Stepping behind the wheel during NASCAR nation's summer vacation
Even during their off week, NASCAR's drivers can't keep away from the track
Tom Bowles strapped in for a ride-a-long at Pocono's Stock Car Racing Experience
After Pocono, I have a greater appreciation of drivers' devotion to the sport
When NASCAR nation descends on Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Friday, tales of this weekend's summer vacation will mostly center around one thing: racing. The simple act of going 'round in circles at high speeds is addictive, something that's needed like that first cup of coffee every morning. It's why A.J. Allmendinger's choosing to go-kart in Wisconsin this weekend while his wife vacations in the Bahamas. It's why Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne will kick up the sand on the track, not the beach, in Ohio, and why I spent eight laps practicing for my Pocono debut.
So maybe that last part's a typo. I haven't found a Cup owner ready to hire me yet, or even a D-list ARCA team. But after my first time driving a stock car, what I understand impeccably now is how every driver ends each race wanting more.
I'd known about these ride-a-longs for years. Every NASCAR speedway has them nowadays, programs where you ride inside a racing replica with an instructor before living the dream by sliding behind the wheel yourself. Even NASCAR's King makes a hefty profit running them; his Richard Petty Driving Experience, held at over 20 tracks, is one of the reasons Boston Ventures swooped in to (briefly) save his ailing Cup Series operation in 2008.
I'd always wanted to try a ride-a-long -- from the moment I fell in love with this sport at eight years old -- but just never had the guts to take the plunge. It's easy to rest on your laurels of track victories in the old EA NASCAR games, talking trash through a PlayStation that you could have worn Kevin Harvick's fire suit if only the right opportunity came calling. Lost in those post-victory speeches, of course, was the fact I'd never even driven a stick shift in my life. To step into a stock car would be to admit my deep, dark secret, starting a racing career that lasted all of 15 seconds as I blew the tranny at the end of pit road.
But this week, the opportunity was just too good to pass up. My friends at Pocono Raceway joined with NASCAR to send an invitation to their Stock Car Experience, offering a free slot to drive with a handful of Drive For Diversity candidates. How could a guy with racing in his blood say no to that? I would just have to suck it up, and then clench my teeth in a nervous wreck until the moment I strapped inside the car.
"Can you ... um, can you tell me again how to shift?" I asked the nice guy with the black hat who was helping me figure out the Jenga puzzle that doubled as my lap belt. "I just want to, um, practice before we go out."
"Haven't you run a stick shift before?" he said. I should have known better than to question the guy whose job was keeping me safe, setting me into a HANS device faster than Michael Waltrip could thank a sponsor.
"It's just been awhile, that's all."
"Oh. Well we have business people that come here all the time and lie on their application," he said. "I'm used to it."
The sigh of relief was followed by 10 minutes of first grade education, how you balance the clutch and the accelerator like a seesaw on the playground. Looking back, I laugh because most people freak out when they reach 150 mph on the race track; I was more concerned about shifting to first to second at 20.
"You won't stall out," my able driving companion said as we turned on my engine and I waited for the instructor's car. "Just worry about hitting your marks."
With that, I was off, breaking that ugly pit road speed limit while getting up to 75 mph by the end of what they call the Long Pond straightaway. The transition from third to fourth was rough -- I can't imagine that tranny would last 500 miles -- but I made it on the track with the engine still humming that loud, sweet music of extra horsepower.
My own personal Daytona 500 was on after that. The next 10 minutes flew by like 10 seconds, playing NASCAR 101 with the help of an instructor and plenty of on-track support. Out by the wall were yellow, red and green cones to follow for each of Pocono's triangular turns. Yellow meant roll off the throttle; red meant turn... or face the wall; and green meant press the gas, don't spin out, and rocket down the straightaway with no speed limit. Add in some white markings showing the right line to run, and even Paris Hilton could make it through with the equivalent of bumper bowling aids.
Going fast was a whole other matter altogether. I thought I was killing it in the first two laps, until another car in my group passed by me like I was stopped. Within half-a-lap, that driver was 50 car lengths ahead as another instructor picked up the "slow kid." It took about half the ride to figure out my problem; race cars weren't meant to run like snails. I'd roll through turn 1, hitting the bumps like rumble strips while having ferocious crashes from years of watching races here stuck subconsciously in the back of my mind. Checking my RPMs, I struggled to hit 5000 as I didn't trust the car to stick through the turn, content to run like Driving Miss Daisy instead.
Finally, I upped my speed, and wouldn't you know it, the car felt perfect. I could feel the G-Forces tear at my body as I went through the laps at well over 100 mph, the breeze flapping through as fast as my confidence was building. The next two minutes were the best of my life, charging down the frontstretch with reckless abandon as if I went from novice to challenging June winner Denny Hamlin in seconds. Even the tunnel turn 2, the hardest one in NASCAR, felt like a breeze as I charged through it with the joy of an eight-year-old finishing up his first roller coaster ride. Surely, I'd be running flat out in just five more minutes.
We'll never know. The checkered flag flew just as I was getting comfortable, leaving me to wonder what might have been. Comparing speeds with Michael Cherry from NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program, he was running flat out with these lower-horsepower cars through that same turn while I hit a high of 6900 RPM for the whole experience. That's a top speed of 150-160 mph, not too shabby but far from the 9000+ the Cup cars hit as they barrel down the Long Pond straightaway at well over 200 mph.
The aftermath was full of smiles, pictures and plenty of making fun, especially from a fellow writer who beat me by well over 15 mph. But hidden among all that joy was a focus on the little things I did wrong. Why did I arc it too much heading into turn 3? What was I missing that caused the other drivers to pull away?
Most importantly: How can I finagle them to put me back in a car again?
"You can always come back," said a friend in Pocono's media center that afternoon. "We'd be happy to give you a little more training."
I certainly plan to; I can't let my racing career end without knowing how far I can push it. The only problem is, drivers tell me all the time that happens at the end of every race. I know those who dissect to the point they watch video dozens of times, searching for every little moment they screwed up in order to make them a better athlete.
Uh-oh. I'm addicted.
So for every fan out there wondering why their favorite superstar is "giving up" their vacation to go race some more, try your hand at one of these driving experiences.
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