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When the last Dad unfolds himself from his car, we gather very briefly for the closing ceremonies. They are understated. As the families chatter and mill around the tent, one of the instructors thanks us all for coming and points us to the photo trailer on the way out, in case we want to buy souvenir albums of our day at the races.
A moment later yet another Petty employee approaches me. She presses into my hand a small photograph in a decorative cardboard sleeve. I open it. There in front of a race car I stand with four strangers. We are all smiling and looking straight into the lens. Embossed below the photo in tiny letters: THE WINNING TEAM.
My fastest lap, according to the accompanying printout, was run at an average speed of 124.60 miles per hour. In my ringing head I am convinced that I am the fastest man in that tent. They do not announce anyone else's speed, though, probably to prevent fistfights among the wives and children, so I'll never know for sure. But I know I could have gone faster, so much faster. I will have to satisfy myself instead with being part of the Winning Team. Which sucks compared to individual glory. I brag to my wife, and briefly swagger, but I buy no additional photos.
Our last responsibility before we scatter and return to our separate lives is to fill out a customer response sheet. I grade the whole day very highly and promise to recommend the place to my friends if I ever get home. In the space for suggestions I write two things:
"Scariest part of the experience was the Porta-Potty."
" Chad needs to drive faster. So much faster."
But there's something else, too. A small realization. I do not comment on it, because I get the sense suddenly that it's a common enough phenomenon out here. In fact, I suspect that almost every driver who comes here walks away feeling something similar--by their expressions I can tell that a couple of them have caught the same thought and that it excited and then confused them.
Driving a race car? Driving it really fast? Driving it way out past whatever limits the law sets for you on the streets, or way out past whatever limits you've drawn for yourself in your own head?
It just didn't seem that hard.