On the Fast Track with Richard Petty at Walt Disney World

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.

Traveling the American Road – Driving with Richard Petty

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.

Out to the Ballgame: A Cultural Tour of Baseball for the Non-Fan

“How long have you guys been sitting down here,” the drunken heckler asked me and my buddy Stephen, around the seventh inning of a Mobile BayBears game at Hank Aaron Stadium. “All game,” I replied.

“So have I said any curse words?” he asked, knowing that he hadn’t, his point being that if some fans didn’t like his good-natured heckling, they could sit somewhere else–and lighten up. This was minor league baseball, he insisted, and it’s all about having a good time. On that point, I agreed.

This summer, I’ve been going to baseball games anywhere I can, from the boring green bleacher seats of Progressive Field in Cleveland to the second row of Grayson Stadium in Savannah, home of the Single-A Sand Gnats. I’ve ticked off five professional games and a handful of minor league engagements. I still haven’t caught a foul ball, but one came pretty close to my section at the BayBears game. At the velocity it was moving, I’m glad it wasn’t any closer.

During the World Cup, it’s a commonly discussed theory that teams take on the stereotypical personality of their nations. The British side is stoic even in defeat, the Germans are elegantly physical and precise, the Korean team plays as an impossibly unified squad, the Argentines and their hair flop around the field. But the same can’t be said for baseball: Is there anything particularly Baltimorean about the way Nick Markakis strokes home runs into Eutaw Street at Camden Yards? What precisely about the bizarre stance of Kevin Youkilis screams Boston? We don’t call Chicago the Ivy City; it just happens that vines cover the outfield wall of Wrigley Field.

Sitting in the stands is nevertheless an opportunity to rub against the culture of a place. Before a game at Fenway Park, a tour guide ruthlessly teased the Yankees, Boston’s arch rivals in much more than simply baseball. Unlike their neighbors in the Five Boroughs, fans don’t have to choose between two ball teams or two hockey squads. All is for the glory of Boston, whether its a win for the Sox or a parade for the Bruins.

Minor league games offer a more intimate experience with a place. In Savannah, a local cheer camp had a monopoly on entertainment between innings. Cheer Savannah‘s program revealed plenty about Georgia, including that dozens of girls’ families signed them up for cheerleading training “run like football camps,” with a mind to “Christian values.” In Montgomery, game-day eats included chicken and biscuits, a Southern specialty made all the more meaningful because the local Double-A club is called the Biscuits. The name was picked from submissions from the public.

I happened to be wearing a Biscuits hat when the heckler in Mobile introduced himself and his friend at the BayBears game. We took a photo together, after I warned him that I probably shouldn’t be seen with him wearing some other team’s colors. “Still Alabama, though,” he reminded me as he threw a thick arm around my shoulders. Evidence of the one baseball constant, no matter the park: Fans love to cheer for the home team, even when they don’t.

The Final Shuttle Launch and the Future of the Space Coast

About 12 hours before STS-135 was set to blast off for low Earth orbit, my friend Rob and I were driving toward Titusville, Florida with a car full of camping supplies and our fingers crossed. The weather was foul, and the chances of a launch were just 30 percent. But we were in Central Florida to see a blast off, and so to the Space Coast we were headed.

Traveling the American Road – The Last Shuttle Launch: STS135

As we know now, the shuttle did take off as scheduled, making its final graceful, powerful arc into the low clouds, punching through the smallest break in the weather on the way to the International Space Station. It was an exciting, historic moment, made bittersweet by the mass layoffs that would follow the shuttle’s landing on July 21.

The economic impact of the program’s end on the Space Coast will extend beyond the pink slips delivered to now-unneeded engineers and shuttle support staff. As one construction worker I met explained, the estimated 1 million visitors that turned out for the final launch will likely never again come to his hometown. Rooms, restaurants and tours will go empty, leaving the tourism business reliant on seasonal fishing trips and historians of the space age who will trickle in, yes, but not in numbers like those seen this July.

Two days after the launch, I visited Kennedy Space Center, where pride in the 30-year history of the shuttle program is enormous–to the point that no one there seemed to have acknowledged its end. A sign reminded visitors that “NASA centers have embarked on a phased program of expanding and updating the space shuttle’s capabilities” and a short film suggested that “Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see a shuttle on the way to the pad today.” While there was no shortage of visitors that day, I wondered how long the attraction of the place would last without a manned spaceflight program and how long the gift shop would continue selling out of STS-135 merchandise.

Driving away from the Space Coast, we stopped for a bite at Corky Bells, a seafood restaurant in Cocoa, Florida, very close to the Space Center. Near the register at the entryway was a doorknob from its original location, engulfed by a fire sparked by Hurricane Frances in 2004. The restaurant moved into its current building, reconnected with its regulars and kept serving heaping platters of fried crabs, clams, shrimp and fish. Lunch was excellent, but without launch-day crowds, will Corky’s weather the coast’s latest storm?

