Definition of awesome: Driving eight hot laps at well over 160 mph in a stock car at Pocono Raceway (approx. 7-8 miles per gallon). Definition of not quite so awesome: Driving home in a Toyota Prius (approx 90-100 miles to the gallon) and getting stuck in ridiculous Lincoln Tunnel rush-hour traffic.
As I posted that evening on my Facebook status (where else, right?) I’m not sure I quite have the words to describe the utter, utter brilliance of driving a stock car at over 160 mph around beautiful Pocono Raceway. The ride is such a visceral experience that I’m not even sure I can begin to do it justice in a single article. But, gentle readers, I’m sure going to try.
Let me be clear about something up front: I never once wanted to be a racecar driver. I never had a “boy racer” stage and frankly, given the choice, I’d much rather drive conservatively than aggressively. So whilst I was chuffed to get the opportunity, it wasn’t something I’d ever seriously yearned to do. I mean, I’d like to try skydiving or running with the bulls at Pamplona, but I’m not going to actively seek it out: the same goes for stock car driving experiences.
So when the email invite to a ride and drive track day at Pocono Raceway first came through from the good folks at NASCAR, it was entitled, “Danny ‘Fireball’ Peters to strap in at Pocono. That didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, and for those that don’t know why, I’ll quickly explain. Fireball is a reference to one of the true pioneers of NASCAR: Edward Glenn “Fireball” Roberts Jr. who raced for 33 wins (including the 1962 Daytona 500) and 122 top-10s in 206 races over 15 years of Cup competition before a fiery crash at the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway left him in critical condition. Three weeks later, Roberts passed away from the injuries he sustained in the wreck. Danny “Fireball” Peters, I hoped, was not a case of foreshadowing my own crash to come.
In the week leading up to the track day, I practiced lapping Pocono on the PlayStation and found myself continuously stuffing my car into turn 1. So by the time we arrived for the day, I was almost wetting myself with nerves, and all my addled mind could think was how slow and timid I planned to drive. The first person I spoke to was Jesse Roverana, the President of the Stock Car Racing Experience. His calm demeanor certainly helped, as did his comment that in the million miles they’d run, no one had ever been seriously hurt.
But that wasn’t enough to keep my nerves in check. The day itself began with a 45-minute safety briefing, and I can honestly say I concentrated harder in this session than pretty much anything else I’ve ever done in my entire life. In fact, I all but sweated blood I was listening so intently. And if you know me, you’ll know that’s not an exaggeration whatsoever.
After the briefing, it was time to prepare. We were taken around the track in a van so that we could get a sense of what the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track was all about. Then it was on to the fitting of the helmets, HANS devices and firesuits which are all kinds of cool, I can tell you. The final stage was a three-lap ride along with the jovial, experienced Chris Marcho (www.877stockcar.com) where he shows you the ropes and where to hit your marks. Once the engine was fired and we sped along pit road toward turn 1, all I could think of was images of Jeff Gordon’s horrific crash in 2006. But the car gripped the track and we turned, exited the corner seamlessly and barreled down the Long Pond Straight.
It was at that moment a light literally went off in my head. I’ve been working in or writing about this great sport of ours for nearly five years; but in one corner, I learned more than I ever knew.
First there’s the grip. Wow, the grip. Let me repeat: Wow, the grip. The car just stuck to the track; aided, of course, by the 14 degrees of banking. Then, there’s the G-forces that force you back into your seat and almost suck the wind out of you. But most important of all there’s the pure, visceral unadulterated speed. You can just sense these cars are meant to be driven as hard as possible, that their very raison d’être was to, in simple terms, go fast. And then when the hammer isn’t down and the pedal not fully to the metal these beasts are, it seems, deeply unhappy. It’s quite something, it really is, how “alive” these cars appear to be when you’re pushing as hard as you can.
While we turned our laps, Chris used hand signals to indicate where to lift, how to roll through the corner, where to get back on the gas, when to glance at the flagstand on the frontstretch, and so on. In three minutes, I was suddenly being prepped to run the equivalent of 20 miles, at speeds nearly three times the legal highway limit in some states.
