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Halfway through the bottom of the turn, the car starts to straighten up and I pound my right foot down. That's it. Chad and I roll down out of the fourth turn a car length apart. Hard down the straightaway.
Into Turn 1. Gas off. Steer. Gas on. Fast. Smooth.
Smooth is a relative term. For a stock car, smooth can mean simply that you weren't knocked unconscious by the headrest as you pounded around the track. The car seesaws and wallows and pogos all at once, and violently. A racetrack may look flat, especially on TV, but none of them are, and every surface imperfection is transmitted directly up through that stiff, stiff suspension into your ass and your hands and your brain. A race car doesn't feel right until it's running at speed, and then the ride is purposeful and brutal. Even with power steering, sawing the wheel back and forth to keep the car on the right line is mentally and physically exhausting.
By the time I've made my fourth lap of the one-mile-plus track, I'm pouring sweat. It's in the mid-70s outside, but in here it's closer to 100�, even with the side windows missing. Down by my feet, next to the firewall, it's more like 125�. I've been on the track a little less than four minutes, and I'm spent.
But the sensation of this kind of speed is electrifying, and by the time we circle the track for the fifth time Chad has upped our speed to 130 or so on the straights. If Cup racers ran this track they'd be a third again as fast. I'm running on adrenaline now, and cocky from having kept death at bay for four endless minutes, I start edging my car up so close to Chad's that he waves me off. He raises his hand in front of his rearview and moves it back and forth, lazy and slow--the signal to stop tailgating--and it now occurs to me that while I'm back here struggling to keep up with him, strangling the wheel and yanking it side to side in effortful spasms, kicking at the gas pedal like I'm trying to kill a snake, gasping for breath, heart drumming away, he's up there in front of me going into the turn, the death turn, with one hand on the wheel. He's probably whistling.
N THESE last few laps, gathering speed and something like confidence, I try to make my entries and exits, conveniently marked by the giant orange cones, gas on/gas off, with something like grace. Once you're over the initial
shock--the sensory overload that has you driving that first handful of laps with nothing but your inner ear, your bowels and the reptile core of your brain stem--there's even time to think.
This car is a pig. That's what I'm thinking. This isn't some nimble, responsive little sports car you can flick back and forth with surgical precision on different lines through the turns. It isn't some luxo Japanese ultracar, either, silent and slippery and fast, all silicon-chip efficiency and Tom Swift gadgetry and motherboard performance, polite as an appliance. This thing is a grunting thug, as dim-witted and overmuscled and clumsy as they come. It's a workout to keep the beast running straight, the wheel cycling vaguely in your hands while the nose of the car wanders down the track. There's an arc of about 30 degrees at dead center where the steering wheel can be wrestled back and forth with no discernible effect on your trajectory. The steering assembly has more slop in it than a Tobacco Road hog trough.
Granted, this is a rental unit, the stock car equivalent of a theme park ride, and after a couple of months of hard use in the clammy, clenched hands of overeager money-market managers and cops and bakers and urologists, there's bound to be some play in the linkage, but the fact is, these race cars are brutish and primitive and imprecise from the moment they're built. Maximum Dad's embarrassing Windstar or anonymous late-model Camry (to say nothing of the designs in other popular racing series, like Formula One, or the CART or IRL championship cars) is more technologically sophisticated than a Cup racer by several orders of magnitude. A Cup racer is old-school shop class, simple as a brick.
That engine hammering away in front of me is powerful, certainly, but then it has to be to drag the backbreaking weight of all this antique cast iron around the track. And once it gets all that bulk pointed in a particular direction, it's damned stubborn about changing its mind. The brakes, for example, seem largely decorative, and simply turning left starts an argument with the car you can't really win.