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If you asked a NASCAR fan what their biggest fantasy would be, their overwhelming response would be to drive a real Winston Cup stock car. Last weekend my dreams became a reality when I visited Skip Barber's The Racing Experience at Nazareth Speedway. If you think the adrenalin rush is intense when they fire up the 650 horses tucked under the hood, then you are going to go just about "brain dead" when you tromp on the accelerator going down the backstretch at about 150 MPH.
The Racing Experience travels from track to track with their mobile driving school. This past weekend I visited them at Nazareth Speedway. As a photographer for AutoRacing1, I was lucky enough to be sent on this "working assignment". I arrived at the track about an hour before the class was supposed to start, anxious but uneasy. I walked through the pit area, looking at the racecars and talking to the pit crewmembers and instructors. Rest assured, the cars used in the Racing Experience are real in every sense of the word. The stock cars are cars purchased from Winston Cup or Busch Series teams and still sport their original paint jobs. They are modified slightly in that the only difference is that there is a passenger seat for the instructor to sit. That's right, unlike some other driving programs, the Racing Experience lets you drive the car and set the pace, and like their slogan says, you are always allowed to pass the slower car in front of you. Another offering of The Racing Experience is that it is the only school that has an in-car camera to video tape your run. So good or bad, it's all captured on video for you to show your friends and family.
After signing up at the trailer everyone funneled inside the media center for the 30-minute class to go over what they expect from you. Our instructor, Kelly, instructed us on a number of different topics. He light heartedly covered the basics, told us to watch out for spectators, and generally tried to warn us of the impending natural high we would have when we climbed into the stock car. Overall, the class was outstanding and informative. Kelly explained about how people go "brain dead" when the adrenaline takes over your body as the car is fired up. "This happens to everyone," we were told. They drilled in your head to relax and enjoy yourself. But then the class got slightly more serious, since they do not have a restriction on how fast you can go, it is imperative that you follow the proper line around the track. This not only helps ensure a faster time, but also helps you to not crash the car.
Our instructor used a diagram of the track at the front of the room to explain the proper racing line, how to enter and leave the pits, how to pass, and how to be passed. He explained that orange cones on the track marked where to accelerate and brake, and how the proper line entering the turn was marked off with white tape on the track. Remember to bring tennis shoes with you, as you will need them to "feel" the accelerator. The gear-shifting pattern needed to get on the track was explained. All of the cars have a standard 4-speed transmission to use, and once you work up to fourth gear, you are done shifting. Then came some of the most important instructions, the hand signals the instructor will use. The car is so loud, that you are unable to hear anything other than the engine, so about a dozen hand signals are used to instruct you what to do while driving. After all this, you are so overwhelmed with what you are supposed to do on the track; you think "how am I ever going to do all this… at 100 plus miles per hour".
Next on the schedule is a trip around the track. Our instructor leads the group outside to a waiting 15-passenger van. We are slowly taken out to the track, stopping at every critical area to "see" what we could only visualize in the classroom. We see the orange cones, where to accelerate, where to brake, and now it becomes very clear on what you are supposed to do with the car on the track. We complete our first lap in the van and a terrifying thought enters my head. The track looks so big from the stands and pit road, but once you are on the track it suddenly looks so tiny you can't imagine driving at speed, let alone with 42 other Winston Cup cars on the track. One thing that I found surprising was that Nazareth Speedway had so many control points to get you around the track on the proper line. I always assumed you just got in and drove, but you really had to hit your marks to be set up properly for the next turn. We proceeded to make laps in the van, each time picking up speed, and soon we were traveling 70 around the one-mile triangle. I have to admit that at that point I was a little scared and the butterflies in my stomach wanted out, but now it was time to drive the stock car by myself!
Once we tumbled out of the van we are led to Pit Road to choose a helmet and find a fire suit that is worn over your clothes. I am a XXL to XXXL in size, and there were fire suits there to fit with room to spare. Remember to take off your shoes before putting on your suit; the suit will not fit over the shoes. After you are dressed you stand and wait your turn. There are usually four cars sent out on the track at a time. Just like a race, when you get the green flag your laps began and when the checkered flag waves, your experience is over. Your name is posted on a board and when your name is called, get ready for the ride of your life.
