A Day at the Races






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Go Fast, Turn Left

That's Rule #1 for oval-track racing. I didn't learn much more during a day at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in November, 1998, but I sure had a lot of fun.

The Petty Experience—at least the "Winston Experience" 16-lap package I attended—isn't really a driving school. It's more like a thrill ride you get to drive yourself on an open track. In fact, you even get to be alone in the car. The only thing that keeps you from going too fast is the instructor in the car ahead of you. The instructor is watching you in his rear-view mirror. If you maintain the recommended following distance and follow the recommended racing line, you get to go a little faster each lap. After the first eight laps, you come back in and they talk to you some, then you go out again for the last eight laps. By the last lap, you can reach speeds of 140 mph, or maybe more.

The Pose

The best part of the Petty Experience is getting a taste of what it's like to be a NASCAR driver. No, they don't make you chew tobacco (not even the Skoal driver does that while driving). They just strap you into a car that makes several hundred horsepower and let you drive it for a while. Good enough!

Me beside the photo car (794x560 JPG)

The other great part is getting to look like a NASCAR driver. It isn't obvious from this photo, but they use driving suits that are a little old and ratty. They're fireproof, however, and that's good enough too.

Me inside the real car (540x762 JPG)

Here I am inside the car, displaying my best s___-eating grin. It's hard not to smile. This really is a lot of fun.

The helmets are quite real, and they provide a neck brace as well. Buckled in snugly, you really feel as if you could survive taking the car into a wall at 140 mph. You won't get close to a wall at that speed, though. These cars are designed to go around the Las Vegas track at 160 mph without spinning; at 140, they corner like slot cars. You experience a cornering force of about 1 G on this track, less than half what the car is capable of—but twice what most people are used to in passenger cars.

Some of the other participants couldn't overcome the feeling that they were going to lose control. The instructors are happy to let you go as slow as you want, so if you just want to noodle around at 70 or 80 mph, that's fine with them.

View over the hood (800x600 JPG)

It's a little hard to tell, but that's me inside the car. If you crank up your monitor brightness you can make out my eyeglass frames. :-)

What do you get when you're done?

The certificate (720x1024 JPG)

At the end of the afternoon, everyone crowds around to get their timeslips. We actually got two, one for each session, but only the second one really matters. Mine is shown here. As you can see, I didn't quite exceed 140 mph, which means I was going slower here than I went on the German Autobahn in my own car. I got way more lateral G's, though. :-)



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