Today is NASCAR Day!
I have a confession to make: car racing has never really been on my radar. I’ve never paid much attention to the big names in NASCAR or dreamed of taking a joy ride at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But that’s exactly what I did. Through a strange and unexpected series of events, in 2017 I had the opportunity to attend the NASCAR Driving Experience at the Charlotte Motor Speedway with a small group of colleagues as a sort of “team building” activity. Because nothing says “team bonding” like driving at pure terror-inducing speeds. If you aren’t familiar with it, the NASCAR Driving Experience
is a special attraction hosted by the Speedway in which people can pay for a timed session to drive one of the stock cars used by professional NASCAR drivers. It’s probably a bucket list item for many die-hard NASCAR fans, yet I somehow ended up behind the wheel. Despite the irony, I actually learned a lot about what it’s like to be a NASCAR driver from my brief moment on the track. Here are 5 things I learned from my NASCAR Driving Experience:
1. NASCAR drivers prepare for the worst
Yep, that's me in a fire suit.
When you sign up for the NASCAR Driving Experience, you must arrive an hour earlier than your scheduled driving time. You have to get your safety briefing watch a video showing all the ways you can die in a race car and get suited up in a fire-resistant onesie. Let me tell you – those things are HOT (I’m talking temperature here, folks). I couldn’t help thinking that if I didn’t die in a fiery explosion, I’d die of overheating in that suit. Seriously, though, pro NASCAR drivers cut no corners when it comes to safety. Every possible problem that could possibly occur on the track has been accounted for, and driver safety remains the #1 priority.
2. NASCAR drivers are stick shift pros
So, funny story. I had never driven a car with a manual transmission before I arrived for my NASCAR Driving Experience. Was this a big mistake? Maybe. Could I have done anything about it even if I knew? Probably not. I was slightly humiliated when the instructor asked the group if everyone knew how to drive a stick shift. My colleague and I were the only two in the whole group who did not. Oops. Fortunately, the instructor was kind enough to let us practice shifting gears before we went for our turns driving. When it came to it, I managed to get my car up to speed and onto the track without much difficulty, but it was far from a smooth or fast start. To put it in perspective, beside me on the track was an actual NASCAR professional driver who was driving a few laps with someone riding along in the passenger’s seat. He was gone before my hand even hit the clutch.
3. NASCAR drivers are fearless
I can say with confidence that pro drivers have a much higher tolerance for high speeds. My top speed on the straights was 132 mph, and even at that I was TERRIFIED. Granted, it takes very little to terrify me, but when you consider that NASCAR drivers can reach close to 200 mph or more, it’s incredible to see how calm they are.
Proof of my top speed!
4. NASCAR drivers have awesome support systems
The most reassuring presence when I was in that race car was the calm, professional voice in my ear telling me I was doing great. No, I wasn’t hearing voices in my panic. My helmet had a built-in headset over which someone was giving me instructions and reassuring me. When I reached a straight, he gently pushed me to try going faster. He reminded me to ease up when I was coming up on a curve. There was another car with a pro driver in it on the track at the same time, and my guide let me know when I was about to be passed so I would know to expect it. Imagine the kind of job these communicators have for pro drivers during a race! The level of trust between the driver and the person communicating with him while he drives is incredible.
5. NASCAR drivers love what they do
During my day at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, I was struck by how passionate the staff, instructors, and drivers were about their sport. They weren’t phased by my lack of knowledge or nervousness about driving a stock car, but showed genuine interest in reassuring me and teaching me. They are very appreciative of the fans and the publicity, but ultimately, NASCAR drivers do it because they love it.
If you ever have the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car, definitely go for it! And if you’re interested in learning about NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr., he recently published his inspiring memoir, Racing to the Finish: My Story
. His book shares details about growing up in a racing family and the challenges of facing injury in the height of his career. It’s a must-read for NASCAR fans, and what better day to pick it up than NASCAR Day!
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