NASCAR Nightmares at 200 Miles per Hour
Driving a NASCAR race car seems like it would be easy because, well, how hard could it be? A good question to ask right before almost dying while taking one for a spin.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s about a little more than just feeling the need for speed.
One small thing about being crazily competitive: Everywhere is somewhere where you can exert yourself and exult in the possibility of winning. Walking down stairs, jockeying for the pole position while “strolling” down the sidewalk or getting an invitation, in a previous life, to the Marlboro Racing School in Fontana, California.
See, the drill was familiar to the wised up. Marlboro, no longer advertising cigarettes as health aids like many cigarette companies had done in the ’40s, had found there were better ways to infiltrate the public consciousness. In this instance: inviting journalists from all over to come to their racing school featuring cars, suits and helmets emblazoned with Marlboro, and the promise of being able to hit the track in a variety of such cars.
Catnip? For me, absolutely. I’ve been obsessed with vehicles and driving them since I was old enough to sit up and watch people on TV driving them.
I made a mental note: “Fun” is what people usually expect to have when they expect to lose. See, I told you I was a competitive creep.
“I can drive anything with wheels on it,” I said. I wasn’t boasting. It was true, and if the instructor rolled his eyes a bit, I can honestly say he did so only a little bit, which was justified in my mind since the cars they would have us drive — a NASCAR stock car, a Van Diemen and a souped-up IROC-Z — were not cars I’d ever gotten close to driving. Except in my dreams.
And in my dreams, it was very safe to say, when the cars kicked to life it felt absolutely nothing like when it happened for real. A throaty, gut-rattling roar for the stock car, which we’d be driving last, was a wild warning sign: Do not mess around.
But this is where the competitive thing kicked in. I’d been working for an upstart publication, newer and less established than some of the other magazines represented around me, which meant I had a chip on my shoulder. Under normal circumstances, I couldn’t leave the track having lost, even more so to an established magazine. Since the publication I was working for was a men’s fashion mag, I focused on the one other men’s mag journo.
“You ever drive before?” I asked, smiling.
“Nah.” He had flown out from New York just for this. “But I think it will be fun.”
I made a mental note: “Fun” is what people usually expect to have when they expect to lose. See, I told you I was a competitive creep, and this more than likely came from being raised by a man who would beat me mercilessly in checkers, chess, footraces, badminton, whatever. When asked by my mother if maybe letting me win every now and then might be the right thing to do, he sniffed, “Well, what kind of message would that send?”
I can laugh about it now, and I do, but in general there’s nothing I love more than winning. As we headed over to the Van Diemen track, I was chortling to myself. Words like “kick” and “ass.”
If you’ve seen Formula One, you’ve seen cars that look like Van Diemens. For a big man, they were a too-tight suit, and the track, serpentine to the extreme, was designed for finesse. Want something to compare it to? The tracks at the miniature golf/go-kart emporiums. We raced against the clock. Which I didn’t care about beating. I just wanted to beat Big Established Mag guy. Looking at the listed times, it seemed I had done just that.
The car growled into 100 miles per hour like it was nothing. I felt as if I were pinned into the ass-end of a rocket ship. Then it reached 150. Then 200.
“Oh man. You were close.” I smiled. He ignored me. Perfect.
The souped-up IROC-Z was next. Since I drove a souped-up Chevy as my daily driver, this was not nearly as great as it could have been but for? Yes, I beat him again. And then, in the stock car, I was having a few things explained to me by the instructor.
“Before we let you go around, we want you to see what it feels like to be a passenger.” So strapped into the front seat, feeling like a hapless passenger in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, I listened, a little impatiently, as the instructor explained to me that I needed to look “down-course.”
I guess he didn’t know who I was. I was the beater of the BEM guy. I was a demon on wheels.
“Born ready, bro.”
“Good. Remember: Look down-course.” We sat, helmets on our heads, helmets that had dangling straps clipped to the roll bars. Before I could ask why, we were off.
The car growled into 100 miles per hour like it was nothing. I felt as if I were pinned into the ass-end of a rocket ship. Then it reached 150. Then 200. I think. I say “I think” because that’s the last thing I remember before everything in my field of vision started melting. Literally melting. Like someone had poured hot water over an oil painting. I could feel my head rolling from shoulder to shoulder, and bursts of black stars popped all over the place. Through the mist someone grabbed my shoulder and screamed at me, “LOOK DOWN-COURSE!”
Which I finally did. You see, when you hit speeds approaching 200 miles per hour and you look the normal distance in front of the car, like you might with your family driver, the information comes in to your visual cortex so fast your brain taps out and you black out. Once I looked down-course? Easy. But the instructor decided I was done, and it was with no small amount of chagrin that I watched the BEM guy cruise around the track unaided.
Feh. Well. At least I had fun.