I’m very interested in loud cars that go really fast, even if I still don’t understand NASCAR. Earlier this summer, I drove my road trip ride around the speedway in Watkins Glen. As much fun as it was–lots!–I was itching to get a vehicle up to triple-digit speeds. Near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, I had that chance at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
It works like this: After plunking down $449, fellow drivers and I got a fairly serious driving class, complete with info on how to operate our 600-horsepower stock cars, what to do in the unlikely event of a fire and why drivers should stay on the line that racers in front of you are following. (Hint: It keeps you from crashing into the wall.)
Considering what a war zone Central Florida’s highways have become, it was easy to believe my instructor’s reassurance that this driving, even strapped in to a super-powered race car, would be the safest I’d do all day. Nevertheless, the more warnings my fellow racers and I received, the more nervous I became. What if I forgot to throw my car into fourth gear? What if I followed the car in front of me too closely? What if I started skidding toward the wall at 120 mph? Putting on a helmet and HANS device to protect the base of my skull in the event of a catastrophic accident sadly did not make me more comfortable.
The upside to the experience is that you’re guided through the eight laps by a faceless but presumably over-qualified “instructor,” who you never meet and whose movements you follow on the track. The more precisely you handle your car, the faster he or she will drive in front of you–meaning you’ll go faster too. I would’ve liked to meet my lead driver, but instead, I was being buckled into a five-point harness inside the rumbling number 11 car, helmet on, HANS on, and GoPro camera mounted to the dash. A crewman gave the sign, and we were off, jerking forward, as I figured out the clutch on the way out of pit road.
The first lap was ragged, a chance to get a feel for the car–which does not handle like my Ford Explorer–learn the racing line and get used to the deafening noise of the engine at track speed. Stock cars don’t have speedometers, only tachometers, but I later learned I averaged 78 mph on the first go-round. A good start.
As I loosened up, I learned to trust the car and its fat, sticky tires. My instructor sped up. I started to smile around lap four. By lap six, I was tearing into turns, letting off the throttle at the last possible moment to keep distance from the car in front of me and revving back up on the turn exit to burn through the straights. The banked turns seemed to flatten as we accelerated. My tunnel vision expanded just in time to see the flag signaling the end of my eight laps.
I watched more drivers take their turns, soaking up the sounds and vibrations in the pits. Data from a USB stick plugged into my car was downloaded. My top speed was 122.38. Not bad, but I’d like to go faster.