Ever wonder if you have what it takes to drive a Winston Cup car? Here's your chance to find out. We've created a seat for you in the number 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo of series points leader Jeff Gordon, who has won eight of the 20 Winston Cup races run so far this year, including Sunday's road race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. The seat is imaginary but the race is real—May's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile tri-oval that is the nearest thing to an average track that NASCAR runs on. And as you'll see, there's far more to getting a stock car around a track than just standing on the gas pedal and turning left.
Before we strap in with Gordon, he wants us to know how his vehicle works. And that means starting with the basics. There is no key with which to fire up a Winston Cup car; a driver must anticipate the command to start engines by flipping a series of toggle switches on the dash, and must time the flipping just right, to get the engine going when the command comes. "I hit my battery switch just a few seconds before I know they're going to give the 'start your engines,' " says Gordon. "Then I flip my tachometer on, then my voltmeter. Then I hit the crank switch to get the engine turning. Finally I hit the start switch, which actually lights the distributor to give the power to start the engine."
Gordon then engages the clutch—no automatic transmissions here—and shifts into first gear. He has to release the clutch carefully because of the car's tremendous power. "A normal passenger car has about 200 horsepower," says Gordon. "Even a Corvette has only about 300. We're talking 700-plus horsepower in my DuPont Monte Carlo. So it's really easy to spin the tires leaving the pit road. In a street car you have to get on the gas pretty hard just to get up to 55 or 65 mph. In my car I can do 65 in first gear and 100 easily in second, and I've still got two more gears to go."
As he drives, Gordon has to keep thinking, Turn right, turn right. Yes, oval tracks feature nothing but left-hand turns. But anywhere else on the track, and at lower speeds, "if you don't pull the car back to the right it will turn left on its own, because it's built to go through the turns as fast as possible," he says. Our car has power steering that can be adjusted from an easier to a stiffer feel. "I like a stiffer feel, so I can feel the front tires a lot more," says Gordon. "But as a result, turning takes a lot more effort than it would in a street car."
As for the ride, well, you better make sure all of your fillings are tight. "Our cars are not built for comfort," he says. "The biggest difference between them and street cars is the stiffness of the springs and shock absorbers. When you hit a bump in a race car, it's, Uh! Uh! It shocks you. But I want to feel the bumps so I know how the car's responding and can react to it. These cats actually ride better at lull speed, as the banking of the track, the grip of the tires, the weight of the car [a Winston Cup car weighs 3,400 pounds before the driver gets in] and the aerodynamic downforce compress the springs."
Like most other drivers, Gordon uses a different engine, chassis setup and driving style in qualifying than he does on race day. The warmup lap is crucial in qualifying. "I want to come down the back straightaway at full speed and get through Turns 3 and 4 to take the green flag as fast as I can," says Gordon. "The more momentum I carry off 4, the faster my lap is going to be. Plus, the harder I run through 3 and 4, the better idea I have of what the car's going to do on the actual qualifying lap."
On the qualifying lap Gordon runs hard into Turn 1. "Now you're pulling the car down into the corner, still on the gas, pulling it down low on the banking," he says. "When you get off the gas you've got to turn back to the right. About halfway through the turn, when you're confident [that you're not out of control], bang! You jump right back on the gas and start pulling the car down again toward the white line. Right then is the deciding moment of whether you're going to have a good lap or wreck.
"Coming off Turn 2, you're looking as far ahead as you can, down the backstretch, all the way into Turn 3. I want to get my line just right, because the way you arc into the corner is everything. You carry as much speed into 3 as you can, until you get the feeling, whether it's in the seat of your pants or whatever, that you need to get off the gas. You pull the car down, and as long as it sticks and feels comfortable and you're kind of on the edge, bang! You jump right back onto the gas in Turn 4.
"And you either lose it right then, or it sticks and goes."
At Charlotte it stuck and went, and Gordon won the pole with a record qualifying speed of 184.3 mph. (He had known he had it going even during the warmup lap. "When I ran through 4 just before the green, I said, 'Oh, yeah! This car's gonna be good!' ")