It’s not every day you’re offered an opportunity to drive a 500 horsepower actual race used NASCAR, so you can imagine my excitement when my dad presented me with a gift card to the NASCAR Racing Experience for Christmas last year. After all the wrapping paper was put away, I realized I had the hardest decision of my whole life ahead of me.
The NASCAR Racing Experience gift card can also be used at the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, so I had to make a decision over what obscenely powerful racecar I wanted to drive. It would be too embarrassing to share with you how much time I spent making this decision over the next few months, but in the end I choose NASCAR. It came down to the fact that (according to their website) the Mario Andretti Racing Experience uses “Actual Indy-Styled Race Cars”, whereas the NASCAR Racing Experience uses “Real NASCAR Race Cars that were driven by NASCAR drivers.”
I’m sure the open wheeled cars are cool, but they are NOT Indycars and don’t even try to look like them. Knowing I would be driving an actual NASCAR seemed pretty cool to me. Plus, knowing my inexperience driving anything at high speeds, I figured I’d get behind the wheel of the open cockpit “Indy-styled” car and go no more than 40mph and while thinking that I was setting a record pace. I figured I could handle a NASCAR reasonably well, which of course would totally impress my wife (despite being married 9 years I still forget woman think different than men). So NASCAR it was.
There are different packages available including a 5-minute and 8-minute drive, and ride along programs. I did the 8-minute drive, which runs $464 +tax and $35 driver fee (There are many discount codes out there, so be sure to look around before buying). To ride as a passenger in a two-seater NASCAR is $129.
The 8-minute drive is actually what they consider the ’3-Hour Experience’. I had to arrive at 9:15am for my 10:00am experience. After signing in at the trailer and being told to put on my racing suit, I was given a pager and told to wait until 9:45 for the training session. The training session takes place in the track’s media center, which as a race fan, is a fun place to see in person.
There were 45 drivers plus family and friends that were shown a 1/2 hour video explaining how to get out of the car in the case of wreck and what racing line we should take. The Bondurant Driving School THIS IS NOT. Unfortunately, when the video was done, we were told the racing line we were just taught about doesn’t actually apply here. We wouldn’t be driving “10 feet from the outside wall, driving between the dots painted on the track, and diving to the inside of each turn” as the video instructed. Instead, we were supposed to stay in the bottom 2 lanes of the track all the way around. That was disappointing. Also weird: the video opened with a shot of Dale Earnhardt Sr.- hardly comforting, as my nerves were increasing exponentially. The video ended with a thorough question and answer time (the instructors was very patient) before we were to head to the track for another meeting. We met a man there who for some reason told us exactly what we were just told in the media center. Then it was time to wait. And wait.
By chance I happened to be the last person from my group called to the track at about 12:15pm. There I was given ear buds (which I got to keep!), a head sock, and my helmet. Then waited another 10 minutes.
Apparently, we were assigned to cars based on our height and weight to most closely align with the NASCAR driver who the car was built for since the seats and steering wheels aren’t adjustable. I said a quick prayer that I didn’t end up with Tony Stewart’s ride.
There were recognizable cars there including Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick’s Impalas, plus a few cars I’d never seen before. I was put in Carl Edwards #99 Ford Fusion (I’m 6’0, Edwards is 6’1”), except that this was one painted up with Magnaflow logos. When I asked about the car I was told it had Magnaflow on it because they provided the exhausts for the school in exchange for the logo on the car. If I’m honest with you readers, I was a little disappointed. I wanted to drive the Mountain Dew #88 (some say I look like Dale Jr) or the Lowes #48 or something that I could see on Sunday’s and tell my kids that I drove the car. As far as I can tell, there has never been a Magnaflow car. No big deal though, it was still Carl Edwards’ car, just repainted. At least I wouldn’t be wasting money on die-casts of the car for years to come. Most of the cars in use appear to be about 2-3 years old.
Once the previous driver returned the #99 to pit lane, I was walked out to the rear of the car. I noticed it had plenty of scratches and dents in the body, and the spoiler was actually cracked all the way through in one section. No time to dwell on the handling implications of that, because before I knew it they were helping me get in.
