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Saturday, April 4, 2015

I go back to drive! Richard Petty Driving Experience

Posing behind the wall with the portrait car
I did a post a couple years back about my ride-along in the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the early 2000's. I had a blast as my driver dueled back and forth with another race driver and his passenger for three laps around the 1.5 mile speedway. I've wanted to go back and try driving myself ever since, and it has been one of a couple things in my "bucket list" to do before I get too old and feeble. Now at 62 years of age, I thought I'd better get to it as my wife and I planned a week-long vacation in Vegas. I invited my buddy and his wife to fly down from Wisconsin and meet us and they said “sure”. They’re already retired, must be nice!

So a few months ago we picked a week in March and I found a 10 percent off deal on the internet for the Petty Experience. I scheduled a ride-along at 10:30AM for Mary and the 8 lap driving experience for me at 12 noon. The prices were not changed much from 12 or 13 years ago, ride-alongs a little over $100 and the 8 lap rookie driving event a little over $400.

After we got married in 2008, Mary has slowly become a Nascar (Matt Kenseth) fan over the years watching the races with me. This was a totally new experience for her at the track and she was excited. It was definitely one of the most thrilling things I have ever experienced in my life!
Mary, just before her ride-along

We arrived at the track last Tuesday at 10 AM and got Mary signed up. Things have changed up a little from when I did it. My beard was a lot darker back then!

In those days the passengers were just given a helmet and nothing else. Now, you have to get in a race suit with a helmet that is miked up with a audio/video connection. They record your entire ride with a camera on the passenger and also looking forward out the windshield. You can buy the video for an extra $50.

Instead of two cars going side by side for three laps, Mary and her driver went out alone. They only sent out one car at a time. I noticed that they used a different set of cars for the ride-alongs. The professional drivers use cars that aren't rev limited like the other set they let the rookies drive. They all have about 600 horsepower and the ride-along cars will do better than 160 MPH. I remember from my old ride-along that my driver could actually drift his car in the corners a bit pretty effortlessly. The rookie driving cars are rev limited to about 140 MPH. Mary had a blast and after getting out of the car, said she wished that they could have kept going for awhile.

My car. Almost ready to go!

Upon our arrival, they told me to be at the driver’s meeting room at 11:30 AM for my scheduled noon drive. I went in and got my paperwork taken care of and sat down to wait. Soon they fitted us with racing suits and then got us into a room where we watched some videos while they prepared the track. Our crew chief for the program came in and talked us through a video of the track, giving us information to be aware of during our drive.

After that was done we walked out to the pit area to be fitted with helmets before our turn came up. They had us on a list and would call us up to get ready as other drivers finished. The helmets were equipped with two way microphones so the instructor could talk to you while in the car. They also had the audio-video connection to record your drive, which you could purchase for another $100.

When my turn came up the crew chief escorted me over the wall to the car. I noticed climbing in through the window that the seats seemed to be even more restrictive than before. It took some effort to get my butt into the bucket and squeeze my helmeted head through the window at the same time (also due to the fact of being more than a few pounds heavier since the last time!), but once I was in it was comfortable. They attach the back of your helmet to the seat back and it is impossible to turn your head much at all. In the picture of me in the driver’s seat, that was as far as I could turn my head.

The instructor introduced himself and pictures were taken. After last minute instructions he asked if I was ready to go and I said yes. The differential is geared low for the high speeds on the track so you have to give it some throttle as you let out the clutch. I managed to get going without stalling it and the power and sound of it was thrilling as I gave it about half throttle and shifted to second gear. The instructor was talking and guiding me out the exit lane and told me when to get up onto the track. The first lap was to get the feel of the track and I steadily gave it more throttle and got up to speed. I remembered the steep banking from my ride-along so I was not surprised by it. They had a single orange cone just past the pits going into the first corner where you were instructed to lift off the throttle for a bit until you get to a second pair of orange cones were you get back on it at full throttle.

After completing the first lap my instructor told me to go ahead and crank it up. At the double cones I mashed the throttle as we were up in the banking and the car took off. I was pretty nervous the first few laps and tended to lift a bit approaching the corners, but my lap times improved by more than one second on each successive lap as I got more comfortable with the car. The car’s suspension is set up for the steep banking and it was somewhat difficult to make a smooth transition onto the back straight, as the car wants to keep turning left and you have to really fight the wheel turning it to the right. I was surprised at the force needed but as soon as the car got back into the banking it naturally wanted to turn with it and was comfortable to drive.

I knew from pre-race instruction and my own experience that you have to look far ahead down the track when you’re going that fast to stay in a good line. They did have markers painted at various points on the track to aim for. Still, I almost immediately become disoriented as to where we were on the track, and only knew that we went past the pit area when I passed the single orange cone where you lift on the throttle. You just don’t have time to look at anything except the track ahead of you. You're listening for any word the instructor says, if he doesn't say anything, the crew chief told us that is good. I was glad my guy was pretty quiet. On one corner he corrected my line by reaching over and turning the wheel slightly left, as he told me to stay a little further off the wall. There was one recurring corner where the sun was in my eyes making it difficult to see through it and was nerve wracking to me. I had my regular darkening transition lens glasses on and sure wished I would have brought my prescription sunglasses.

It was a great experience that I will always remember, some day maybe I’ll do it again. Richard Petty runs a great program, I would only suggest one thing. While they show you a video in the meeting room of the track and talk you through it, I wish they would have taken us out in a couple of vans for a couple laps to get a better feel of the layout. Other than that minor point, I had a blast and have a much better understanding of the physical effort and concentration it takes to drive one of these cars fast. I would have been totally exhausted within a short period of time, had they let me continue on. Oh, how I wish they would have let me! If you decide to try it, don't forget your sunglasses!

The Richard Petty Experience is at selected tracks around the country, you can take a look at the link below!

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