I've made aware in the past that my fanship to NASCAR is relatively new compared to most of our readers. Beginning in 1996, I regularly viewed cup events when broadcast, and in August of 1997, attended my first big-league event at Michigan International Speedway. Hook, line, and sinker; an instant addict constantly in need of a racing fix, is what I became from that day forward. It was AT that event, of course, I began wondering what it would be like to sit behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup machine with all of that horsepower in front of me and uncontrolled asphalt beneath.
Fast forward to May 16th, 2010...
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy watching short-track racing with the likes of Bristol and Richmond. They are intense, fast-paced bullring fights that entail beat up sheet metal and short tempers. However, I fall from the norm of most fans who desire a schedule filled with these venues. Give me a track where the foot never leaves the throttle, the bumper ahead has a red dot in the center, and your best friend for the moment, is the driver behind you. Pair that with oodles of lead changes and "right side" only pit stops, and you are tugging at my heart strings. Let me at a plate track, and you will see a happy man. Well folks, it finally came to fruition!
Digressing a tad, I did do a ride-along around Daytona in 1998 for three laps. Talk about dangling raw meat in front of a tiger, this only made my desire to crawl behind the wheel more intense. So I'm sure it goes without saying how happy I was when my wife purchased me a "Qualifier" package from the Andretti Racing Experience for Christmas to tackle the speed and high-banks of Talladega Superspeedway!
I LOVE the heat of the southeast. Let me swelter, sweat, and choke on the humidity as the sun bakes my eyes, I don't care. Caress my olfactories with he scent of southern white pine and 110 octane and you have designed an intoxicating concoction. If the air is so thick you can see the haze on the back stretch and my shoes are sticking to the pavement, I am home indeed! Such a day greeted me when we arrived at the track. However, it was evident that we were in a race against the daily wrath of mother nature. Daily thunderstorms are expected this time of year, and man, if we didn't get this show on the road, it was going to be a quiet drive back to Ohio!
Dale Jr. Fan Appreciation Day was the theme of today's Andretti Racing Experience, so rest assured I was nerd-ed out in my National Guard Hat, and AMP t-shirt. (From visiting the track the day before, I knew they were running one of Jr's National Guard Cars, had to make sure I was giving props to the right sponsor when I donned my race suit!) So, after checking in a the hauler, obtaining my fire suit and ear phones, it became a "hurry up and wait" in the Alabama heat.
I had never met Matt Poole before that day. Why he approached me and engaged me in conversation when there were 50 other folks standing around I do not know. However, Matt works for the Andretti Racing Experience as both a driver and a personal coach (which every "student" has during their experience) and dabbles in ARCA and Camping World Truck Series testing when he's not racing his Whelen All American Series Modified or his street stock. Yet we spoke for well over an hour prior to our driver meeting with him say, "Hey, maybe I'll be your coach when hit the track." He told me what to expect when I got out there and to let the car drive itself.
The day prior, I had talked with a gentleman from Michigan in the gift shop who had just turned in a speed of 196 mph, but was warned they were going to set the rev chip lower for safety reasons. (In fact, they geared the cars down to 5,000 RPM) Still, I had high hopes. The driver's meeting consisted of a safety video and basic instruction from one of the staff members on what we could and could not do once we were unleashed on the track. Rule 1: All passing was to be done on the back stretch, and only on the outside. Rule 2: No drafting. Rule 3: First lap was to be run between 3 and 4,000 RPM to allow us to familiarize ourselves with the track. 4: Stay 4-7 feet above the yellow line. Keep those rules in mind as you continue to read. (snicker snicker)
After being fit for my helmet and ensuring my ear phones functioned properly I was led to one of the older Carl Edwards machines. All cars had once been raced in an actual cup event to prevent questions of authenticity. I have to admit, crawling into that old 99 Office Depot ride was much like a toddler attempting to pound the square peg through the round hole, and special thanks to the Andretti Racing Experience for having a smaller steering wheel as my knees wouldn't even allow the conventional one to get close to the column! Once belted in, my track coach did a radio check, and sure enough, it was Matt and I immediately felt at ease, but I could still feel my heart pulsating in my throat.
The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up when the crew member reached in and fired the engine. Vibrations raced through my core, and my grip tightened on the wheel. Idling at 1200 RPM, I simply let off the clutch to move into first gear when instructed to do so. The organization attempts to stagger the students onto the track to prevent clusters of cars running together. As I was shifting into third, Matt informed me we were racing mother nature, and I needed to hammer down. We were instructed to stay on the apron until we reached the end of turn four before merging onto the racing surface. By the time I hit the back stretch coming off the apron, I was banging the rev chip at 5,000 RPM, balls to the wall before heading into three. (violating rule three)
My eyes squinted with focus, my heart pounded with fury, and the blood screamed through my veins as I entered turns three and four. It was here I experienced "G's". Roaring into the turns, my shoulders dropped, my back side sunk into the seat, and the adrenaline drunken-ed me into some sort of ecstatic high as the car seemed to drive itself. It was evident I was probably only one to two feet off the yellow line! (broke rule four) I will admit fully that I was way too damn cocky for my own good, but hey, I was told to trust the car, right? All I could hear was engine, and the sensation of my coronaries pounding in my temples just fueled the already intense rush!
Exiting turn two on my next lap, a slower car spent some extended time on the apron before deciding to come onto the back stretch. I was charging hard and fast when my coach instructed me to go high and pass on the right. Not lifting, I coasted up a lane in preparation for the pass. All I can figure is that THIS driver's spotter must have told him that I was coming fast for the pass because he finally decided to put his foot in it. Matt calmly said, "I guess he wants to stay in front for a while, that's okay, we'll pass him coming out of four." Now, I'm being instructed to break rule one! "Fall in behind him and get ready when I tell ya." Well, that covered violating all the rules, because there went two right out the door as I fell in behind the car in front of me, right on the bumper. I could feel the sweat running down my back, polluting my arm pits, and even cascading behind my knees, but I didn't care. I was having the time of my life and nothing was going to stop me. Exiting turn four, Matt said, "Clear high for the pass." Right in front of the very man who instructed us not to pass on the front stretch, there I went with not a word of scolding to be heard. "Good job!" I heard on the radio.
However, panic nearly put me into cardiac arrest flying into turn one and two when I noticed rain drops tagging my windshield. That's when the safety conscious side of me kicked in, and I radioed in to tell them we had rain coming out of two. On the radio: nothing. There wasn't enough precipitation to lose the track, and I kept my foot in it for the duration of my allotted time.
The scariest moment? Going from 33 degrees of banking onto the apron to enter the pits. It is a hell of a transition, because I was still doing approximately 140 mph when instructed to let off the throttle and begin my descent. Like that, it was over. I was sweating profusely, but sporting a smile as wide as the grand canyon. The heat was intense, but the experience more so and I am ready to do it again! Upon checking out, each student is given a certificate with their top speed. Mind you, I maxed out the rev ship on my ford and still turned in a pace of 167.86 mph.
Soaked through my shirt, my underwear riding my butt crack, and smelling like fermented gym clothes, I left Talladega Superspeedway with a sense of fulfillment not experienced since my wedding day, but now, like that drug, I need my fix!
Next up, I share my visit to the International Racing Hall of Fame
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