Road Trip Gear: Seven Must-Have Essentials

When you’ve got a road trip vehicle to fill with stuff, packing becomes a headache. A corollary the old saw that work expands to fill the available time, the stuff you bring seems to expand to fill the available cargo space. Every time I check into a motel, I seem to have more junk to haul to my room.

But there’s a small batch of necessities I keep coming back to day in and day out. They’re my seven trip essentials, and I’d recommend them to anyone hitting the road this summer, whether you’re going across the country or just on a weekend camping trip.

Traveling the American Road – Road Trip Gear

Smartphone: The number one gadget to make your life easier. No matter the carrier or data plan, a smartphone will get you turn-by-turn navigation, make mobile hotel bookings, stream music, take photos and connect with friends back home. It’s an absolute essential.

Portable wifi: The folks at Virgin Mobile loaned me an MC760, a 3G USB air card that gets my laptop online anywhere there’s a cell signal. The connection isn’t the fastest, but it will let you upload blog posts about the final shuttle launch from inside your tent in Titusville–or anywhere else you can’t find wifi.

Rain gear: File this one under “only because I have the space.” Gear maker Arc’teryx loaned me the Beta AR, a high-end shell that I’ve only used once, when a downpour in Orlando dropped three inches of rain in three hours. If only I’d had the waterproof pants to go with.

Laptop: I packed my personal MacBook Air on this trip, and I use it much more often than my work-issued machine that weighs twice as much. So far, it’s held up to my abuse: It’s even survived crashing into the pavement in Detroit, with only minor battle wounds.

Sunscreen: I’ve been on multiple beaches this trip, and of course walking the streets of cities puts you out in the sun. Spray-on sunscreen is dead easy to apply and isn’t greasy. I keep it in a cup holder for easy access.

Tents and sleeping bags: Whether you’re camping out or just crashing on a friend’s floor, packing your own bedding can be a life-saver. You never know when plans will change: As long as you have the trunk space, better to pack your own campground-ready hotel.

Something fun: I brought along a parafoil kite, which has no rods and therefore packs down into a tiny stuff sack. It’s great on the beach, fun in a park, even a conversation starter if you pull it out at a roadside rest stop. It’s fun, and isn’t that what road trips are supposed to be?

Six Driving Tips from a Summer Spent on the American Road

This summer, I’ve driven more than 5,000 miles, from the Great Lakes to New England to Florida and beyond. Operating my car for more than 150 hours in about six weeks doesn’t make me a professional driver, but it certainly has exposed me to heaps of stupidity on America’s highways, interstates and surface roads. With my summer’s experience, I respectfully submit the best six ways you can be a better driver by this evening’s commute.

Keep an open mind: Driving is a lot like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: Everyone thinks they’re above average behind the wheel. Sadly, the real world doesn’t work like radio, and statistically half of people are worse than average drivers. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his phenomenal book Traffic, it’s not really anyone’s fault: psychology, society and plain old habit conspire to make driving one of the most difficult undertakings of our daily lives, even if it seems natural. Admitting that you may not be the world’s best driver paves the way to the second most important thing you can do…

Pay attention: A great number of car crashes could be avoided if drivers were simply paying attention. It’s not easy! Radio, cup holders, cell phones, iPods, kids, pets and navigation gizmos all vie for our attention in the cockpit. But good drivers banish distraction and watch the road–in front of them, beside them and behind them. It takes more mental energy and you’ll feel a little silly constantly checking your surroundings but at least you won’t be reading the newspaper behind the wheel. (I’ve seen it happen.)

Cruise carefully: The thing about cruise control is that it doesn’t actually drive the car for you: It’s up to the operator to actually slow and steer the vehicle. But that’s changing with adaptive cruise control, a feature I have in the Explorer that Ford’s loaned me this summer. (Other carmakers are starting to add the feature, too.) Rather than simply plow ahead at a constant speed, this new cruise system adjusts the throttle and brakes to keep a minimum distance between my vehicle and the one in front of me. Safer, yes, but still not autopilot.

Respect truckers: The idea that truckers are out to crush all four-wheeled cars is as outmoded as tail fins. But pros in big rigs have, by virtue of their size, a harder time accelerating and braking than those of us in passenger cars, meaning it often feels threatening to be around fully loaded trucks. By giving these drivers a wider berth, you’ll make their day and your day a little bit easier–not to mention safer.

Press the pedals: In an attempt to drive more safely, drivers often don’t push their machines anywhere near their mechanical limits. Driving on a race track earlier this summer gave me a better appreciation for my vehicle’s capabilities. Defensive driving or race training courses can help train you to trust your car to do its job at high speeds, under stressful driving conditions–leaving you to think and react rather than scream in terror.

Don’t drink and drive: This advice sounds obvious, but more than 10,000 people were killed in accidents involving alcohol in 2009. Driving drunk is wildly dangerous–and it’s unnecessary. Think a cab ride home at the end of the night is too expensive? How much are court costs, lost employment and possibly much worse? In one case, more than $5,000.