At this point, I should share the two skills needed in order to participate in this experience: The ability to drive stick (which is never mentioned beforehand), and the ability to get your leg up about waist high. In my mind I pictured myself very Bo Duke like sliding into the car with cool oozing off me. Unfortunately, there is just no graceful way to get into a NASCAR: no doors, roll cage in the way, a giant helmet on, and me being very inflexible meant it was a tight fit.
Inside, there’s the usual five-point harness, but no HANS device, just a foam collar for my neck. I had to remind myself at that point that Kentucky has the SAFER barriers, but it didn’t do much for my nerves. I was surprised at how relatively quiet the car sounded from inside the cabin. With the ear buds in and helmet on, it was much louder for the spectators than drivers. I was able to clearly hear my spotter that would be guiding me around. The rear view mirror provides much more of a view than you’d think. As you can see in the following picture, the front windshield was very scratched up right in my line of sight.
The steering column sits right between the accelerator and brake pedals, meaning no heel-toe for me. Well that, and the fact that I’m not entirely sure what heel-toe is, and that you don’t actually shift once you are up to speed. Other than that though, I totally would have mastered it. For some reason it doesn’t seem the safest that you have to bend your whole leg up and move it under the steering column in order to brake. Just as I began to ponder the safety aspects of this setup, my spotter told me to go. I had to take this part seriously. Not only would my kids be judging my racing ability as I drove by right in front of them, but they said if you stall twice, you forfeit your chance to drive the car. So, ya know, no pressure.
In order to communicate with the spotter, there is a button on the steering wheel. I had it all planned in advance to quote Days of Thunder. Unfortunately I had no idea about the mental focus it was going to take to keep this rocket ship on the track. Everything I was told in advance about what speed to go is related to what rpm the engine should be at. Shift at 3,000 rpms, for the first lap keep it at 4,000, and then increase by 200 rpms each lap. The problem is that the entire length of travel of the gas pedal is less than an inch. It is very difficult to precisely control the throttle with so little travel, especially while wearing running shoes. Plus, the tachometer is mounted on the steering column, making it difficult to look down and see.
As I got going I quickly realized there would be no way to focus enough to make jokes over the radio. I had to stay on the access road until the backstretch, which was very narrow and a challenge in itself, then got to merge onto the track. There are other cars on the track at the same time, and your spotter is there to keep you from coming into contact with them. I never actually came across another car but if I had, passing is only allowed on the straightaway. At the same time, there are also professional drivers taking ride along participants at 170 mph on the top 2 lanes. They passed me twice, but I didn’t even notice.
The cars are 4-speed manuals weighing 3,400 pounds. The gearshift throws are long (like in an old pickup), and the lever location gives no indication of what gear you are in. The shifts themselves are very heavy, unlike any passenger car I’ve ever driven. The power is on demand regardless of rpms. It powerful, but with the weight of the car you never feel like you’ll spin the tires when your floor it. Speaking of which, in the instructional video we were assured we could keep it floored and the car will stick in the corners. Try telling my brain that going into turn three for the first time. As much as I knew I could trust the tires, I couldn’t physically get my right foot to stay in the throttle for the first lap. I stayed on the throttle and hit 156.4mph (the top speeds for the day were at 157mph). For me it took three laps before the fear began to go away and I really started enjoying it. For that reason, I do not recommend the 5-minute experience.
The most shocking part of the whole experience is the sheer strength it takes to drive one of these machines. I was blown away by how difficult it was to hold the car on the bottom of the track at over 150 mph. It was scary to think that if for just a moment my hand slipped or I lost my grip I’d be into the wall. I imagine being forced to stay in the bottom 2 lanes added to the feeling. That was also about the time that I realized I had forgotten to ask who pays for the car if it gets damanged. At no point did the car feel like it would oversteer or understeer, it was just a bear to keep at the bottom of the track. Kentucky has 14 degrees of banking in the turns (compared to 24 degrees at Charlotte and 33 degrees in Talladega), short shoots are 8 degrees and front straight is 10 degrees).
