So, do you think that you can drive a race car?
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the News & Press’ 2016 Southern 500 section.
By Hunter Thomas
Special to the News & Press
I have people all the time tell me that driving a race car can’t be that difficult. After all, some folks travel to work driving 80-plus mph down the interstate. Well, I’m here to share my first-hand experience at driving a race car, and it certainly was not an easy task.
Ever since I was a little boy pushing my diecast cars across the living room floor, I’ve always wanted to actually get behind the wheel of a race car, and on March 25, 2016, my good friend Toby Milligan let me take his Charger car for a spin around Florence Motor Speedway.
Now, as a fan who has been watching NASCAR since the early 1990s and as a journalist who has been working in the media centers since 2010, I knew that this was an incredible opportunity that had to be treated with the utmost respect.
It all started with a Facebook post with me jokingly saying that I could outrun everyone at the local short tracks if someone would just give me a chance. Now, I had ridden in a retired Jeff Burton NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at Rockingham Speedway before, and I’ve bravely volunteered to be a passenger in Steve Arpin’s Red Bull Global Rallycross car, so I’ve been formally introduced to real speed.
Well, that Facebook post was quickly answered by Toby, saying that whenever I wanted to clock a few laps around the track and strike the experience off of my bucket list to let him know. I didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer, but I wanted to do it safely and right.
Following a day at work, I stopped by his race shop located not too far away from Florence Motor Speedway, and I sat down in the car, just to get familiar with it. I’m a little claustrophobic, so I just sat there for a little while trying to memorize where everything was, whether it’d be shifting without looking or where all of the switches were. Like I said, I’ve sat inside a couple of race cars before but never with the intentions of driving one. I immediately noticed that I could see the top of the hood and that was about it. I could just barely see over the steering wheel.
A few days later, I visited the shop once again, and this time, I put on the helmet, HANS and firesuit. I climbed into the car and strapped in. Goodness, the experience immediately switched gears. With the helmet and HANS, I could see and move even less. After a while of just sitting in the car with the engine off, my claustrophobia kicked in a little, and I had to take off the HANS. He gave me a slightly different helmet, and I felt so much better.
I tested the car at Florence Motor Speedway on March 25 and that particular day at work, I had a hard time not concentrating on the car. I wanted to have fun, but I also didn’t want to crash. I can only imagine what goes through a racer’s mind the day of a race. I’m sure everything from what move they are going to make to how they are going to find speed crosses their mind.
When I got to the track, I was so focused on getting into the car that I locked my keys in my truck and was unable to install my GoPro into the car. I didn’t let it faze me. I just jumped in and strapped the belts.
One of my most proud moments of my experience is when I took off pit road without stalling the car. That may not sound like a big deal, especially to you folks, who grew up driving a manual transmission, but I grew up with an automatic transmission. The only manual transmission that I had ever played around with was the one in my dad’s Jeep and one of my friend’s old, beat up farm truck.
Once I got onto the track, I was just so amazed at how nothing else mattered. All I was focused on was hitting my marks and listening to the engine. Now, one thing that I just didn’t know to start off with was how terrible a race car sounds when you’re inside one.
It sounds like the engine is about to explode. From years of taking photos, I’ve learned to differentiate the sounds of a race car, but once inside, all I heard was this loud mechanical chaos. I thought for a little while that I was in third gear when really I was in fourth, and I kept shifting to find fourth.
Anyways, I figured it out and got settled in, hitting my marks and trying to find speed. I wasn’t the slightest bit scared. There were a few instance where I didn’t know if I was going to make the turn or not, but I stayed confident. Florence Motor Speedway doesn’t have a wall on the backstretch or through the turns, and believe it or not, I actually felt more comfortable exiting Turn 4 with the wall, because I felt that I could pick up the exit in my sight much more quickly.
As I began to clock laps, I noticed that I wasn’t getting any fresh air, and the carbon monoxide was really starting to make me feel uncomfortable. Add that dirty air to the heat of the car, and you begin to get a little sick after a good bit of laps.
Also, my head and arms began to get really tired. I eventually just had to lay my head up against the head rest, because I wasn’t wearing a HANS device to help support my neck. The one thing that really shocked me is that I could see a lot better than I thought I would be able to as far as looking straight out of the windshield. Now, keep in mind, I didn’t have anyone in front of me or behind me.
At one point, I did get a little cocky, and I gave a fellow photographer, a thumbs up as I dove into Turn 1. But, after about 35 laps or so, I called it a day. After all, I was starting to get a little faster, and I didn’t want to screw up.
My heart was beating so fast when I pushed in the clutch and pulled the car onto pit road. Even though I didn’t quite hit 100 mph, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. It really put all of my writings into perspective. I was definitely a little sore the following day.
So, you think you can successfully drive a race car? I hope that when you finally get the chance, you don’t make any bonehead moves and treat the experience with respect.
Although it looks easy and you may have reached triple digits driving down a back road, everything changes when you put all of that gear on and strap into a boiling hot hunk of steel. It’s certainly not going to be your average Sunday drive. There’s no air conditioning or your favorite song blaring. It’s just you, God, the race car and physics.
Now that I’ve gotten a little track time, hopefully the next time I get back behind the wheel I’ll be able to go a little bit faster. After this experience, I certainly have more respect for the drivers, even those on the grassroots level. I knew heading into the experience that it was going to certainly be more challenging than wheeling my F-150 around the highway, but I just didn’t know how challenging.