely in the middle of the asphalt.
In fact, he was told to drive no faster than 41 mph.
So at a speed that would have gotten him flattened on the Beltway, Washington’s most famous athlete made his NASCAR debut Saturday night — leading the field of 43 racecars to the green flag as the honorary pace-car driver for the Toyota Owners 400.
“It’s going to be very safe,” Griffin told reporters after his 20-minute afternoon lesson on pace-car driving. He added a personal message to his team’s general manager, owner and coach: “So Bruce Allen, Dan Snyder, Coach Jay [Gruden], you don’t have anything to worry about!”
The idea of asking the Redskins’ third-year quarterback to serve as the honorary pace-car driver — a role that has been filled by such luminaries as baseball’s “Iron Man,” Cal Ripken Jr., and actor Tom Cruise — came from Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver and an ardent Redskins fan since age 8.
A recent convert to Twitter, Earnhardt, 39, tweeted the idea last month. Track officials loved it. And Griffin, who had watched NASCAR races on TV but never seen one in person, had an opening in his schedule.
“It takes a lot to be a football player, but it also takes a lot to be a NASCAR driver,” Griffin said, calling it “a blessing and an honor” to drive the pace car. “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t jump in a car today and do what Dale Jr. does. We definitely respect him.”
Accompanied by his wife, Rebecca, Griffin arrived at the track roughly six hours before the 7:15 p.m. green flag. He was met with a packed itinerary that started with a victory-lane photo session followed by his driving lesson from NASCAR veteran Buster Auton, who sat in the passenger seat and talked Griffin through the nuances of easing the field off pit road, negotiating the quirky corners of the D-shaped oval and ducking off the track on the final parade lap.
From there, Griffin, wearing an Adidas T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Know Your Why,” met NASCAR’s top drivers in the track’s motor-home lot. He tweeted a photo with seven-time champion Richard Petty. He chatted with Earnhardt Jr., a friend for two years. And he posted a selfie with Earnhardt Jr. and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
“I did want him to come to a race, even if he just bought a ticket and sat in a seat and just watched the event,” Earnhardt Jr. explained. “I am a fan of his. I follow the Redskins, and I think he’ll in turn find this interesting and something new.”
From there, Griffin huddled with former Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, a three-time champion NASCAR team owner, to talk racing (and a little football). Among the more excited onlookers was 9-year-old Taylor Gibbs, one of the coach’s eight grandchildren, who sported Griffin’s No. 10 Redskins jersey and Redskins socks for the occasion.
“All the people over here in NASCAR love football, and when I was in football, a lot of the football guys loved racing,” Gibbs said. “It’s like a different world, but real respect.”