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Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Ride Along - Richard Petty Driving Experience

Me and my driver!
Can you believe the 2013 NASCAR racing season is only a couple weeks away?

I’m looking forward to watching the Daytona 500 and was thinking of a ride-along I got at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in the early 2000’s.
At the time I had a 1999 Corvette C5 and drove down to Vegas for a few days on a mini-vacation. It was in March and the weather was getting to be ideal in Las Vegas. I had been reading about the “Richard Petty Driving Experience” being put on at various race tracks throughout the country and one of the tracks was at the Vegas Speedway. They hold a NASCAR race every year in spring.
As stated at the Petty website: “Roll the dice in Las Vegas and feel the adrenaline rush behind the wheel of a 600 HP NASCAR race car. The nightlife on the Las Vegas Strip may be legendary, but when the sun is up the action is always at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s top attraction, Richard Petty Driving Experience. There is no better way to complete your trip to Las Vegas than to challenge your friends and family on the track at speeds of up to 155 MPH.”
They offer various packages, depending on your budget and appetite for adventure. Various options include a three lap ride along with a professional driver or “drive it yourself” deals. You can go through a class and drive a car for eight laps starting at $500 all the way up to 50 laps for about $2700! You actually drive a car similar to the ones they use in the Nationwide Series (about 600 HP), not the more powerful Sprint Cup cars. If you do the eight lap “drive it yourself” package, they do not just turn you loose on the track and run ‘till you crash. You have to follow behind a real race driver who will get you up to some serious speed but he will not let you run wild out there.You can understand that for $500, they don’t want you crashing their car!
Before we made the trip down there, I did a lot of research, at first thinking seriously that I wanted to drive one of these cars. After considering all the options, I figured that if I really wanted to witness the power of these cars and really get a feel of what it’s like going all out in a real race car, the ride along would be the best option. I would have liked to do both, but it was too pricey for me. Back then you could do the ride along for about $100, it’s more like $175 now.
So after deciding what I wanted, we drove out to the speedway the next morning. It was a clear, cool day with the temperature only in the 50’s, but perfect for being inside a race car! We got to watch for a while as the customers who were paying to drive were going through their training class and getting fitted with race suits.They would take them out in small groups of 4 or 5 at a time. In between,the professional drivers would take the ride along customers out. The cars had a passenger seat in them with full restraints, same as the driver. Ride alongs were not required to wear a racing suit, but they did furnish you with a helmet. The ride would consist of three “hot laps” with two professional drivers, each with a passenger, going full speed and “racing” together. Of course, they would not do anything stupid trying to beat each other but they did really did duel.

I began to worry about how dumb I would look trying to climb into the car, as there were no doors on it and you had to go in through the window. Actually, it wasn't bad, as I was able to get a firm grip on the roll bar to help boost myself in.

As soon as we (me and the passenger in the other car) were buckled in, a photographer came over and took photos, which we had the option of purchasing after the ride. After he jumped back over the wall, my driver asked “are you ready for some serious speed?” As the signal was given to go I replied “I sure am!”. We followed the other car out of the pit and my driver floored the throttle in first gear. I couldn't believe the push back in the seat I felt as the car surged ahead. It seemed like a long time before he shifted into second gear as the motor must have a redline on the tach in the 10,000 RPM range (I couldn't see the tach)! As he hit second gear and then third through the first corner and into the second, fourth as we came around onto the back straight, we seemed to be flying with the same push back in the seat, but we were still not up to full speed. On the straight we were up alongside the other car and probably doing better than 160 MPH as corner three was coming up. As we got closer and closer, every instinct in my body was telling me we were going way too fast and would never make it through the corner! I must have had a death grip on whatever I could hang on to. However, I had failed to take into account the severe 20 degree banking on the track that allows the cars to corner at much higher speeds! Once into the corner, and realizing that we weren't going to crash, I was amazed as I could feel the car in a gentle 4 wheel drift as my driver used the throttle to control the car. It was almost as if you were sliding around a corner in snow, using the throttle and steering to control your drift. Only, we were going 150 something miles per hour! And we were racing right alongside the other guy! So for three laps we were dicing back and forth and it was one of the most thrilling things I have ever experienced! I tell you what, after getting done and leaving the track, my Corvette felt kind of slow!
Bottom line, I would recommend a ride along to anyone who is a NASCAR fan. While watching NASCAR on TV now, I still remember the feeling of going through those corners on the track. It’s something you will never forget! A friend of mine actually did the “drive it yourself” 8 lap deal a couple years ago and had a blast also. You can do whatever suits you, some day I would like to go back and do the driving. The Richard Petty Experience is at selected tracks around the country, you can take a look at the link below!

Update April 5, 2015: I go back to Vegas to drive, see it at this link.



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