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NOTE:  This is a narrative description of Andrea's stock car

driving experience at California Speedway. 

You can view the pictures by following the SLIDESHOW links from the main

directory for AandJSward ( http://www.aandjsward.com ). 


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Sunday, August 13, 2000, I attended the Richard Petty Driving

Experience ( http://www.1800bepetty.com/ )

at California Speedway (http://www.californiaspeedway.com/

and http://www.californiaspeedway.com/CAGrands.html ). 

This program lets you drive a 600-horsepower NASCAR-style

stock car over 100 mph on an actual racing track. 


California Speedway is a 2-mile D-oval track. 

It is banked 14 degrees in the turns,

11 degrees on the front stretch, and

3 degrees on the back straight away.

( http://www.nascar.com/tracks/california/dia.html )


You can purchase various "experiences" and I got the

Rookie Experience.  This is a 3-hour session. 

There are longer sessions and sessions that actually

teach racing techniques.  The Rookie Experience is

more like fantasy fulfillment than actual racing. 

The only requirements for the Rookie Experience are:

1. You must have enough cash, or your credit card must

   be good, or your check must not bounce.

2. You must be tall enough to climb in the car unassisted.

   The window area (stock cars have no doors) is 15 inches

   high, 30 inches wide, and 36 inches off the ground.

3. You must have a valid drivers license.


Just arriving for the session was a thrill.  We drove up to

the main gate and were directed to the perimeter road.  Just

driving around the outside of a real race track gives you

goosebumps.  Then we drove through the tunnel that

goes under the raceway itself and into the sacred infield! 

We emerged from the tunnel in the garage area.  This is the

area where during races the cars are parked and the teams work. 

This area is the nerve center on race weekends.  During races

this is an ultra-restricted area that requires all sorts of

special passes and credentials -- and we were there!!! 

To see this area up close and personal was a thrill in

itself.  If this had been all we had done on Sunday, I

would have considered it a very fulfilling day!


I got registered.  (For those who are wondering, my husband

Jeff went along to take pictures, but there is no way he would

ever climb into a race car.  I was kind of thinking he might

want to do the "Ride Along Experience" where he would be a

passenger with a professional driver, but he declined.) 

Then I got my driving suit.  It was really cool (well,

actually really hot) -- I did not want to turn it in at the

end of the day!


Training came next.  First we had classroom training. 

This consisted of a video and a lecture.  Then we got

into a van and were driven around the track. 

The van driver explained to us where to shift (the cars

were a standard-H with 4 gears).  Basically, you shifted up

through the gears as you were leaving pit road and accelerating

on the apron.  Once you had merged onto the race track in 4th

gear, you stayed there the whole time and did not downshift

until you returned to pit road. 

The van driver explained to us when to use our brakes. 

You brake on the apron to decelerate when returning to

the pits and on pit road when parking in your pit stall. 

You do not use the brakes at all on the race course unless

the yellow flag comes out signaling there has been an accident

on the track.  (No, you do not apply the brakes on a turn --

in fact, you apply the gas going into the turn and continue

to accelerate through the arc of the turn.) 

The van driver explained the best line to take to get optimum

speed and to efficiently utilize the set up of the car.  (Car

set up refers to things like tire pressure, springs, track bar

adjustments, etc.  All of these things determine what kind of

line the car is most stable in and determine the natural line

the car wants to take.)  To assist in remembering the best line,

there were painted squares on the track at various spots. 

The goal is to hit these marks on every lap. 


Then we climbed into the car.  Seating position in a NASCAR

stock car is interesting if you are under 5 feet tall.  For

safety reasons, seats in race cars are bolted to the floor. 

Therefore, in their fleet of cars, they had some cars with the

seats far away and some cars with the seats up close.  Not

too surprising, I got the car with the seat mounted closest to

the windshield.  Unfortunately, even that was not close enough

for me to depress the pedals all the way to the floor (something

the clutch demanded).  The track workers ended up inserting two

seat cushions behind me to get me close enough to work the

pedals correctly.  Then I got strapped in.  The safety belts

are a five-point system.  The goal is to have you in the seat

so firmly that if there is a crash you do not move at all. 

The straps of the restraint system are tight and bordering on

too tight for a correct adjustment.  Another feature of NASCAR

cars:  steering wheels are removable.  The quarters are so

cramped that the driver gets in first.  After the driver is

positioned and strapped in, the steering wheel is attached. 

Unfortunately, I was so far forward, there was not enough room

for a standard steering wheel, so they had to install a small

size steering wheel.


The last part of the training took place once we were in the car. 

They showed us the light for low oil pressure and what to do if

it comes on (turn off the engine pronto, coast to the apron, and

stay inside the car while you wait for the truck to come). 

