LOUDON, N.H. — I am not what you would call a NASCAR guy. I follow the sport casually at best, and my sole visit to a motor racetrack — in Scarborough, Maine, to report a feature on “NASCAR dad” voters — resulted in an OK story and a temporary case of tinnitus.
I’m not a particularly fast or aggressive highway driver, either. Or a young one. Still, when offered the chance to pilot a NASCAR sprint-type car around the New Hampshire Speedway at triple-digit speeds, I leapt at it.
The offer came courtesy of the Richard Petty Driving Experience, founded in 1992 by the NASCAR Hall of Famer after he retired from the sport. For anywhere from a few hundred bucks to a few thousand, nonprofessional drivers can experience the thrill of driving a 600-horsepower stock car at a major race venue (e.g. Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte), one stop being the Loudon track, site of a Sprint Cup Series race on Sunday.
My appointment was for 2 p.m. on a Friday, the first day of a three-day Driving Experience clinic. Three of us were scheduled to drive, a small percentage of the 70 who’d booked a slot over the long weekend. It was a warm day, with barely a puff of a breeze, when I drove into the infield area, the roar of the cars on the track already shaking the tires on my Honda Accord.
I wasn’t nervous about my upcoming eight-lap drive. Not yet, anyway. I just wished I’d brought along earplugs and an ice chest.
The first order of business was signing a waiver agreement, complete with medical form, Covenant Not to Sue clause, and blunt language about the risks involved (“ . . . which can, and sometimes does, result in SERIOUS, PERMANENT BODILY INJURY OR DEATH . . . EVEN IF I DO EVERYTHING AS I WAS INSTRUCTED TO DO . . .”). Basically, this meant our survivors would be legally barred from holding anyone named Petty responsible for anything dumb or reckless we did on the track.
This ratcheted up my anxiety level a bit, I’ll admit. Although not enough to give me second thoughts about getting behind the wheel.
After donning fireproof racing suits (I’ve never felt closer to Steve McQueen), the three of us watched an instructional video that took us visually around the Loudon course, a 1.058-mile oval with two 1,500-foot-long straightaways.
Our instructor, a burly crew chief named Greg “Big Block” Kirby, schooled us in the proper hand position (10 o’clock and 3 o’clock) on the steering wheel and how to achieve the fastest lap times (smooth acceleration on the straightaways, brakeless decel on the curves). Traffic cones along the side of the track signal when to speed up or slow down. Small red “gates” affixed to the track surface mark the optimal course to steer.
Kirby reminded us, too, that we’d be wearing microphone-equipped helmets and that our rides would be recorded by dashboard-mounted video cameras. The videos could be purchased afterward to show family and friends, he noted, so we might want to watch the f-bombs as we approached a hairpin curve at 100-plus mph.
“What you say in the car does not stay in the car,” he said with a thick Southern drawl. “So try to keep it G-rated.”
The cars, we learned, are equipped with V8 engines, 4-speed manual transmissions, and are capable of hitting speeds of 160 mph or more, depending on the track and driver. Lacking governors on their engines, they could go pretty much as fast as we could coax them to, according to Kirby — provided we did not freak out our instructor, who’d be seated next to us holding a throttle control. Anything over 100 mph would be respectable on a relatively flat course like Loudon, Kirby continued, which is considered more of a “driver’s course” because its turns are not steeply banked. The NASCAR track record stands at 135 mph.
“Racing fuel costs nine dollars a gallon, so I really don’t care if you don’t go over 40,” he said with a shrug. “That saves us money.”
We’d all signed up for a preliminary ride-along cruise: three laps around the oval riding shotgun with an instructor. When my turn came, I climbed in the passenger’s side. And I do mean climbed, as in through an open window. Which was not easy while wearing a helmet only slightly smaller than the window itself.
James Stephenson, my instructor, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard car No. 42, a cherry-red Chevy sporting a Target logo on its front hood. We took off with a whiny roar, then pivoted into the first straightway as Stephenson gunned it while I gripped the sides of my seat.
No f-bombs from me, just G-forces pinning me to my seat.
In what felt like no time flat, we whipped through three laps. I asked Stephenson how fast he thought we’d gone. About 130, he said.
Stephenson, a beef-cattle rancher from South Carolina, went on to say that some gung-ho drivers come to a track like Loudon and are disappointed to find that they won’t be hitting 150, 160, or even higher on the speedometer.
“They see the speed sheets and go, ‘Hell, I can drive that fast in my ’Vette,’ ” he said, laughing. “I tell ’em, ‘Well, turn that baby into McDonald’s [parking lot], then send me some pictures.’ ”
Every track is different, he noted, “but this one here has a lot of characteristics that you like in racing. The way you turn into a corner — you’ve gotta be on your marks. And the more you run, the better you get, usually. When you fire that car up and start down the track, it changes the way you look at everything.”
A few minutes later, I climbed into the Chevy once more, this time sliding into the driver’s seat. Instructor Danny Carter checked our radio hook-up and went over a few hand signals he’d be giving me along the way.
“Ready?” he finally asked.
“All set,” I said.
I shifted the car into first gear — and immediately stalled, at 2,000 rpm. Rookie mistake. He restarted the engine. Stalled again. Did I mention that my Honda has an automatic transmission?
My third try went much better. The Chevy bolted forward, catapulting us out of the pit-crew area and onto the track. Within seconds, the car was zooming along at video-game velocity. Handling it took some getting used to, as did picking up the red gates that were barreling toward me through the windshield.
“Off the gas, off the gas!” barked Carter. “Keep turning, keep turning! Now straighten out! Back on the gas! More gas! To the right, to the right!”
On the first lap I reached 98 mph. Then 101, 102 as the proper driving line became clearer. Carter kept urging me to steer closer to the straightaway wall — against my natural survival instincts, to be sure. But hey, I was getting into this.
One-oh-four. One-oh-seven. On my final lap, zooming beneath the empty grandstands, I clocked 108.25 mph. Sweat trickled down the inside of my suit as I pulled back into the pit area and unbuckled, then eased myself out through the window.
Life in the fast lane.
Noisy. Hot. And pretty sweet.