Life in the fast lane has never been more fun

Racing: The Richard Petty Driving Experience gives people with a need for speed the chance to take a spin around the track

Destination: Florida

April 09, 2000|By Jill Schensul | Jill Schensul,Special to the Sun

I was zoning out at the red light, looking at the Hooters billboard. Hooters, man, how could a restaurant name itself that?

I heard something disturbing in the low-cloud quiet of the afternoon. Revving. Real loud. Purposeful.

I turned to my left. White Mustang, spoiler, guy in a feed hat. Revving loud.

"Let's go."

He's not daring me, is he? That competitive thing in me was starting to flow. How fast could this rented Sebring convertible with the automatic transmission go, anyway?

Rrrroarrr, came the reiterated dare.

The light changed, and before I could think about it, the sound of squealing tires left my Sebring sitting meekly at the stop line.

The Hooters chicks looked down at me smugly.

This is Daytona, girl. Put your pedal to the metal.

Strapped in

The long black asphalt track of Daytona stretched beyond our windshield.

The race car rumbled softly in the pit, like a cat stretching from a good sleep.

The driver, Richard Parks, hadn't lifted his face mask to say hello when I slipped into the passenger seat through the window (no doors).

Nice guy.

A worker at the Richard Petty Driving Experience pulled hard on the straps of the five-point safety harness and tucked a padded neck restraint behind my head. With the helmet, neck pad, harness, the scooped-out seat and the various roll bars above and in front of me, I wasn't going to be moving an inch, even if the car crashed and we went flipping over and over.

"You ready?" came the question, again, from one of the guys on the staff.

"You behave," someone else warned my driver.

All this was designed, perhaps, to make me nervous. But I was not nervous.

I live for speed. The Richard Petty Driving Experience is for people like me, who like to go fast -- without getting arrested.

And what better place to go fast than on a racetrack? I am not a true racing fan, but I know Daytona International Speedway is hallowed ground for racers and race fans. All eyes were on the track in February for the Daytona 500, and in July the Pepsi 400 blows into town.

I didn't fully understand how cool this place was until after we had nearly gone sideways on the banked curves of the 2.5-mile track. My guide later explained that the angle of the bank is 31 degrees. That's a serious angle, especially at 150 mph.

In the pits, as we readied for our three turns around the track, my driver finally lifted his mask. As he slammed the car into gear and we catapulted forward, I noticed him raising a paper cup to his lips.

I wasn't sure if this was an attempt to strike fear into my heart, or he was just thirsty, but I figured if it was thirst, he could have sipped before he had 600 horsepower engaged to reach 6,000 rpm quickly.

He put the cup down when he realized I wasn't going to scream. By now we were flying. The whole inside of the car was vibrating. I noticed I could barely move my hands.

The feeling was nothing short of stupendous. For some reason, I trusted this guy completely. I had been told all the drivers worked full time for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and all had five years of racing under their belts. While they likely smashed up their own race cars at some point, there has never been a major accident at any of these demonstrations.

So all I had to do was sit there and enjoy the terror.

We went tight against the walls and hugged the banked curves; the chain-link fence along the top of the barricade had turned into a blur of lines. I watched as we blew gracefully down the bank, aiming for the inside line and pulling hard against centrifugal force as we rounded our first curve. We were picking up speed as I began to look around the inside of the car for the speedometer. Just then, I noticed through the windshield a terrific bolt of lightning in the dark and distant Florida sky. By the time I looked back, my horizon on the track was tilted significantly.

I was getting disoriented. I knew we had three turns around the tri-oval but quickly lost track of the starting point.

The dashboard had numerous gauges, but none looked like the speedometer; I sort of hoped the one with the needle pointed at 200 was it, but I could tell it was some kind of temperature readout. In fact, there was no speedometer, maybe so it wouldn't scare us.

Faster and faster

It is one thing to go 150 mph as a passenger with a professional driver. It is quite another to make a car go that fast yourself.

I realized this as I clenched my teeth and eased down on the pedal and held on for dear life to the steering wheel of my Winston Cup stock car. I accelerated, trying to keep up with my instructor in his own stock car three car lengths ahead of me. It felt like all that was coming between me and death were my puny biceps on the steering wheel and an awful lot of metal and glass. When I had gotten in the car and discovered I couldn't reach the clutch pedal. I should have taken that as a sign.

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