They showed us the fire extinguisher equipment and what to do if

there is a fire (turn off the engine pronto, and pull a pin to

activate the extinguisher system, coast to the apron, and get out

of the car as quickly as you can.  Extinguishers are permanently

mounted in the cockpit and when the pin is pulled, the area is

automatically flooded with spray.  This virtually hands-free

system is very similar to what is in actual NASCAR cars.  Fire

is about the only thing fearless NASCAR drivers are afraid of.) 

They went over again the rpms to watch for (2,000 before

shifting into 1st and beginning to move, 4,000 for each shift

up to 4th).  They also went over the signals from the flagman

at the start/finish line.  On each lap, there would be signals

indicating if we should speed up, slow down, or change our line. 

Unlike actual NASCAR drivers who are in constant radio contact

with spotters, the flag signals were our only source of feedback

and communication while we were on the track.


Then came the drive.  The most frequently asked question I get

is, "Was there someone riding with you?"  The answer is no. 

The drivers are alone in the cars.  It is a *real* driving

experience.  My first lap was kind of slow -- *only* 119 mph. 

I was still learning the line.  Plus, the walls are kind of

intimidating at high speeds so I was too much in the center

of the track.  The flagman gave me the signal to move farther

up the track.  When I did get higher on the track, I understood. 

The car loved the high line!  That was where it wanted to be. 

It let me know this because the ride actually smoothed out and

the steering became easier.  (Easier is a relative term.  It

takes a lot of upper body strength to get 600 horses to go

where you wanted them to go.  I switched from the standard

steering wheel grip of left hand at 10 o-clock and right hand at

2 o'clock to an 11 o'clock / 4 o'clock position so I could get

more of my body into the left hand turns the track required.) 

Part of the exhilaration of stock car driving is since you are

strapped in so securely in the seat, you are at one with the

car -- you are actually part of the car, and you and it are

all functioning as one unit -- everything the car feels

and does, you feel and do!  We are in Bionic Woman territory

here -- and I *loved* it!  After learning the lesson that a

higher line near the wall is the desired path, the next thing

to learn is to trust your tires.  NASCAR tires have no tread. 

Consequently, 100% of the tire is in contact with the track

to give you maximum grip.  Intellectually I knew this, but

viscerally, I had my doubts.  On my third lap, I finally

took a corner at really high speed, accelerating all the way

and almost getting a sling-shot propulsion onto the straightaway. 

I had really expected to hear the tires squeal at the peak of

the arc and to feel some slip (my Honda Civic would have done

that!).  Instead, the tires stuck securely!  What a rush! 

This gave me the confidence I needed for the rest of the laps. 

Except for the first lap, the flagman waved me green (doin'

great!) on all of the other laps.  The highest speed I obtained

was a *132 mph*.  To put this in perspective, it is a 2-mile

track, so that means I was doing 1 minute laps!


Then came the worst part of the day -- when I passed by the

start/finish line the flagman was waving the checkered flag. 

No, that did not mean I had won a race, it meant my laps were

done and it was time to come into the pits so someone else

could drive my car (by this time, I thought of it as *my* car). 

I pulled down the track and then onto the apron.  About at turn

3 I put the car in neutral and coasted onto pit road, stopping

in the designated pit stall.  To say I did not want to get out

of the car was an understatement! 


After all of the drivers had done their laps (for safety reasons,

there are only two Rookie Experience drivers on the track at a

time -- more advanced experiences have more drivers and they

drive closer together), there was a "graduation" ceremony. 

We got our diplomas indicating we had successfully completed

the Rookie Experience.  The diplomas included our top speed. 

We also got our report cards -- computer-generated lap-by-lap

performance stats giving top speed and top rpm. 


As we were leaving, I made Jeff's day by asking if I could

do the driving on the way home.  He said, "NO!"


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Appendix:  If any of you are interested in a race car experience,

I wholeheartedly endorse the Richard Petty Driving Experience. 

They had a very professional operation every step of the way. 

Their office staff were efficient and pleasant.  They sized up

people pretty fast and offered reassurance to those feeling

anxious and shared the enthusiasm of those feeling excited. 

These people do sessions probably 250 days a year. 

Yet they understood that for most customers it would be a

once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Consequently, they kept things

fresh and treated every customer special and with respect. 

They did a great job of maintaining their cars.  They had a

full staff of mechanics and every once in a while would pull a

car back to the garage area to work on it.  They also had tire

specialists who examined the tires carefully after each run. 

If there was too much wear, tires were immediately replaced. 

The instructors and on-track personnel assured that everything

was safe and perfect before students pulled onto the track. 

One of the pictures Jeff took shows 4 people gathered around my

car checking it out and checking me out before the run.  This

was typical.  The friendliness and professionalism of the

entire Petty organization helped to make this a great experience. 

I can think of nothing that made me upset or irritated the

whole 4 hours we were there.  In today's business world when it

seems cordial, knowledgeable service is a thing of the past,

having such a positive experience was a real treat.


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