Outside the window was the beaming neon light of a Walmart and a handmade sign for a fireworks stand. I was deep in Alabama and today was the day I would finally get to race at Talladega.
I quickly showered, pounded a coffee and headed in the direction of the track. Up until this point, I had only seen real racecars on TV. I had watched the Daytona 500 and the Sprint Cup a few times but didn’t really know much about the sport. I did however know from experience that I did like to drive fast. My top speed before this day was 110 MPH in an old station wagon I had had in high school. Today I was keen on beating that.
My first thought when I saw the track was that it was really freaking big. I then made a turn and realized I had only been looking at half of it. Excited, I drove up to the security gate and signed in. I drove under the track (through a sweet tunnel) and followed the signs leading me to the pit area.
Like a caffinated Luigi, I jumped out my car and into the registration area. Inside were about 40 other people who were also there for track day. I was greeted by a very nice women with an extremely strong southern accent.
“Where you here from darling?”, she said with a smile.
“I came in from Seattle.”
“Wow! We will make sure to cheer extra loud for you then”, she responded with a wink.
I signed my life away via a oddly thick waiver (this kind of act has become a normal occasion for me) and found my seat. The lead instructor went over the safety rules (don’t hit the wall and only make left turns). They trucked us off to a driving classroom (again, only make left turns) and dropped us off at the pit. They cranked up some rally music and all of the family members and staff who were present cheered us in as we walked toward the cars.
We grabbed helmets, fire suits and were assigned cars.
It took no longer than 30 minutes.
The instructors hopped in the cars and turned them all on at the same time. I quickly had a Tim Allen moment (ror ror rorr) and the instructors drove off zig zag styles to warm up the engines and tires.
As they came around the turn back toward us, the lead car held an American flag and the speakers blared “I am Proud To be An American”. The first lap was always dedicated to the Armed Forces.
It was a very touching moment and all the men around me avoided making eye contact as I think we were all touched by the unexpected tribute.
They parked the cars and one of the crew ushered me to get ready. I walked out onto the track and jumped halfway into the front door. A photographer came by, snapped a picture and handed me the steering wheel. I laughed and thanked him.
Another member buckled in my 5 point harness, secured my HANS device and flipped the ignition on the car. VRRMmm. It was like sitting cockpit in a fighter jet.
There was just one slight detail that was likely to be a problem.
I had absolutely no idea how to drive a manual transmission and had conveniently avoided telling the staff :-)
To be fair, I had once driven a manual in High School but I think I ended up breaking the car. I had a second chance when I was driving to Burning Man a couple years back and we had made it there safety. If there was a Zombie Apocalypse and my life depended on it, I could probably make it but if a girlfriends dad asked me to park his brand new Maserati, I would politely decline.
Nevertheless, I found myself sitting driver’s seat in a racecar on the world’s biggest race track. I’d have to just figure it out. This was my bucket list after all and not something I take lightly.
The instructor (who was sitting shotgun) gave me the signal to switch into first gear (it was too loud to hear anything so we used hand signals).
I started my racecar adventure bucking bronco style.
I skipped over the step of feeling shame and quickly learned that the clutch was indeed in the middle. :-) I joked that I didn’t realize he wanted me to use that clutch but my remark was dwarfed by the sound of the engine.
It was ugly but I made it into gear and figured it out. Luckily for me, NASCARs only use 4 gears.
We flew out of the pit (perhaps a bit faster than regulation) and off we were. We drove on the apron for the first half of a lap as I gained control over the car. I got the signal to enter the track and floored it. The first thing that I noticed was how responsive the car was. Although I couldn’t move my body (I was strapped in tight to a 5 point harness), the steering reminded me a lot of how it felt to drive a normal car.
The second thing I noticed was how freaking scary the right wall was. I was going what I considered to be really fast (I found out later that my first lap was only 107 MPH) and was sure I was going to skid into the wall.
Luckily, professional racecars are a WHOLE lot stickier than normal cars. In my later laps I would be going almost twice as fast and still not be in danger of skidding.
The next thing I noticed were the G forces caused by the angled turns. On Talladega, the turns are banked at 30 degrees. The G force was not pushing me toward the wall (like I thought it would), instead, it was pushing me into the ground.
Each lap I took, I got faster. I started at 107 and increased by roughly 10 MPH each lap. It wasn’t that I was frightened to go faster, it was just that I thought I was going full speed each lap I took. As I got more comfortable and my technique got better, I sped up.
After I got past about 150 MPH and hit the angled turns I quickly was overtaken with tunnel vision. (It was from the G Forces) I did some manly breathing tricks I had learned when I flew a plane a while back and sucked it up. This helped a bit and I eventually just decided/was forced to just drive despite the tunnel vision. :-)
Around the 10th lap the instructor gave me the signals to pull over and go into the pit. Perhaps I had been a little aggressive with my turns :-)
It turned out we were just going to an impromptu pit stop. We pulled in, the crew jumped in and before I knew exactly what was going on, the back of the car was in the air and the tire was being replaced.
It was totally sweet.
They released the jack and the car bounced to the ground. Off we went.
By this time I was feeling comfortable.
Around the 15th lap, I had my first opportunity to pass someone. We were both amateur drivers but as soon as we caught eye of each other, it was game on. The instructors saw what was happening and guided us through the maneuver. I passed the first punk by drafting him and then cutting toward the inside. It was textbook. (Who says Mario Kart isn’t practical?)
I improved my driving technique (speed up into the turns and turn into the center) and added about 30 MPH to my speed. The last 5 laps I averaged 165.2 MPH. My last lap I hit my top speed of 175.5 MPH (281.64 Km/hour) as I passed some pissed off guy.
Eventually we entered the straightaway and the checkered flag was waved. I pulled into the pit, shook hands with my co-pilot and climbed out of the car beaming.
This adventure totally surpassed my expectations. Racing at Talladega was the best value fun I have ever had. It was expensive (about $50 a lap) but totally and completely worth it. No other activity that I have done has been as fun per dollar as this racing. It took me the entire day to finally calm down and stop feeling super excited.
P.S. – For more infromation on driving at Talladega check out Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure.
P.P.S – I am writing this post while calming myself down in a Super 8 motel room. I am still feeling energized and was lucky I had cruise control to slow me down on my way back to the motel.
I have about 5 states to go on my 50 state goal and will be heading to the Virginias tomorrow. I am making excellent progress on my life list and I am feeling great. I’m anxious and excited for my upcoming Antarctica adventure and am grinning at the thought of how fast my life is moving (both metaphorically and today, literally).
P.P.P.S – Racecar spelled backwards is racecar. Nifty huh?.