“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Talladega Thunder

Six hundred screaming horsepower are blasting my NASCAR Sprint Cup car down the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway and the banked turn is looming through the windshield. I want desperately to lift off of the accelerator and stab the brakes but I remember my driving instructor’s last words to me: “Keep the gas pedal down, even through the turns.”

It sounded easy when I was sitting through my orientation session for the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure but it’s not so easy when all you can see rushing toward you is what looks like a near-vertical bank of asphalt backed up by a very hard concrete wall. I force my foot to stay planted on the gas and my forearms tighten to a death grip on the thick steering wheel. No time to think now, my Ford Taurus tilts crazily as it bends into the turn and suddenly the sky is blue out my right window and the green grass infield is out my left—and I’m still on four wheels. The steep 33-degree banking has crazily tilted my Sprint Cup car nearly on its side—all this while I am hauling around the track at over 170 miles per hour.

Is this how Dale Jarrett does it? Must be, because his experience, the Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure, has tutored me on the proper line through the turns, the need to keep my foot planted on the gas pedal, and the no-wimps-allowed control required to guide this 3600-pound beast around the notorious banked tri-oval. The Adventure has been giving speed-starved Tony Stewart wannabe’s like me this on-track adrenaline rush for over six years and has expanded its program to include nine tracks around the country, with Talladega being the jewel of the nine sites. This is not a school for aspiring Sprint Cup champions; it’s an opportunity for the average racing fan to get off of the couch and participate in the thrill of manhandling an ornery piece of heavy American metal around the same track that the Sprint Cup regulars jockey around on Sunday afternoons.

For a gear-head like me, this is a fantasy fulfilled. Where else can you step off the street and, after an hour of classroom instruction, pound around the banking at Talladega at over 180 miles an hour? And the only thing limiting your fun time on the track is your wallet. There are options ranging from the six-lap Superspeedway Teaser ($395) all the way up to the 60-lap Championship Challenge ($3495).

I opt for a package called the Season Opener, which consists of 30 minutes or so of classroom driving instruction followed by ten laps on the track. The instruction takes place in a nondescript building in the Talladega infield. Dominating the view on all sides are the track’s monstrous banked turns. There’s only one way to describe the track: intimidating. I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

The program’s emphasis is on track time, not on spending a lot of time listening to some instructor in a classroom. Since we are all squirming in our seats, barely able to contain our excitement, our instructor keeps the orientation mercifully short, mainly explaining the hand signals (faster, slower, left, right, stop) that we will receive from the in-car instructor who will be sitting in the passenger seat. One more step before we head for our race cars—a quick familiarization run around the track in a van. Our van driver points out two parallel lines running the length of the front stretch and into the first turn. “This is the line you’ll follow,” he says, “miss it and you’ll kiss the wall.” That’s when I started thinking about the hardness of concrete.

We pull onto pit road next to a pack of vividly painted cars, looking fast and mean just sitting still. Sitting low on fat tires with exhaust pipes as big as your arm sticking out from under the doors, it’s obvious that these are the real thing. They are in fact retired Sprint Cup cars, albeit a couple of years removed from the front lines of the Cup chase.

After slipping into a driving suit and helmet, I scramble through the window of the number 88 car, the same car that Dale Jarrett drove a couple of years ago in the “No Bull” competition. The safety crew straps me into the driver’s seat and I meet my instructor, Jarrod, who is strapped into the passenger seat next to me. He gives me the thumbs up sign and I give the car some gas and let out the clutch. We lurch ahead, the engine shoving me back in the seat as we speed down pit road and into the first turn. We accelerate through the first two turns and onto the backstretch and I am assaulted with a barrage of bellowing engine noise, g-forces, and wind blasting through the open windows.

I’m not a novice at this, I once drove a NASCAR car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, at one of those follow-the-leader schools where you trail behind an instructor’s pace car, and passing and speed are tightly controlled. After my first lap at Talladega, the difference in that experience and this one is apparent. Instead of doggedly following an instructor-driven car around the track, I am able to go where I want, as fast as I want. At lap three I see one of my fellow drivers ahead. I blow by him like he’s standing still. Take that Earnhardt! I try drafting, passing, and side-by-side racing with the other drivers. My in-car instructor basically turns me loose to let her rip.

I’m having a blast—this is way more fun than any other driving experience. And then I see the flag man up in the starter box giving me the two fingers sign –“Two laps to go!” About five more miles to see how fast I can go. So I keep my foot to the floor all the way around the track, even through the turns. I feel my lap speeds picking up and the G-forces are tugging at me through the turns. The wall blurs by my right window and the bellow of 600 horses rings in my ears. We’re flying, the car bouncing around as even the slightest bump sends me sideways a few feet.

All too soon I see the checkered flag, my track time is up. I do a cool down on the backstretch and pull into the pits. I climb out the window and hit the ground on wobbly legs. I am told that my top speed was 181 miles per hour—faster than I’ve ever gone earthbound. I have only one regret--I didn’t have an extra $3495 lying around to do the 60 lap package.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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