And then… it was my turn.
I was pleased to be assigned car number six, which was the number I wore playing my beloved football (soccer), but once I maneuvered myself into my car, snapped on the steering wheel and strapped into the safety harness, the nerves returned big time: big, like Mount Everest big. I relentlessly quizzed the patient instructor who was leaning in through my window on how the fire hydrant system worked; how many revs I was looking to hit as I made my way up through the gears on pit road; what to do if something went catastrophically wrong and how to release the belts should anything untoward happen.
Far too soon, in my frantic mind, the instructor got the signal and told me to start the engine. I flicked the switch tentatively, and had to try it again to finally fire it up. But when it did, the throaty roar hit me like a rude awakening; it was quite magnificent in its own right. At that point, I applied a kind of Vulcan death grip to the steering wheel hard, desperately trying to remember every single syllable of the safety briefing. When I got the signal to head on up pit road, all I could think of was Larry Mac’s pre-race call to “reach up there and pull those belts down tight one more time.” So I did. And then, another time… just for luck.
One minute later – finally – came the moment of truth.
Happily, I got through the gears, headed up pit road easily enough (I was desperately afraid I was going to stall out and blow the transmission) but then suddenly looming straight ahead was turn 1, growing bigger and bigger by the nanosecond. So I looked for my markers, pulled the wheel left, and prayed to the good Lord above for my safety. Then, in my scared, small child-like brain, a strange thing happened. The car responded, and before I knew it I was barreling down the Long Pond Straight headed to the tunnel turn. Suddenly, despite my nerves and fears and contrary to everything I had thought beforehand, I was really into it – really, really into it – with my hitherto untapped inner Ricky Bobby literally bursting out of me. All week long, our esteemed Managing Editor had said he was going to school me on the track, so I agreed to run third behind the instructor and Tom thinking I would probably be dropped like a hot stone. I’ll let him describe the moment from his SI.com piece:
“I thought I was killing it in the first two laps, until another car in my group passed by me like I was stopped. Within half-a-lap, that driver was 50 car lengths ahead as another instructor picked up the ‘slow kid.'”
Midway through that second lap, it hit me that I had been silent. I decided to change that by yelling “Hell, yeah” at the top of my voice for pretty much the rest of the way. After three laps, I stopped counting. It was me, the car, the track, the instructor and the flagman. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else needed to matter. It was just a question of turning those laps, hitting my marks time and time again. I know it sounds completely stupid, but at that moment it felt like it was a video game, just with a smidgen more danger. Crazy, but true. When the flag came out to signal our final lap… my immediate thought was sadness. I wasn’t ready to finish. I was just getting started. As I pulled up onto pit road, I hit the brakes for the first time. The pedal, appropriately, felt immovable, but I managed to slow down (without smoking the tires). As soon as I crossed the gear box to neutral line, I pulled my window net down in what I’ll freely admit was a “trying to be cool” gesture and coasted to a stop. Not sure it worked… but I sure enjoyed it.
Exiting my trusty steed, I slapped it hard on the roof and hollered at the top of my voice, much to the bemusement of the assembled staff. I then swaggered down pit road like I was Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. Good times, as they say. Like I said at the start of this article, I’ve never seriously wanted to be a racecar driver, but this experience truly opened my eyes to just a small sense of what it must be like each and every Sunday with 43 stone-cold killer competitors after you. And the funniest thing is I can’t wait to do it again… and again and again.
One quick last thing from the day: I got to spend some time talking with Pocono Raceway owner Doc Mattioli and his wife Rose, immediately after my laps, and it was a real pleasure to meet such wonderful and engaging characters. As a Brit, I was more than happy to hear about their stories visiting the motherland, of course. But it was equally interesting to hear him tell his story of how they bought the land and developed the Raceway. They don’t make ‘em like that any more, they really don’t, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
It was the perfect ending to an amazing experience, and the best part of all is it’s one almost every fan can have an opportunity to pursue. So if you’ve always wanted to try driving a stock car, don’t even hesitate – sign up for a ride and drive today. You’ll absolutely love it, I promise.