Driving a racecar for the first time!
For my 18th Birthday, I got the greatest gift ever; the 'Rookie' Package for two at the NASCAR Racing Experience event in Texas, March 25th 2018. They are an incredible organization, that purchases used race cars from NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series teams, and allows the average car fanatic (without the costs/budget of a professional racer), the chance to go fast.
Originally, my Grandfather (Lloyd) was going to tag long, and do the Experience as well, but work got in the way, so one of my Uncle's got to take over. I asked my uncle Kurt (the one who drove to Daytona), but he coaches his daughter's soccer team, and wasn't able to make it either. Joe, was who ultimately took me there. Uncle Joe was the one who took us to the 2016 Firestone 600 IndyCar Series Race at TMS, as well as the April 2017 NASCAR Race Weekend in No Limits, Texas.
Before the driving experience, I knew that I would need to learn how to operate a manual (stick) shift transmission. It looked simple, but I knew that it was probably going to take practice. My Grandparents fired up their '81 Ford Ranger truck, to teach me how. My first try went better than expected, but I still had some work to do. I drove a stick for the first time on a Wednesday, with the big day looming in on that coming Sunday. The truck was in need of a new battery, so that took away one more day of practice before the big day.
Friday, they got the 'beast' running again, and we practiced a ton. The hardest part for me, was the initial 'launch' (taking off in first gear). The beast is "wound-up too tight" which makes shifting somewhat difficult. Letting off the clutch smoothly, while getting on the throttle simultaneously like normal, was tricky. Me and my Grandfather drove around on backroads for a few hours, while he was teaching me what to do, and what not to do. Once I would get past first gear, it was smooth sailing for the most part. Shifting to 2nd, 3rd, and 4th was pretty straight-forward once I remembered the 'H' pattern. My launches started getting a little smoother, from clutch to first gear, but I still tended to 'jolt' out of the gate, and make the truck jerk forward quickly, before it settled down, and started rolling smoothly again. I wanted to go practice one last time that day, prior to the Driving Experience. I asked my Grandpa if I should practice one more time, but he said that he felt confident that I knew the basic, fundamental shifting techniques, and that's all that I would need to know. Every clutch does engage, and drive a bit differently.
After work Saturday, I headed to Uncle Joe's place, and from there, departed for TX. We stayed at Joe's son-in-law, Justin's house again the night before.
We drove through the infield tunnel, and checked in at the media center building at TMS about 15 minutes early on Sunday. Our reservations were scheduled at 12:00 noon, and we arrived around 11:45. The lady at the counter as you walk through the doors asked us for our names, drivers licenses, and we both read/signed our wavers as she grabbed our fire suits off the rack with 'NASCAR Racing Experience' logos adorned all over them.
The fire suits definitely aren't the most comfortable clothing I've ever worn. They instructed us to just slide the fire suit over our regular clothes. I had on jeans and a t-shirt, which made for a very hot/sweaty combination. Back in the early days of NASCAR, a driver lost over 20 pounds of body weight in one racing event, from sweat! I used to think that story was far-fetched, but after wearing a fire suit myself, I bet it's probably true. At least it was mostly overcast that day, so therefore, it wasn't quite as hot outside, as it could've been.
Before you grab a helmet, and get in line to race, you sit in the same room that the NASCAR Driver's meetings are held in before races at TMS, for an hour-long class. The teacher was a very cool, and funny guy. He made you feel at ease, and took some of the pressure off. Every once in a while, he'd make a joke like "If you press the brake and the car goes faster, that's probably the wrong pedal!" to get people laughing, and lighten the mood.
He talked about the ideal racing 'line' (or lane) that we should aim for, and try to run while we're on the track. They put on a video, that told us some of the racing vocabulary that we should know, to communicate with our personal spotter/racing instructor effectively. I already knew what "high/low", "loose/tight", and most of those phrases meant, but they still have to show them to us, just in case some drivers don't know them. "Alright, are there any questions?" He took time to answer everyone's questions, and allow people time to drink some water/run to the restroom, before we headed to the final destination. It's a pain trying to use the restroom with a fire-suit on by the way, because it's a one-piece suit that only unzips to the waist. You have to pull the fire suit down, and hold the top part of the suit up, and to the side, while you're doing your business. Once everyone was standing out there in front of the media center, he motioned for us to start walking to pit road.
You got in line for a head-sock/helmet, and then got in line for the Experience. I had been watching NASCAR Races on TV, and experiencing them live from the grandstands for 6 years, but this changed my perspective of the sport forever! It's one thing to pick up an Xbox/PlayStation controller, and race a car at Texas on a television screen, but watching people climb in, roar 600 horses to life, and feeling the ground rumble right in front of you, is a rush in and of itself!
