The Frontstretch: A NASCAR Writer's Midlife Crisis by Kurt Smith -- Friday August 15, 2008

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A NASCAR Writer's Midlife Crisis

Kurt Smith · Friday August 15, 2008

 

There is something about a 40th birthday, despite the day being 24 hours just like any other, that inspires thoughts of impending mortality in people, especially males. After all, at 40, we’re not likely to get any better looking without major surgery, and even worse, we start to envision the day when our sex drive will shut down without assistance from a pill. The milestone of forty years of existence, probably more than any other, causes some men to start climbing mountains, jumping out of planes, and in really extreme cases, jet-skiing in shark-infested waters.

Fortunately I suffer from no such state of panic. Perhaps it’s because I had been single my entire life until recently and have had the freedom to do most everything I’ve wanted to do. Maybe it’s because I’ve jumped out of a plane before and have no need to do it again. Or because I was always awful with women so I never had to experience the inevitable decline in successful hookups. Or because I started slowly losing hair at a young age and learned to accept growing older as inevitable. I don’t know why, but thus far aging has not been a terribly difficult adjustment.

Frontstretch Contributor and Official Columnist of NASCAR Kurt Smith prepares to qualify the Safety Kleen No. 17 car for Andretti Racing at Richmond International Raceway.

But just in case I did start to think life was passing me by, my loving wife of two months gave me a once-in-a-lifetime 40th birthday gift: eight qualifying laps at the Andretti-Gordon driving school. One thing she knew I hadn’t done is drive a racecar.

This last Thursday, my wife and I made the trip to Richmond, the nearest track with an Andretti-Gordon School. The trip down wasn’t very pleasant…the weather was nasty and I ran over an animal that I couldn’t identify. It looked like a cat, but we have two cats at home and I wasn’t about to tell the wife that, so it became “some animal”. I’m never one to identify with the PETA crowd, but I still feel really bad when that happens.

Anyway, after staying a night in a cheap hotel (that was worth every penny), we set out to the racetrack. This was the first time I had ever gone through the press tunnel at Richmond, so when we emerged out of it, to my wife’s great surprise, there was Richmond International Raceway, beautifully sunlit on a seasonably warm day.

We had gone to the Richmond race last September, the one featuring a spirited battle between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. that ended with Junior’s motor finally giving up in exhaustion. Just being at the track again that day, I thought about the excitement of actually being at a race…the roar of the engines, the pre-race warm up laps and the anticipation, the on-track battles for position between the best of the best in motorsports. All of that should easily trump any administrative problems NASCAR has. There is nothing like being at the speedway, seeing the brightly painted cars, hearing the engines. With NASCAR’s attendance dropping, they should be worried, because being there reminds you why races used to sell out, everywhere, all the time. Seeing a race in person makes you want to throw your television out the window. Even just seeing racing school cars on the asphalt, that thought is in one’s mind.

On the track there was a session in progress, with six or seven genuine NASCAR machines, paint jobs and all—the DuPont 24, the Lowe’s 48, the Jack Daniel’s 07, and others, even a Budweiser 8, circling RIR. And it wasn’t lost on me that it was the old car…which may have been out of concern for the handling difficulties of the new car (or maybe difficulty finding an appropriate tire). Safety first!

After taking this in for a while, I checked in and they gave me a firesuit. Now I’ve always known that chicks dig racecar drivers, but I wasn’t fully prepared for just how much sexier the firesuit was going to make me, and my wife can vouch for that (she didn’t want me to give it back). Trust me guys, you want to do well with an attractive female at a masquerade party, go as a racecar driver.

If you’re thinking about trying this driving school gig, I do recommend it. However, lest you think that you’re actually going to be running at the qualifying speed of the pros, rest assured that you won’t be. The cars were running at about the speed cars go when a caution flag flies and drivers let up on the gas (this is much easier to imagine if you have been to a race). This isn’t to say you won’t go fast, just don’t think you’ll be setting any track records.

