I’ve been trying to do a story on driving at Daytona International Speedway for a couple of years now. The Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) runs an operation there, as well as 21 other tracks around the country. It’s been suggested to me more than a few times, “Why don’t you just do the ride along?” “Look,” I’d answer, “if I’m going to get on the track at Daytona, I’m driving.” So, I contacted the RPDE p.r. department last year and finally settled on a date, April 16th of this year.
The sun was shining and the wind was down when I arrived at the track, “a beautiful day to drive” is how my ride described it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of driving at Daytona. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if I would be once I got behind the wheel. I heard a coach once describe that feeling of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So I thought about that and settled into the routine set up by the Petty instructors. Those guys were great. There were 31 “drivers” in my class. The only requirements are you have to be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. You also have to know how to drive a “stick.” My class was varied, with some returnees, some thrill seekers, some NASCAR fans, and others who were given the driving experience as a gift. So a lot of the class was on a “0” birthday. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy. One driver was 74 years old. “Just wanted to see what it was like,” she explained.
Arriving at the media center, the instructors helped everybody get into an official RPDE drivers uniform and laid out the plan for the day. It started with a video, featuring “The King” himself, going over what to expect and what some of the basic rules were. Then the instructors followed that with a review of some of the technical parts of the day, and then split us into four “teams.” We headed out the door in groups of eight to get a basic overview of the car we’d be driving. I’d wondered if the cars were fake versions of Cup cars, but they’re the real deal. Climb through the window, put the steering wheel on, locate the fire extinguishing system and figure out how the switches on the left dash get the car started. My “team” then climbed into a 10-passenger van for a trip around the track. Out on pit road, James, a RPDE driver and instructor, floored it and headed for Turn One. When you haven’t driven on a high-banked track, that’s a weird experience when it first happens. The van just goes sideways and you’re going around looking “down” at people and cars on the infield. It’s like being on a carnival ride. James was an expert on the track, and it showed as he maneuvered the van in and out of the turns, talking about the line and how to drive the 2 1/½ile tri-oval. “Make you’re instructor do this,” James told us as he showed the hand signal for “back off.” (Waving his right hand in front of the rear view mirror.) “You should get waved off at least twice while you’re out here,” he continued as he talked about the sight picture you should get by keeping your instructor’s car about 5-car lengths in front of you. From there it was on to some pictures and a final drivers meeting. The lead instructor of the day, Dave Williams, (who actually runs the Orlando operation) was funny and cordial, treating us like real drivers and getting our competitive juices flowing. “Rev it at 2,000 rpm, and shift at 4, 000,” Williams explained, “and don’t spin the tires. If you do, it’ll be a stop and go penalty.” That’s a term familiar to NASCAR fans but Williams followed it up with, “We’ll tell you to stop, and you’ll go home. Our version of stop and go.”
I was about two-thirds down the list so I got to see a lot of the “drivers” go on the track, following their instructors around Daytona. It’s true, the anticipation was revving up my own motor and I was getting more comfortable with the idea of getting behind the wheel.
They finally called my name, and I was off to the staging area where I was fitted with a helmet and a head restraint system (it’s just like a parachute harness that hooks to your helmet. It’s a good idea that they have you completely ready before you get into the car so you can start to get “comfortable” with being “uncomfortable” wearing the equipment.
I can’t stress enough how much fun the guys at RPDE made the day. When it was my turn, another staff worker greeting me with a big smile and yelled, “ARE YOU READY?” Walking out to my car (The Aarons 312 machine) I reminded myself to “go for it” as I have many times when I’ve gotten to do these kinds of things because of my job. As expected, climbing in was an adventure, but the briefing was a big help. Another RPDE staffer helped me strap in the four-point harness, fire the engine and yelled, “When I tap the roof, GO GET THAT GUY!” At this point, I’m completely stoked these guys have me so fired up. So just like in the real thing, I’m sitting there running the RPM’s up, listening to the exhaust, waiting to go. My instructor (it turned out to be James) pulled five car lengths in front of me and I heard the “bang, bang” on the roof and “Go get ‘em” from outside the car. I pushed the gas pedal in and slowly let out the clutch and the car began to sputter and cough. “Don’t kill it you idiot,” I heard the voice inside my head scream as I pushed the gas pedal down. Meanwhile, James is pulling away from me, so I slid it into second gear and picked up speed. James was still pulling away. Into third as pit road was going by, and James was disappearing. So I jammed it into fourth and shoved the gas pedal down. “Roar,” is what I heard from the engine, as I closed the gap on my instructor. No sooner than I figured out the “sight picture” we were ON THE TRACK! We stayed low coming out of pit road, letting two cars on the track go by as we got up to speed and that voice in my head was screaming, “YOU’RE DRIVING AT DAYTONA! HOW COOL IS THIS?”
It’s an eight lap session, with your warm up and cool down laps counting, but your instructor is trying to give you the best experience possible. Before I knew it, we’re coming out of turn two and heading down the back straightaway. James is still accelerating in front of me, and I’m pushing the throttle down staying five car-lengths behind him. That’s when I remembered that he told me to make my instructor wave me off a couple of times in the first lap. So I jammed the accelerator down and tucked up behind the car in front of me, and sure enough, he waved me off. I saw turn three looming in the near distance and realized that “WE’RE TURNING LEFT THERE!” I never could figure out what those white stripes were on the track around Daytona, but behind the wheel, it’s obvious. They’re sight lines for the drivers as they get into position on different parts of the track. So as James put his right tires just inside the white stripe going into turn three, I figured my car would follow his if I just didn’t mess things up.
It might seem that the cars just follow the banking at Daytona, but I can tell you, if you don’t drive thru the turns, you’re going into the wall. Particularly coming out of turn four. The centrifugal force wants to run your car up the track, so you constantly have to adjust the line. Doing this without backing out of the throttle is un-natural, but I’ve heard the Earnhardt’s say that so often that it rang true in my head as I was doing it myself. Through the tri-oval and back into turn one, James was pushing the speed up incrementally, but we were definitely going faster. With each lap I was getting more comfortable, even telling myself to relax and made James wave me off a couple more times. I started to look around, seeing different things on the track and realizing there were constant adjustments needed to “find the line.” Driving was a full time job. But I did look around, even noticing the stands and where Dale was killed in turn four.
On my fifth lap coming out of turn four, I caught a glimpse of the two cars in front of us heading into turn one. Right away I thought, “We can catch those guys.” So I tucked up under James’ car again, and he waved me off, again. But he knew exactly what I was thinking because he picked it up again heading through the tri-oval and into turn one. Those guys in front of us kept appearing and disappearing out of my peripheral vision but I could see we were gaining on them. So as we rolled out of turn two, there they were, right in front of us, easily get-able. Just as they had described, the two cars in front of us drifted ever-so slightly down on the track, and James and I slipped to the outside. “Whoosh,” I heard as we went by them on the back stretch. That was really a highlight. We averaged about 150 mph, not fast by NASCAR standards, but enough to get my attention. I went as fast as James would let me, and thought later that I probably could have gone 30 mph faster, but it would take faster reactions in the turns and setting the car up right as you entered the high banking.
So it was great. “Put that among the coolest things I’ve ever done,” is how I think I described it when I got out of the car.
It costs around $500 and worth every penny. If you ever thought you’d like to do it. Go. And go FAST!