The line gradually got shorter, and shorter. Joe was right in front of me in line, so when they said "come with me" and strapped Joe in a car, I was the first one in line. The anticipation beforehand was the greatest feeling ever. I saw someone climbing out a few rows over, and step over pit wall. It was then, that I heard the magic words; "come here", as they started putting the HANS (Head-And-Neck-Support) on the back of my neck/helmet. The class teacher had said that climbing in/out of the car would likely be the hardest thing that we did that day. He was right! NASCAR race cars have no doors; just an open left-front window. You have to put your right leg/arm in the window first, and kind of slither you're way into the seat. The seat is so low in the car, that it feels like you're literally sitting on the ground. You can just barely see the hood over the dash. After they buckled all of the straps, ensured that I could reach all of the pedals effectively, and the photographer took a picture of me in the car, they plugged in my radio, put up the window net, and yelled "Push the clutch in" over the other cars taking off around us. I knew what this means instantly. I pushed the clutch all the way to the floor as they instructed me to, and they fired that puppy to life. It wasn't as loud as I was expecting it to be from inside the car, to be honest.
My personal spotter/racing instructor came on the radio shortly after they started the motor, and said "Joseph, you got a copy?", and the NASCAR Experience, was on! I actually ended up stalling the car on my first 2 tries. In the race car, you have to start giving it gas instantly when you let off the clutch, meanwhile in the beast, letting off of the clutch was all it took to make the truck jerk forward, due to the fact that it is 'wound up' so tight. On the third try, the crew guys on pit road yelled through the window "we're gonna push you off!". I let off the clutch, and gave it more gas this time, and it kept rolling this time. Most drivers are already in 3rd gear at the exit of pit road. I was a little behind, because I thought I had it all the way 'up' into second gear, but I actually had it in neutral between 1st and 2nd at the end of pit road, which means that I was coasting for a bit. I got it into 2nd, and quickly gassed it to catch up with everyone. When I shifted into 3rd, and started really accelerating fast around the apron (bottom of the racetrack), the g-forces of the turn kicked in, and my adrenaline went crazy! Due to the fact that the seat is mounted to the floor, and the roll cage, you feel every little vibration of the motor, and the bumps of the racetrack. You really FEEL the car that you're driving. I know this sounds silly, but you've got to try this for yourself, to know what I'm talking about.
I shifted into 4th in turn 2 just before the backstretch, and h-oool-y crap did reality kick in as the acceleration got even more intense! He instructed me to go to the high side of the racetrack, and keep it up until I reached 4,000 rpm (over 100 mph) so I would be able to get a good 'arch' into turn 3. Texas Motor Speedway is banked (tiled) 24 degrees on that side of the racetrack, and let me tell you, it is more fun than any roller coaster, going fast on the banks. My eyes were locked in on the white line at the bottom of the racetrack, and 'hitting my marks'. Everything comes at you, and passes by so fast! The stadium seats/buildings on the front-stretch all went by in a blur, it seemed like. On HD video, it doesn't appear this way, but from the driver's eye, it is SO fast. NASCAR race cars are purposely set up, to naturally go to the left, to make it easier in the turns. The front-stretch is curved, which makes the car almost naturally curve with it. The backstretch on the other hand, is straight as an arrow. I actually had to turn the wheel to the right, to keep the car pointed straight!
They increased the 'rev limiter' that keeps the car from going over a certain speed, every lap as I got more comfortable in the car, and executed my line better. By the end of my racing session, I was doing about 5,000 rpm all the way around the racetrack. There is no speedometer in NASCAR cars, just a tachometer gauge displaying the rpm number that you're running at. 5,000 rpm equates to over 150 miles per hour. As the laps got faster, I could feel the car vibrating harder, and harder. There are very few things in this world that excite me as much as feeling the vibration of the motor / texture of the racetrack in my entire body, the g-forces of the turns pressing me down 'into' the seat, and just the idea that I was in full control/responsibility of this 600 hp machine!
The instructor said that the car in front of me, had a lower setting on the rev-limiter, because that driver was just starting on a racing session. He said to keep my momentum through the tri-oval, as well as through turns 1 & 2, to attempt passing him on the backstretch the next lap. I tried my best to be as close to the rev-limiter as possible without touching it, and making the car produce that awful 'sputtering' sound, slowing it down. I kept hitting it, and loosing my momentum that I needed to make the pass.
The instructor said "This is your checkered flag" as I passed the start/finish line for the 7th time. This means that my 8 minutes were up, and it was time to coast back around on the apron to pit road.
Getting out of the car, wasn't near as difficult as getting into the car. I only had 8 minutes of track time, and my legs/feet felt like they had been through a war from the clutching/driving when I got out! I definitely have a whole new respect for what professional NASCAR Drivers do on a weekend basis! I don't get how they do this for 3-5 hours at a time (not including practice/qualifying)!
After I climbed back over pit wall and turned in my fire-suit, I picked up my graduate certificate, as well as a very cool looking plaque with my picture mounted on it that they took before I rolled off. The certificate says that my top speed was 153.90 mph! Joe's top speed was 152.97 mph. Joe said that the thinks his rev-limiter was set a tad lower than mine. Overall, a very fun 18th birthday celebration!
I give NASCAR Racing Experience a 10/10! I highly recommend doing this, even if you're not a car fanatic.
To book a NASCAR Racing Experience at a NASCAR speedway near you, visit www.DrivePetty.com
YouTube Video of the entire Racing Session: https://youtu.be/bIH1OhF1ays