By Brian M. Howle
As life continues its daily, relentless grind on us all, wearing us down, beating us into submission – it is only natural for almost everyone to just accept this as a given; to take in stride the changes that affect us in all the negative manners we are told is our predestined fate, and to let those slight, few regrets which we may still retain just fade away and remain unreconciled.
Yeah, well, fortunately for me, I am not everyone.
So when my daily grind began with checking email for our publications enabled me to run across the evite to attend the Media Day Appreciation event being hosted by the recently purchased Myrtle Beach Speedway on April 18, it took me a split-second to read and then re-read what was on the screen before me: “You may choose to drive an actual NASCAR stock car or you may choose to ride with …”
Well, I never got to the part explaining you could also just be passenger while a professional driver took the wheel until later.
And that’s because if ever a Walter Mitty-type dream came true for anyone, it most certainly just had for me.
This was made possible by the fact that one of the new owners of the track, Bob Lutz, is also founder and owner of NASCAR Racing Experience. After 20 or so years in running these types of driving schools, Bob knows that promotion is more than just the name of the game, and what better way to ensure that the word get out on your newest endeavor – via all local media outlets – than by inviting the entire motley crew of thrill-seeking journalists out to the track for a true first-hand perspective.
Now, allow me to explain to those of you not familiar with my background or previous columns on the finer points of growing up in the south and – more importantly – being an original, bona fide, rabid and loyal racing fan in general, but especially as a stock car fan in particular.
That would help to explain my repeated responses to the evite, because on my end it kept saying “Do you want to attend?” and by April 17 I was beginning to froth ever so slightly in anxious worry. Thankfully, a quick call to the speedway office and my old friend, Bill Hennecy, quelled that near-fatal panic attack.
So on April 18, a bright, sunny morning greeted us all as we arrived bright and early (well, for what qualifies as early to me) and were met by the staff of Myrtle Beach Speedway and NASCAR Driving Experience. As various media representatives – from television, radio and print – mulled around, we were checking out the facilities, the cars we would be driving and the cars brought out by several local drivers, and the dedicated crew of professionals that would literally have our lives in their hands in the coming hours.
After signing in and showing our regular driver’s license (Sorry, DUI Kids, gotta have one to run), and receiving our credentials lanyard, those who chose the “drive” option were issued driver’s racing suits (COOL!), told to remove our shoes (Oh no, not the TSA!) so we could step into our uniforms and replace our shoes, and then to form a single line to have our photos taken with the official NRE stock car (WAY, WAY, WAY COOL!).
And then I noticed something on the track, up in turns 3 and 4, that was slowly moving around …
Buzzards. 6 or 7 of them.
I quickly reasoned that – upon seeing all that media congregated in one place – well, naturally they would experience compelling feelings of bonding.
Or perhaps they simply noticed an unfortunate lizard who chose an inopportune time to cross the track during the previous practice session.
At any rate, we were then instructed to gather in the infield garage that houses the big-screen TV and seating for the instructional and safety video one must watch before they will even think about letting you get behind the wheel of a honest-to-peanuts racing stock car with a throaty, 750-horsepower racing V-8 engine.
Giving us the finer points of the “do’s and don’ts” out on the track was Steve Zacharius, Operations Manager for NRE (and one of those truly congenial and dedicated folks we should all aspire to be), who explained that this was the first 1/2-mile track for the operation (NRE also hosts schools at 12 other tracks, including Charlotte, Texas, Michigan, Las Vegas and California), so there were some differences from the video we were about to watch on safety and “how to” stuff. The very professionally-produced video was narrated by former NASCAR Crew Chief Larry McReynolds (who worked with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and now as TV racing analyst for Fox & TNT televised races) and featured many other crew chiefs and NASCAR luminaries, including Robin Pemberton, current V.P. of Competition for NASCAR.
We learned, among many other things: how to get belted into our seats (tight is right); how to click-on our in-helmet microphones via a switch on the steering wheel to activate our just-like-the-big-boys Racing Electronics 2-way radios (a must – if you don’t hear anything you can’t go out); what our RPMs should be for changing gears; how to leave the pits (NO burnouts – pretty sure you would be less than politely asked to leave the premises if you try this); how to enter the turns (Stay off the rumble strips, since they will effectively cause you to crash and that will most definitely negatively affect your lap time); when to roll off the throttle while in the turns (Simple physics should tell one that, but hey, there’s always that spayshul “LOOKIE ME, VERN!” guy out there); and how to enter the pits and avoid putting a 3,400-lb. stock car against a 170 lb. man at speed.
At the very end, Steve gave the most salient, pertinent advice heard all day: “Go fast, turn left, and don’t hit anything!”
Hey, works for me.
Steve then introduced Bob Lutz to the group, and Bob gave us all a warm welcome, and went over the all of the key points on the new ownership group and their current renovation of the track. (See my Cover story in Coast Magazine at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com on May 3).
He also related how the confluence of meeting future track partner, Ray Watts, actually only came about via the happenchance orchestration by his old S.C. friend, André Bauer (former Lt. Gov. of S.C. and current S.C. 7th Congressional District candidate).
Bauer is also a partner.
So we shuffled out to the pit wall, where they began calling out the names of those who were driving; they also began fitting “riders” with helmets at a faster pace for obvious reasons.
First name called was local TV legend, Cecil Chandler. He got the #24 Jeff Gordon car. There was some issue that he encountered, though, ‘cause he turned one lap and was in the pits and done. Not sure who the second person was.
