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.”
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.
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.
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)