Racing and going fast is built into the genetic code of just about every human. For some that means a foot-race with a sibling, a Lance Armstrong-worthy mile time on a tricked out bike or tearing up a track in a 600-horsepower machine.
Mine has always been the latter.
Some of my fondest childhood memories involve watching NASCAR with my dad. I’m not the stereotypical motorhead NASCAR fan, but for me those moments were more about bonding with my dad, who wasn’t into traditional sports like football and baseball like I was.
My journey to adulthood and my first driver’s license coincided with the appearance of the first Richard Petty Driving Experience, giving fans a chance to sit behind the wheel of a real race car. This, I thought, would be a fun thing to do with my dad.
Unfortunately, the moment with my dad never came, but on Friday I had the opportunity to make part of the dream come true. The folks at the Richard Petty Driving Experience agreed to let me take part in their Rookie Driving Experience as part of our preview to the Kobalt 400 on March 6 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
I had three goals with this experience: Don’t look like an idiot, drive fast and don’t crash the car because VEGAS.com wouldn’t be happy paying this bill.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t have to take a test to prove that I really could drive. I just had to show my driver’s license. The first step was to get fitted for a driving suit, apparently my jeans and polo shirt don’t help in case of on-board fires.
Next, I joined four other men (two of which were awesomely celebrating their 21st birthdays) and an instructor for some pre-race lessons.
Our training included how to appropriately follow our instructors on the track, safety gear, the cars gages and what to do in case of a fire or brake failure. After a 40-minute class, we were deemed ready to hit the track.
Our instructor gave us a few more pre-race tips and told us what order we would be racing in. Unfortunately, only two students are allowed on the track at a time and, of course, I wasn’t one of the first. So, I was stuck waiting.
After a few anxious minutes, it was finally my turn. I climbed into my ride and got pushed up to the starting line. When the engine fired up I immediately knew I was working with something a bit more powerful than my Honda Accord.
My instructor gave me the green light and I eased off the clutch and onto the gas, hoping my shifting skills weren’t so rusty I’d stall and fail in my first goal (don’t look like an idiot).
Before we could jump on the 20-degree turns, we drove along the flat apron of the track and got the car up to speed and into fourth gear, the last time I would have to shift until the end of laps. Then, before I knew it, we were on the track doing 100-plus miles per hour. The speed didn’t really sink in until I hit the first turn and could feel the gravity pushing against my body.
Coming out of the first turn is when it really hit me: “I’m driving a race car – and this is going to hurt if I screw up.” The feeling didn’t pass by so easily when I noticed the skid marks coming out of the next turn that went right into the wall.
But that feeling subsided as I tried to maintain a three-car length separation behind my instructor. I noticed as each lap went past, my speed increased. I stopped looking for my accelerating and decelerating points along with my marks and just began to feel the speed and the track below me. My thinking turned into instinctual reaction.
All the talk and excitement building up to race day had me prepared to turn this venture into an all-day event, but my eight laps (including one warm up and one cool down) were done in about six minutes. I remained so focused on the track that I completely missed the checkered flag on my final lap before getting the signal to return to pit lane.
My top speed was 131.68 mph with a lap time of 46.28 seconds on the 1.5-mile oval. Pretty respectable for a first-timer, but far off the track record set by Las Vegas native and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch of 188.72 mph and 28.61 seconds.
I may have found a new — and expensive — hobby, but it’s a moment that will remain with me forever.
Racing is a part of who we are and whether you’re looking for a thrill of a lifetime, a daytime affair for your 21st birthday, a guy’s day out or chance to bond with your father, the Richard Petty Driving Experience is exactly that — an experience.