The most petrified I've ever been was crawling through the window of a 600-horsepower NASCAR-ready Chevy Monte Carlo and knowing there was no way out for 18 laps or one crash, whichever came first.
This was last May, six days after 19-year-old Adam Petty had been killed smashing into the wall at 130 mph during a practice lap at New Hampshire. Now I was at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, climbing into a car that I would drive at 140 mph—with Adam's number 45 painted on the side.
It was everything I could do not to climb right back out, but we had been arranging this for months. The Petty family had stopped operations for a day—how could I back away? Besides, the Experience hadn't had an injury or a lawsuit in its 10 years of operation.
I was like a lot of people. I never believed drivers were athletes, never thought of NASCAR as anything but I-95 on a Saturday night with no state patrol. But when they strap that neck brace on you and snap that steering wheel in place and close that nylon net over the side window-leaving you alone with nothing but pistons and smoke and about 120�—you start to change your mind.
You know what you're about to do can kill you. You tossed and turned at your Ramada the whole night before. The instructors warned you 20 times before you suited up. You even initialed a paragraph that read, in part: "I understand that I can be injured or killed"—and this next part was in bold type—"EVEN IF I DO EVERYTHING AS I WAS INSTRUCTED TO DO." What's more, this will be just you and your instructor, four car lengths ahead, not 40 guys at 185 miles per hour for 500 laps racing door-to-door like magazine salesmen for $1.2 million. As I waited, gripping like hell, I thought, Why in God's name am I about to risk my life for this?
Then I had the go signal and then the engine screamed and then I felt the fresh air of the straightaway and then the hug of the 12-degree banks and the 110-octane fuel pulling that 3,400-pound angel faster than I had ever driven in my life. As my eyeballs jiggled and the tach climbed and my heart got caught on my tonsils and the car got more buttery the more my right foot inched to the floor, I thought, Now I know.
After the 18 laps I climbed out of the car, soaked in sweat and glory, and begged for more. After that, I lapped up everything I could about the cars and the drivers and the races. I became an addict, and I'd never once been in a race. I couldn't imagine how addicted the drivers were.
That's how I happened to be sitting in my favorite chair watching Dale Earnhardt die on Sunday at the Daytona 500. I know everybody's going to be screaming for slower speeds and fewer cars and abolishing the sport and all that. But don't. Because, to these guys, it isn't a sport. It isn't a way of life, either. It is life.
The day after Adam Petty died, his best friends were racing right over his skid marks. On Sunday, Adam's dad, Kyle, climbed into Adam's car at Daytona, the one with the number 45 painted on the side. Fourteen months after Ernie Irvan should have died at Michigan in 1994, he was back racing, wearing an eye patch to stave off the double vision. One week after Sterling Marlin suffered third-degree burns to his face and body in a crash at Bristol, Tenn., in 1991, he was back behind the wheel, wrapped in gauze. Years after Bobby Allison had nearly died in his 1988 career-ending crash at Pocono, he said, "I wish I had died. My life was great then."
Don't you remember the Daytona 500 in 1997, when Earnhardt flipped like a Matchbox toy? He was on the infield, being helped into the ambulance, when he noticed his car still had all four wheels attached. "Will it start?" he yelled to the guy driving the wrecker. It did, so Earnhardt roared, "Get the hell outta my car!" He climbed back in and got back in the race.