Sunday, February 27, 2000
Publication: THE MIAMI HERALD
I was offered the chance to drive a NASCAR-type race car,
I expected it to be fun, but not necessarily the ultimate
in motoring excitement. I figured that I had already experienced
the ultimate in motoring excitement: driving on I-95 in Miami.
is no place for the faint of heart. You're out there with
people who apparently took Driver's Ed from Saddam Hussein;
people who observe the traffic laws to the same degree that
the Unabomber observed the postal regulations; people who
refuse to allow trivial matters such as steering to interfere
with their cellular phone conversations, hair care, nasal
hygiene, narcotics ingestion, etc. And you cannot get away
from them, because your
path is inevitably being blocked by some elderly or possibly
deceased retirees on their way to the Blindness Clinic, oozing
forward at the speed of rust in their 1974 Chrysler El Humongo.
And then comes that awful moment when you glance into your
rearview mirror and see, growing rapidly larger as it hurtles
toward you, swerving violently from lane to lane like a testosterone-fueled
missile with a defective guidance system, the scariest sight
of all: the Teenaged Male Death Wish Idiot - a person who
cannot grasp the difference between a car and a video game,
and thus believes that the worst thing that will happen if
he crashes into you is that he'll see a sign saying GAME OVER,
it's pretty exciting out there. And so, as I say, when the
Richard Petty Driving Experience offered me a chance to drive
a real race car on a real racetrack, my initial reaction was
that, for a veteran Miami driver, it would probably not be
a big deal.
I was wrong. I can admit this, now that I have returned home
and changed my underwear. It WAS pretty darned exciting, after
all. Strap yourself in, get a good grip on your newspaper,
and I'll tell you what it was like.
7:30 a.m., and I'm pulling into the grounds of the Homestead-Miami
Speedway. This is in South Miami-Dade County, although the
complex itself feels more like Alabama, in the sense that
everybody seems to have a Southern accent, and the Billy Ray
Cyrus hairstyle is still in semi-vogue.
myself into the right frame of mind, I am eating what I consider
to be a NASCAR-style breakfast, consisting of black coffee
and a Slim Jim the length of a pool cue.
in at the Media Center, where the Richard Petty Driving Experience
has set up headquarters during its stay here, Feb. 14-20.
The Richard Petty Driving Experience is a slick, well-organized,
marketing-savvy operation that runs classes for wannabe racers
at various racetracks around the country. The Petty folks
will basically take anybody who's 18 and has a
driver's license, put him (or her) (although it's usually
him) behind the wheel of a Winston-Cup-type race car with
a kick-butt engine, and send him out onto a racetrack to see
what he's got.
first you have to turn in your paperwork. This consists of
a lengthy legal release, which you have to sign and initial
in about 300 places, and which basically says that, in legal
terminology, you are out of your mind. Right at the top, in
bold letters, it offers this happy greeting: "YOU COULD
BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR EVEN KILLED." (Note to Florida
Department of Transportation: This would be a good sign to
put over the entrances to I-95.)
There are about two dozen paying customers in my class, all
of them middle-aged guys. As we wait for the 8 a.m. starting
time, we pick Slim Jim strands out of our teeth and watch
the Petty staff fire up the cars, which are stripped-down,
highly modified Chevrolet Monte Carlos. These cars have no
windshield wipers or headlights or turn signals or radios
or air conditioning or door handles or mufflers or emission
controls or any of that other wussy minivan crap. What these
cars have are 358-cubic-inch engines
that crank out 600 horsepower and a LOT of noise. These cars
make more noise when they're idling than your car would make
if the gas tank exploded. These cars want to run.
we can drive them, we have to go through an orientation. We're
issued blue racing jumpsuits that zip up the front, and then
we go into a classroom, where we meet the professional drivers
who'll be teaching us, a group of loose, friendly young guys
with mandatory Southern accents. They tell us we're going
to have fun, then show us a video in which Richard Petty himself,
the King of racing, welcomes us to the school and tells us
that we should not hesitate to ask questions.
