The real thing, though, is small. Lower and sexier than what you'd see in the showroom, wide at the front and rear, slender and sculpted at the waist, it's still based on a midsized Detroit sedan, and when you stand next to it your first reaction might be disappointment--mine was--mingled with a bright excitement and the dark fear that I'd screw the pooch in front of that dentist.
Long ago, when these cars were hot-rodded on the cheap from showroom models, the racers would tie their doors shut with a length of rope or a belt--or, like Elly May Clampett, the rope they used as a belt--so they wouldn't fly open during a race. Eventually they started welding them shut. Now the cars are built without doors, so Maximum Dad's first challenge, and mine, is to climb into the car through the driver's-side window. Watching the men who preceded me, there seem to be two ways to do this.
One: Lift the right leg up as high as you can. Now higher. Higher. Now, right foot into cockpit. Right foot onto car seat. Two hands on roof. Lift left leg. Crush testicles on windowsill. Pause. Breathe. Left leg up high. Higher. Higher. Bend left leg. Fold into cockpit. Unfold. Crush testicles on steering wheel. Pause. Breathe. Slither down into seat.
Or, Two: Lift right leg. Right foot into cockpit. Two hands on windowsill. Bend forward at the waist. Farther. Farther. Now lever torso into cockpit. Reel in left leg. Smack face on steering wheel. Fall across roll-cage crossbar and crush testicles on fire extinguisher. Pause. Breathe. There.
Eventually it dawns on some of us to wait for the instructor to remove the steering wheel before we get in. That's why the steering wheels are removable.
Compounding the entry problem is the horse collar they tell me to put on right before I climb in. It works just like a neck brace to limit the range of motion between your head, neck and shoulders. This will be helpful in a crash, but it also limits the range of your vision when you're trying to hoist your testicles over the windowsill of the car, which explains the strangled screams of my classmates.
THE COCKPIT of a stock car is small, too, of course, nearly claustrophobic. � Tucked tight in the seat, you're surrounded by the thick tubing of the roll cage. The seat is designed to hold you almost immobile, so you don't go sliding all over the place when you're running 150 mph on the track and the Gs are pulling you out toward the wall. The seat also restricts your range of motion in a crash, so you don't go ragdolling all over the inside of the car. The seat seems to grip you from the back of your head all the way down to your calves. It's like falling over backward into a giant pile of modeling clay; when you're idling on pit road, it's a restrictive feeling, but on the track at a buck and a half the seat feels natural and necessary. Cup drivers, like astronauts, all have seats custom-molded to fit them.
The tubular-steel roll cage runs around the entire interior of the car. It's there to prevent the cockpit, and the driver, from being crushed in an accident. It also makes it impossible to see out of the car through anything but the windshield or the rearview mirror, which is fine since you can't move your head in any case.
Like an amusement park fun house, everything in the cockpit of a stock car is comically scaled. The steering wheel is the size of a manhole cover. The gearshift lever comes up out of the transmission hump like a sight gag, as long as your arm. The tachometer, a gauge the size of a pie pan for reading your engine speed, is, in this car, centered above the steering wheel. Strung along the dashboard are seven or eight other gauges so small as to be useless, even if I knew what they were for.
The entire interior is sheet metal painted with a couple of coats of gray semigloss primer. Worn down to bare steel in places, the interior of my car shows a lot of use. Down near the firewall, just a few inches behind the engine, the pedals are tiny and very far away. My right foot knows why it's here, though, and immediately begins tickling the accelerator. The throttle-return springs on racing cars are stout, like the springs on the screen door of a west Texas bunkhouse, and it takes more than tentative pressure from a nervous foot to make any real noise. Flexing your foot forward from the ankle, the way you do it in your Maximum Dad minivan, isn't going to get it. You need to put your leg into it.