As I said before, I am a large man and fitting through the window wasn't easy, but with a little practice I could get out as quick as Mark Martin could. Once you are in the car, they strap you in and mount the steering wheel. Before I went out the instructor went over a few things. Still sitting in the pits, he had me focus a fixed point on the wall, and then he yelled, "hit the brake". I slammed my foot down but I did not even come close to hitting the pedal. The instructor insured me that everyone does that, and to practice a couple of times. I thought I was nervous before that, now I am extremely nervous and wish I could just crawl back out of the window. But it is too late as the pit crew secures the window net, and then the car is fired up and pushed down pit lane. At this point my nerves actually start to calm down and I start my adrenaline rush, ready to enjoy my ride.
Going through the gears and the 650 hp under your foot is mind boggling, you just can not explain the feeling of that much power, other than maybe, "Oh my God". As I enter the track I slide the transmission into 4th gear and get ready for turn 3. Off the gas, wait, brake, brake hard, hit my line, wow! I am out of turn 3 going down the front stretch through the start finish line. My first lap is complete, with some help from the instructor. The most important feeling I had to overcome was the feeling that the car would break loose taking a turn that fast. But this is a real stock car, and it stuck to the track like it was glued there. After about three laps, I started to overcome the sensation that the back end would break loose and I started accelerating and braking through the corners without a problem. After 10 laps, I got the checkered flag. Then I shut down the engine on the backstretch and I coasted into the pits. When we finally rolled to a stop, the instructor said that I had a very nice line around the track with a top speed of about 130 mph.
The Racing Experience was unbelievable; it is difficult to put into words. If you are a racing fan, you absolutely must try this. The instructors and crewmembers were extreme friendly and helpful. It is a great event for the whole family, ride along programs are offered for everyone and the kids all love getting up close to the cars in the middle of the action. After all, what is better than when "dad" climbs out of a stock car in front of the kids, instant hero! I would strongly recommend The Racing Experience to everyone.
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Ride Along $90 A professional driving instructor with The Racing Experience will take you for a ride in the passenger seat of a Winston Cup Car or Super Truck. You'll make 4* complete circuits of the Super Speedway, reaching speeds up to 165 mph. (3pm-5pm)
Drive of a Lifetime $395 Instruction begins with a 30-45 minute classroom session. We'll then put you in a passenger vehicle and take you out on the speedway, showing you how to enter the speedway, the proper groove and how to exit the speedway to enter the pits. Then it's your chance to get behind the wheel of a Winston Cup Car and drive it yourself for 10 laps* with an instructor in the passenger seat at speeds up to 165 mph. 1/2 day 7:00am-11:30am & 12:30pm-4:30pm
Rookie Experience $695 "The Rookie Experience" gives you the opportunity to complete the Drive of a Lifetime program and critique your first run. Then it's right back in the car for another run, quickly reaching your top speed. 1/2 day 20* laps, 7:00am-11:30am & 12:00pm-4:30pm
Driving Experience $975 "The Driving Experience" program begins with the same classroom and track instruction as mentioned above. You'll have 3 separate sessions behind the wheel of a Winston Cup Car at speeds up to 165 mph. Your final session, will teach you drafting with another car driven by a student partner, 4 car lengths apart and passing every other lap. 1 day, 30* laps 7:00am-4:30pm
Racing Experience $2,150 This program is the "Ultimate" and offers the closest racing experience available. You'll begin with the same classroom instruction as mentioned above. You'll complete all the sessions in the Drive of a Lifetime and the Driving Experience. Your 4th session will include drafting another car, 2 car lengths apart and passing every lap. The 5th session will be side by side driving with a partner, 6th session you'll switch places. (If you were the inside car, you will now be the outside car, side by side). The 7th session will have 2 side by side groups, 4 car lengths apart, as a pack. The final session will be side by side groups, 2 car lengths apart, at speeds up to 165 mph. The session will conclude with 4 checkered flag laps, 1 for each car. Each car will fall out of the pack on separate laps and enter the pits for a left side only, 2 tire change. Then pull forward to complete the racing experience. 2 days, 80* laps
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