I can hear the engine wedged between the spin of idle speed and the scream of fourth gear. He also wants to move.
And then I hear Happy Chappy, my spotter sitting in the stands and my guide around the 2.44-mile track, say, “Let go of the clutch and let her roll.”
Oh yes, I can.
Go fast. Go hard. you will destroy
But let’s do it the other way around.
I was at Atlanta Motor Speedway as a media day guest for the NASCAR Racing Experience.
Before being allowed onto the track, we watched a 20 minute video detailing all the safety precautions.
Four stood out:
» Do not turn right.
» Try to stay 1.5 meters from the white line at the bottom of the track.
» Do not try to step part of the car on the platform and part on the 28-degree slope of the track. You will break. You couldn’t destroy. You will break.
» Finally, listen to your spotter.
I have to say I’m not a NASCAR guy. I haven’t been since I moved back to Atlanta in 2007. I got lost in the sport when it started to leave old tracks like Rockingham.
I am nothing but nostalgic.
I’ve never been to Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In fact, the last speedway I went to was where I covered an event at Hickory Motor Speedway, back in 1993 I think. I lived within earshot of Martinsville Speedway in the mid 90’s, but that doesn’t count.
I understand the appeal of the sport.
So when my boss asked me if I wanted to participate in this experience, I said yes.
I drive a Prius.
That is not nice.
Who wouldn’t be nervous?
We end the safety session and walk to the pit road. There are different cars in different colors. The car you get is based on your body size and weight, we were told.
My car is sponsored by a pig company. I let that insult go.
I am nervous.
Who wouldn’t be?
I’m about to go over 130mph in a 3,000lb car.
Due to some problem in my personal life I am dabbling in low grade meditation. I try to fight my nerves and anxiety and try breathing exercises.
Instead of numbers, which would be appropriate given the stock cars, songs about driving race through my head. “The Distance” by Cake. Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe. Grease’s “Grease Lightnin'”. “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen. When I’m happy, I listen to music. Because I think about songs, I reason that I’m happy, not nervous.
Something to relax, you know?
Finally it’s my turn.
They find a helmet big enough for a giant head.
The HANS device is connected.
I put my glasses back on because if I wasn’t wearing them I would have turned into Ricky Bobby.
I climb, or actually I fall, in the car. I am not graceful.
The five-point seat belt is attached. I am comfortably uncomfortable.
The radio has been tested. Watson, I need you.
The ignition switch is reversed.
The senses explode.
Happy Chappy tells me to let go of the clutch.
The car starts to move.
I am delighted.
But then… I can’t tell which voice is Chappy’s and which other spotter is coming through my headset.
I’m getting conflicting commands.
Go above the white line.
Tap the brake at the Sonoco sign.
I drive across the platform to find out who to listen to.
Finally, I decide it’s dangerous and continue driving around the platform and back to the pits.
I feel like an idiot.
One of the escorts asks what happened.
I tell him I could hear the mockers, but I couldn’t understand them.
I don’t want to risk hurting anyone, me or the car.
He says I did the right thing. Most people wouldn’t have done that.
They switch a wire and suddenly I hear Chappy, clear as a bell.
The car is pushed to the line.
The command is given to release the clutch.
Two thousand RPMs means second gear on the H-design stick stick.
Two thousand rpm means third gear. I’m rolling.
The goal is to reach fourth gear before the first corner.
trust the car
I hit fourth gear.
Chappy says I need to get the RPMs to 4,000.
I gently push the accelerator.
The power is addictive. The pure energy I haven’t felt since I met my wife on our first date.
After staying low on the platform in turns 1 and 2, which was our command, Chappy tells me to get out on the track.
Relax your shoulders, trust the car, Chappy said.
Up I go.
Accelerate, Chappy says.
Hammer down, everyone.
I am gone.
The new asphalt on the track ensures a smooth ride.
By gently turning the steering wheel, the car gracefully finds a groove.
Trust the white markings on the track, he said. Stay between them and in the turns.
I feel like a driver.
I feel alive.
“You’re a natural,” Chappy said. I choose to believe that I am the only one he has ever said this to.
I have no idea how professional drivers do this with cars inches away on all sides.
Eight minutes, and I think six laps, later Chappy tells me to lower myself onto the platform on the backrest.
It’s time to go to the pits.
I get out of the car, put on my tracksuit and look for the one piece of information that anyone doing these experiences on tracks across the country wants to know.
How fast did I go?
My top speed: 141.64 mph.
Oh yes, it will.