Another word of advice if you go: don’t get too hung up on the safety instructions they give. Not to say you shouldn’t pay attention, or that they needn’t bother with all of that, but I focused a little too much on remembering all of it. I figured, probably rightly, this was something I had better pay attention to. Truthfully, it’s not as dangerous as they sometimes make it sound, although I understand they have to err on the side of safety.

They took us into the driver’s meeting room, which was pretty cool…I pictured Mike Helton rattling off inane non-sequiturs and was tempted to walk out of the meeting room like Tony Stewart, but I stayed and listened. In there one fellow informed us how everything was going to go and several times advised us to find where the brake is (probably the most unnerving moment of the instruction).

The big point that they stress is to follow the instructor and stay in his tracks. But they also make a point to tell you to get out of the gas going into the turn, and to get back into it in the middle of the turn. The truth is, in an Indy car at least, the car should stick to the track just fine if you don’t go too hard on the gas. But I kept getting out of the gas going into each turn. By the time I finally figured out that I didn’t really need to, the session was almost over. It does not feel like six laps, which is the actual total that you run (the first and last laps are getting on and off of the track). It would have been cool to do it again knowing what I know now. Just like life I suppose—lesson learned, again.

At the Andretti-Gordon Driving School, you have a choice of driving the NASCAR-type car (the old one as I’ve said, not the infamous winged snowplow) or an Indy-style car. I chose the Indy-style car because I hadn’t driven a stick in over fifteen years and didn’t want to make an ass of myself at high speed. (I can do that just fine going slowly.) But boy, those things are tight. You know how on television the driver looks packed in like a sardine? That’s no illusion. I’m six-four and 235 pounds, which of course didn’t make it easier, but it would be tight for anybody. I can’t imagine someone my size putting in 500 miles in one of them.

If you have ever raced a go-kart, imagine that with a helmet on and a little bit faster. It wasn’t scary at all like I thought it was going to be, and it was great to get into the gas and feel the car go, especially as the instructor sped up and we started really moving. In six short laps I did manage a top speed of 116.51 MPH…not fast enough to qualify for an IRL race, but still faster than the New Jersey Turnpike.

And I have now driven a racecar. Thank you, sweetheart.

One thing that does concern me as I grow older is my increasing desire to just be home. I don’t go on 2-3 week road trips seeking ballparks, roller coasters, and big-city adventures like I once did, because I’m a married homeowner now, and I’ve found that when I do travel these days, I’m often eager to simply get back to my castle…where it’s good to warm my bones beside the fire, as David Gilmour once famously sang on “Dark Side of the Moon”. It’s easier and less stressful just to go to Wildwood for vacation every summer. That habit that seems to come with aging I don’t like…and I have to remember, when I’m tempted to turn away from something that will bring out fear, excitement, and the joy of living—to fight the urge to not bother experiencing life when I’m not forced to. That would make me a pretty dull old man someday.

You only go around once in life, eight times if you buy a qualifying session at the Andretti-Gordon racing school. Both are over way too fast—savor them.

Kurt’s MIS Shorts

  • If Mike Skinner is the first guy that struggling teams call to fill in a ride where a rookie driver isn’t cutting it, how come he doesn’t have a full time job in Cup?
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his first win with Hendrick Motorsports here not very long ago. But he is still being hampered by a racing press that thinks he and his team aren’t trying hard enough. How long before someone suggests that he should have stayed at DEI?
  • Speaking of DEI, the best thing that could have happened to them was Martin Truex Jr.’s decision to re-up. Seriously, think about it, what would have happened if he didn’t? They have lost two high-profile drivers just to Hendrick Motorsports, it would have been a disaster to lose another to anyone. Even if Truex is nowhere near Junior or Martin in name recognition, he’s still probably sold more T-shirts than Menard or Almirola combined.
  • Only four races until the Chase. Everyone be careful out there.

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dawg
08/15/2008 09:10 AM
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Just read an article on the Internet, proclaiming 60 to be the new 40. If that’s true, you may need to come up with something new in about 20 years, or so. In the meantime, enjoy this one. I got my racecar fix out of the way 40 years ago, but hey, no shame in being a late bloomer.

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