Turn one is particularly bumpy which rattled the nerves the first couple laps. It was also surprising to me that to go straight I had to actually steer right and hold it there. My hands were at about 11 and 5 on the wheel on the backstretch, and it was not a time to rest as it took strength to keep it there. Another interesting aspect of the drive is the difficulty I had keeping the car exactly where I wanted it on the course. With such a large heavy steering wheel I couldn’t get much feedback from it and definitely got closer to the yellow line than the 5-foot distance we were supposed to keep. Again, this is all over 8 minutes, so comfort would definitely come with practice.
During the 8-minute drive, the engine was limited to 5,000rpm (if you pay an additional $400 for another 8 minutes that is increased to 5,400). After hitting the limiter a couple times I learned that the fastest way around the track is to NOT keep it floored, but to attempt to keep the engine at around 4,900rpms… easier said than done with a tiny gas pedal and a tach you have to take your eyes off the road to see. I was so focused on keeping the car in the correct lanes that as much as I knew not to, I only stared about 20 feet in front of the car the whole run. With so much focus required to drive, there was no time to dwell on things that seemed so important just a few short minutes ago, like how limited the view is to either side, or how tight the helmet felt.
By the end I was so mentally exhausted that I had totally forgotten to “request a flyby” from the spotter. Maybe next time. When I came to a stop on pit road, a quick check of myself revealed all the internal organs resided in the spots they usually belonged, I hadn’t thrown up, but man was the left side of my neck and shoulders sore!
Being that this is The TRUTH About Cars, I feel obligated to tell you readers my gripes as well:
- -They advertise that the 3-hour experience includes “a drivers meeting, crew-chief training, education, instruction, in-car radio, personal spotter, and graduate certificate.” I have no idea who the crew-chief was or if there was one, and the education was very minimal. If they called this a “NASCAR Driving Experience” instead of “NASCAR Racing Experience”, I would feel better about it. There was just wasn’t any real racing instruction to speak of. Something they seem to pride themselves on compared to other schools is that they allow passing on the track. Although it’s technically true, it’s only in very limited situations. The certificate is just a sheet of paper with your name and top speed listed on regular paper. Better than nothing, but not really a “certificate”. Adding a Go-Pro in-car video will run you $80 and a plaque with you picture is $40.
- -As I mentioned before, they seem to keep a lot of information about the event secret. On their website there are 2 videos posted. One shows cars going side-by-side passing in the turns, which will get your car remotely shut down we were told. The other video shows current NASCAR drivers, seemingly implying they will be at the track instructing you.
- -Nowhere does it mention you need to know how to drive stick, you do. If you stall twice, you are done, no refund (but I believe they let you do a ride a long instead).
- -Using words like “education” and “training” imply it’s a racing school. This is a chance to drive a real NASCAR, but not learn how to race.
- -Bring your own food and drinks as their concession stand was well stocked with chips and water.
- -From the time I started to roll away until I came to a stop back on pit road was 7:42. Being honest, I had no recollection of time or the number of laps completed while driving, but when my mom showed me the stopwatch after I returned I was a little bummed. I know they have to crank a lot of people through there each day, but I felt like I was hosed out of a lap.
Bottom line, this is something every racing fan, or fan of plain old speed, should experience. My sore shoulder appreciated how light and nimble my Honda Odyssey felt on the way home. If you go, be sure to bring a friend or family along. Part of the experience is just being on pit road at a huge racetrack and seeing everything up close that you’ve seen on TV. Guests can wait with you in a shaded area and stand right along the fence as you drive. Plus you’re going to want them there to get some pictures of your once in a lifetime experience. Especially if you look as good as I do wearing a fire suit. I’m not going to lie, I felt pretty cool just wearing a racing suit for the first time.
Driving that car really made me appreciate the skill and fitness level of NASCAR drivers. Feeling the strength it takes to control these cars, hearing the roar of the engine, and having your loved ones cheer you on as you white-knuckle a race car around a track creating memories you’ll have for the rest of your life is worth the price of admission. Well, as long as my dad is paying.
Full disclosure: I paid for this experience myself. And by “I paid”, I mean to say, “My dad paid”. At no point did anyone from the NASCAR Racing Experience know I was going to write this article. I regret not telling them… maybe I wouldn’t have gone last if they’d known I was with www.thetruthaboutcars.com. Who am I kidding; they probably wouldn’t have let me drive at all.