"There is no such thing as a dumb question, " he
The only two questions I can think of are:
1. Will I be seriously injured or even killed?
2. Does this jumpsuit make my hips look big?
keep my mouth shut. Nobody else has questions, either; these
guys didn't come here to sit around a classroom. So we head
outside to the pit road, which runs parallel to the straightaway
in front of the huge Speedway grandstands. There we gather
in smaller groups around the cars to receive our briefing.
is briefed by instructor Adam Andretti, a member of the famous
Andretti racing family. He explains that the car doors don't
open, so we'll have to climb in through the side window. To
give us room to get into the seat, the steering wheel comes
off the steering post; once we're inside, we reattach it to
the post. Adam says it's important to make sure the steering
wheel has clicked firmly into place on the post before we
drive off. He notes how silly we'd feel if we were going around
the track at 130 miles per hour and suddenly found ourselves
waving the wheel in the air. We all laugh nervously.
from the wheel, there's not much in the car: bucket seats
with aircraft-style safety harnesses; heavy black netting
to cover the space where the side windows would be; a big,
serious-looking gearshift lever; a few gauges and lights;
and a switch for firing up the engine (there's no ignition
key). The most unnerving thing is a prominent fire-extinguisher
system, with nozzles pointing right at the driver. Adam explains
that we should activate this in case we happen to notice that
we are burning. He adds, "I'm not saying that every time
you go out, the thing's gonna catch on fire." Thanks!
our group loads into a van for a tour of the track, conducted
by instructor Rick Calkins, who sets us at ease by announcing:
"This is my first day! I was delivering pizza last night!"
In fact Calkins seems to be quite experienced, as evidenced
by the fact that he pilots the van expertly around the track
at a fairly high rate of speed while sitting sideways and
looking backward at us students. He shows us the path we should
follow: Close to the wall on the straightaway, then decelerating
at the start of the curve and swooping down to the infield,
then accelerating out of the curve back to the wall for the
are orange cones at various points to show us where to decelerate
and accelerate; there are also little marks on the track to
help guide us through the turns. Also, each of us will always
be following a car driven by one of the professional drivers,
who'll show us where to drive and monitor our speed; we're
supposed to try to follow right in his tire tracks, three
or four car lengths behind. We're not supposed to get any
closer than that, but we're also not supposed to fall too
far behind. And we're supposed to
remember to breathe and try not to be nervous. We're apparently
not supposed to notice that at various points on the track
there are large black skid marks leading directly into the
wall. I am definitely nervous. In my stomach, I feel my Slim
first maybe three laps, I have virtually no coherent thoughts
in my brain, unless you count terror as a thought.
our tour is over, we gather under a tent next to the pit road
and find out the order in which we'll drive our first turns,
which will be eight laps each. I'm driver No. 18. This means
I have plenty of time to get even more nervous.
crew has set up a boom box, which blasts out driving-related
songs, such as the Beach Boys' 409 ("She's real fine,
my 409; my four-speed, dual-quad, posi-traction 409!").
We listen to the music and watch a Petty crew help the first
student driver put on his crash helmet and climb into his
car. In front of him is a man holding out a STOP sign; behind
the man is the instructor-piloted car. The student is strapped
in tight and the crew fires up his engine. When a man up on
the flagman platform, high over the
straightaway, gives the signal that the track is clear, the
instructor-driven car roars forward; the sign man flips the
STOP over to GO; and the student car, after a stuttering jerk,
takes off. In a few seconds, the instructor and student are
out on the track, disappearing around the curve, and the crew
starts getting the next driver ready.
LOOK OUT BELOW!
I'm getting that feeling you get when you've just climbed
into the roller coaster, and now it's starting up the incline....
click-click-click.... and you know that a steep, violent,
stomach-grabbing drop is ahead, and there's nothing you can
do to avoid it. Most of my fellow students are also looking
pretty serious. One of them says to me, over the boom box
and thundering engine noise, "I still can't believe they
take people off the street and just send them out there!"
"Ha ha!" I say.
The first drivers come back, and some more go out.... click-click-click....
and then some more click-click-click.... and some more
click-click-click....And now finally I hear my name called.
I'm so nervous I can't buckle my helmet. The head crew guy,
Chris Troyer, has to do it for me as he gives me my final
right on the instructor's bumper on the way out, " he
says. "When you're on the track, space it out a little.
Don't be nervous."
do I not be nervous?" I ask.