Third name called was mine.
The choreography of the experienced NRE crew swept over me, giving me my fresh pack of ear buds for the radio and taping them tightly in my ears; putting the sanitary helmet-liner on my head (sorta like a glorified fabric softener sheet) to cut down on helmet funk; then I was fitted with the properly sized helmet and a foam neck collar.
And then I was led by two track assistants to my car, one of six in their fleet, #68, my new lucky number.
The next part was easy, as I have been watching the “thru the window” entry procedure since I was 4 years old (but I did confide that if my left knee, held together with super glue and rubber bands, gave way when I went to push off, that I just wanted someone to catch me in the event I wiped out – to avoid the humiliation of busting my tail in attempting to enter the car). But I managed to scoot thru, right leg first and then the big move with my left, and got situated in the very snug seat.
Belts tightened, Mic cable secured, sound check with the radio, steering wheel locked on, belts tightened again, and a good luck tap on the helmet. Once you’re strapped in, you get the full effect of how limited your movement is, and how dependent you are on the wider-than-your-personal-car mirror and your spotter.
My “assistant” reached in and flipped the toggle switch marked “Ignition” and oh, sweet Jesus!, all those horses sprang to life and my heart rate raced, rising and falling right along with the tachometer. I tapped the gas, lightly, as instructed, and had that first real burst of adrenaline when that “braaaapp” reached a crescendo ….
And then they reached in and switched if off.
Well, there I sat, for about 8 or 9 minutes (which seemed like thirty) while some minor delay with another car/driver was dealt with. So, in the now-searing Carolina sunshine, I gained a whole new respect for the cautions in races that require those drivers to sit in their cars and just wait.
It is NOT fun, nor comfortable.
As the heat factor began to creep into my awareness, I was very thankful for having the good sense to visit the infield restroom before we took to the track. And those NASCAR boys in the Big show have to wait 3 to 5 hours?
I wondered, as I sat there, do those guys employ an apparatus similar to that of Burt Reynolds’ character in North Dallas Forty, when he was required to attend an all-day self-help class without being allowed to leave to use the restroom? ‘Cause I would have to.
And then, like an angel, my assistant reached in and flipped on the ignition again, tapped my helmet,; then my earbuds crackled to life and my “spotter” came on the radio and called out my name with an interrogative.
“OK, Brian, you ready to roll?”
Do bees bee? Do bears bear?
All kidding aside, the voice on the radio is your crew chief, your shaman, your Robert Duvall from Days of Thunder, who you can’t see but who talks you thru every lap, making you feel like you’re Tom Cruise except without the same lifts in your shoes or the same balance in your bank account.
So, my spotter told me to firmly put her in 1st gear and keep it below 1,500 RPM; let off the clutch slowly and when I reached that, shift to 2nd and go another 1,500; stay on the apron and below the rumble strip thru turns 1 and 2, shift again to 3rd; and then at 3,000 RPM, hit 4th and don’t exceed 4,000 RPM. Find my line, remember the video on traffic cone locations for entry and exit to the turns, keep it in the center of the straightways, keep it 5-feet above the rumble strips.
And after 2 “get acquainted” laps, coming off of turn 4, he said, “OK, turn her loose, run your best.”
Before he ever hit the “t” in “best,” I nailed that accelerator to the floor and damn near broke into tears when that engine went into full song for the first time. The sensation of power, speed, vibrations and sound – Lord,what a beautiful sound – flooded my senses as much as that Holley 4-bbl carburetor was flooded with Sunoco racing fuel.
But no time for notes because I was at the traffic cone for rolling off the throttle in a flash, which immediately made me appreciate the difficulty in driving a short track. I had just barely really opened her up when I had to lift, and the engine “brapped” in disapproval as I intently listened to my spotter.
“Stay low, stay low, stay 5 feet off that strip … nice, nice, keep her low …” and as I passed the next cone, “Alright, back to 4,000 RPM!” which he really didn’t need to do, but I appreciated every utterance from him the entire time in ways only someone who has experienced this can understand.
“OK, coming up on the turn, back off, let her roll, stay low, stay low, keep it 5 feet from that bottom … GO! GO! GO!”
Each lap, I gained more confidence with the feel of the car and knowing my limitations but wanting so much to just go for it …
And before I knew it, my time had run and, after hitting the backstretch, my spotter came on with “OK, roll off, slow down, take her low and find the entrance to pit road … Good job!” and I put her in neutral, as instructed, and slowly brought her to where the crew had waved me and finally, to a stop.
The adrenaline rush stayed with me for hours, well into the night.
As I walked to my car afterwards, I knew how much my dad, who died in August of 2004, would have enjoyed my joy, and I found myself fighting the tears, overcome with missing my father in my joy.
At that moment, sunshine broke through the then-overcast day right on me, and instead of tears, I smiled.
Because I know, he knew.
Humble and grateful thanks to Bob Lutz, Patrick Wood, and everyone at Myrtle Beach Speedway and NASCAR Racing Experience.
You can have this exact, same experience for $199.00 for the “Driver’s Special” at NASCAR Racing Experience at the Myrtle Beach Speedway; or you can ride (5′, 100 lb. minimum size) with a professional driver and still get the total sensory thrill for $69. For reservations or gift cards, Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., call 1-877-RACE-LAP (722-3527), or peruse the website http://www.nascarracingexperience.com anytime at your leisure and convenience.
This column will also appear at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com under “Along The Watchtower” in the May 3, 2012 postings.