- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
"REMEMBER YOUR EXTINGUISHER! 'COURSE, IF THERE'S A FIRE, I SAY SCREW IT! DROP THE NET AND GET OUT FAST! HAVE FUN!"
With that, he pulls his face back from mine, yanks my harnesses even tighter, shoots me a smile that never makes it to his eyes and eases his shoulders back out the window. I didn't get his name. He's one of the 10 or 12 employees here at the morning session of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. He tugs my window net up into place. The net's there to keep my left arm from flying out the window if the car starts tumbling down the track at 165 mph, like Petty himself at Darlington in 1970, when the 43 car got turned sideways and barrel-rolled seven or eight times with Mr. Petty's slender left arm flopping out the driver's window like the free arm of a bull rider, fully extended, circling wildly, while the car bucked and spun, shedding metal and rubber and churning up asphalt until you figured him for dead before the debris even stopped falling. Amazingly, he wasn't much hurt.
That experience, however integral to Petty mythology, isn't pictured in the brochure. We are here, instead, to scare ourselves a little, to show off, to pretend for eight laps that we're racers, to do a dangerous thing without really doing it. In America this is possible. For $379, Visa or MasterCard. There are 20 of us.
We're in Orlando. Walt Disney World Speedway. Fantasy inside fantasy inside fantasy. The day starts at 8 a.m. in an infield classroom. Turn in our liability waivers and medical forms. Just in case. Half an hour of whiteboard instruction on safety, strategy, technique. Gas on/gas off. Half-attentive, we fidget in our seats. We want to get in the cars and go. How hard can it be? No camaraderie, just staring at the back of one another's heads. An inventory of male-pattern baldness. We are all of a kind here this morning, white guys on the crumbling brink of middle age--orthodontists, retail managers, salesmen, master plumbers. And one writer poised on a brink of his own.
Out the door, into the blast of that atomic Florida sun. Then a couple of fast laps on the tri-oval track in passenger vans with one of the instructors driving, six or seven of us piled in and hanging on like grim death behind him as he shouts tips about angles of entry and apexes. There are orange highway cones at the entrance and exit to every turn--we're doing 70, 80 miles an hour, wallowing and squealing around the banking in what amounts to a senior-center ambulette on the worst ride ever to the respiratory therapy center.
"All you need to remember are the cones," he says as we stagger out of the van, weaving like we've been at sea. "The cones remind you when to let off and when to pour on the steam. 'Kay?"
NAUSEAUTED, we now gather beneath a trackside tent. We are given helmets and sanitary helmet liners, little white cotton yarmulkes--to absorb the Brylcreem, presumably--and coveralls in Petty's famous medium blue. We look like fat, excited children wearing medieval skullcaps and novelty pajamas. The cars, pure sex, the reason we came, are just on the other side of the low pit wall.
One by one we're going to get in those cars and drive them as fast as we can, following an instructor in another car around the track. "Git tucked in right behind him, now. Stay on him like a tick." First, though, the driver introductions.
Mimicking the canned excitement that precedes every big league stock car race, a voice introduces each of us over the P.A. system. Every balding man-child in his officially-licensed fireproof PJs gets his turn at stardom as his name is shouted out over an obbligato of arena rock.
Unlike drivers in the Big Show, however, we are not then humbled by the ovation of a quarter-million ardent fans. We blush, rather, at the bland applause of 19 indifferent strangers and a few of their sunburned wives and children while we walk 12 feet from one side of the tent to the other. The infrequency with which his own children bring their hands together for Dear Old Maximum Dad, to say nothing of the nearly audible rolling of their little Oliver Twist eyes, would indicate that in some degree their applause is to be taken ironically.