" he says, "the first time I did it, I sang."
climbing feet-first into the car, which there is no graceful
way to do, and I'm worming myself into the seat, which feels
as if it's 10 feet from the windshield. A crew member straps
me in tight - VERY tight - and puts the steering wheel on
the post. Then, just before he attaches the netting over the
window, he flips the ignition switch and VRROOOOOM-BLATTT
that mother is loud. The whole car shakes when I touch the
I put the clutch in and shove the big shifter into first,
praying that I won't embarrass myself by stalling the car
at the start. Then I look ahead at the STOP sign man, waiting,
waiting, waiting, and then he flips it to GO and VROOOOOM
I'm lurching forward, barely avoiding the stall, and I can
see that my instructor's car, which I'm supposed to be right
on the bumper of, is already disappearing down the pit road,
so I slam it into second VROOOOOM third VROOOOOM fourth VROOOOOM
and now I'm out on the track, trying to catch the instructor,
and things are happening WAY too fast and OHMIGOD THERE'S
THE WALL and I'm still trying to catch up but he's going even
faster and I'm trying to stay in his tire tracks but DOES
HE KNOW HOW CLOSE WE ARE TO THAT WALL??? And then suddenly
an orange cone blurs past and WHOA we're into the turn, slicing
down toward the infield and my body is being jerked sideways
and I can barely hold the wheel and IT LOOKS LIKE WE'RE GOING
INTO THE INFIELD and WHOA now we're accelerating again MAN
ARE WE ACCELERATING and I'm fighting the wheel and LOOK OUT
FOR THE WALL WE'RE AWFULLY CLOSE TO THE WALL and WHOA is this
ANOTHER TURN ALREADY????
first maybe three laps, I have virtually no coherent thoughts
in my brain, unless you count terror as a thought. All I am
trying to do is survive the next few seconds, the problem
being that when you're going considerably faster than 100
miles per hour, a great many things happen in a few seconds.
But around the fourth lap, for reasons that I cannot explain,
I start to think to myself: Hey, maybe I can actually DO this.
In fact, I CAN do this. In fact, this is kind of.... FUN!
And right there, accelerating into the grandstand straightaway
of the Homestead-Miami Speedway, I begin to sing. Specifically,
I sing the Beach Boys' drag-racing classic, Shut Down. "It
happened on the strip where the road is wide," I sing,
"two cool shorts standin' side by side." I am bellowing
this over the roar of the engine as I blast down the straightaway,
stomping on the gas. I can honestly say it is one of the most
thrilling moments of my life.
When my eight laps are over, I follow the instructor back
into the pit road, stop, unbuckle myself and basically float
out of the car on a wave of relief and elation. I exchange
stories with my fellow students. We agree that this is a truly
wonderful thing, and that we are a bunch of studly automotive
We then have a halftime break, during which the driving instructors
assess our performance and make the following points:
1. We should go faster.
2. We should pick up the speed.
3. We should get out there and STAND on it.
cannot believe our good fortune. Here is, a working day, and
we're at a racetrack, and these men are letting us drive their
race cars, and THEY WANT US TO DRIVE THEM FASTER!
time I am not nervous about driving. I want to be out there.
To pass the time while I'm waiting, I chat with the other
students. One of whom is a lawyer, who tells me that he once
represented a client who had sued a bar that had let him ride
a mechanical bull even though he had consumed numerous
alcoholic beverages. The ride did not go well; the client
wound up with a medical condition called "diminished
penile sensation." This has nothing to do with the Richard
Petty Driving Experience. I mention it only to remind everybody
of two important points:
1. Alcohol and mechanical bulls do not mix.
2. Diminished Penile Sensation would be a good name for a
it's my turn to drive again, and this time I am ready. This
time I am stomping on the gas and staying right behind the
instructor on the way out; this time I do not fear the wall;
this time I am singing on the first lap ("She'll have
FUN FUN FUN 'til her daddy takes the T-bird awayyyy.")
We do 10 laps, picking up the speed every time; on the last
lap, I hit my top speed of the day - of my life, actually
- 134.1 miles per hour. I know this because at the end, every
student gets a certificate showing his computer-measured top
speed. I am more proud of my 134.1-miles-per-hour certificate
than I am of my college diploma.
words, it was pretty cool. The only problem is that I am no
longer satisfied with driving an ordinary civilian car. When
I'm on I-95, I find myself wishing I were driving my high-powered
Petty machine. THEN I'd like to see some teenaged idiot try
to tailgate me! Ha ha! I'd just wave bye bye, stomp on the
accelerator, and VROOOOOM I'd shoot forward like a rocket.
into the rear bumper of a 1974 Chrysler El Humongo.
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