A hard lesson in Sprint Cup driving

BY foxsports • October 5, 2011

Peering through a windshield no bigger than a crawl space while pinned into what feels like a baby seat, the world appears to flash by from behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car.

Viewed trackside, it looks more like rush-hour traffic putzing along Interstate 10.

Then you realize you were the slowest of your group and that it was probably closer to the speed of a horse-drawn carriage than Jimmie Johnson.

Sadly, that's what happened during a recent eight-lap run with the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Phoenix International Raceway.

Given a chance to test out the new surface at PIR's 1-mile oval, I failed. Miserably.

I've topped 115 mph on the open highway, plowed through blizzards with one-foot drifts, whipped through roundabouts in Paris with ease.

Get behind the wheel of Sprint Cup car, one of the most powerful cars in the world, one that some might give up an organ for a chance to drive, and I putter around like one of those brake-heavy snowbirds who travel down from the north to fill Arizona's roads every winter.

The biggest reason: driving one of these beasts is disorienting.

It may look easy watching Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. race around in circles on TV, but nothing about being behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car is comfortable.

It starts with the fire suit.

Besides making you look drop-dead sexy, they're uncomfortable, sweat lodge hot and not exactly form fitting. Maybe I got one that was too small, but I felt like someone had hiked me up from behind and was carrying me around by the seat of my pants.

After that, you put on a moon-sized helmet that tests your neck strength, then get strapped into the HANS device, which gives you sort of a Star Wars look, not to mention making it hard to turn your head. The full-body turn to look at someone becomes a must.

Any racing fan knows that the doors don't open on Sprint Cup cars, but they may not know that climbing through that window with a giant bulb on your head feels like that time you locked your keys in the house and got stuck in the dog door.

The driver's compartment looks as if someone randomly welded a bunch of metal together and has the claustrophobic feel of a being shoved into a foot locker. It feels even tighter when they attach the steering wheel, which, in itself, takes a little getting used to - as in, is that thing going to stay attached?

The windshield is smaller than you'd expect and the rearview mirror is distorted, like something you'd imagine Benjamin Franklin used while shaving.

The waiver form didn't help, either. Filled with legalese and about 50 places to initial and sign, it's much easier to just scribble your signature quickly across the pages without reading the fine print.

You're driving a race car, so pretty much figure it says ''You may get maimed or killed and we're not responsible.''

Once you get going, the concentration level gets ratcheted up exponentially.

There's no fiddling with the radio or texting while driving one of these. From the moment you hear the roar of the engine and feel that 600-horsepower machine vibrating underneath you, you're locked in, the rest of the outside world blacked out.

As they said in the safety and instruction meeting before the session, the key to driving in the Richard Petty Driving Experience is all about three things: distance - three car lengths - driving line and speed.

For me, it was fail, fail, fail.

The lead cars have a green light on the right telling you when to speed up and a yellow on the left when you get too close.

My problem was getting past the feeling that the car was going to slide off the track.

Conventional wisdom tells you to slow down on corners, but with a Sprint Cup car, you want to accelerate about halfway through the turn to build speed for the straightaway. PIR also isn't a perfect oval and the slight dogleg - with a slight dip - requires a little more thought than just racing out of the turn into a straightaway.

So while the lead car was accelerating through the dogleg, I was still geared back on the throttle, in cornering mode as that green light kept flashing: ''Keep up, idiot!''

Line? I was below the lead driver pretty much the whole way, in a don't-slide-into-the-wall frame of mind, particularly when he rode up tight to the wall on the straightaways.

After about six laps that felt like 20, I started to get the hang of it and stayed with the lead driver, on a decent line while building some speed in the straightaway.

I felt pretty good after squeezing through a worm hole to get out of the car, the exhilaration washing over me as I talked about the ride with other members of the group.

The ecstasy ended when we got our final reports.

While most of the people in the group were bragging about top speeds of over 100 mph - former Arizona Cardinals linebacker Andre Wadsworth, despite barely being able to get into the car, had the top time at 104 - I looked into my packet and saw a wimpy little number: 93.

Now, 93 mph is still pretty fast in the grand scheme of things, but it wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I signed up to drive a Sprint Cup car. It was worse when I looked at my average speed of 77 mph and realized it was less than my average speed on drives to Tucson for University of Arizona games.

When I they handed out certificates for completing the course, I couldn't help thinking my name should have been spelled L-A-M-E.

I still couldn't shake it as we walked to our real cars. After one of the group lamented how he had just missed hitting 100 mph, I tried to put up a cool front, saying I hadn't even looked at mine as the sad truth flapped in my hand behind cover of an envelope.

Driving a Sprint Cup car is certainly an eye-opening experience, one that provides a greater appreciation for what the big boys do with those monster machines.

OK, so this is coming from the perspective of someone who drives a boxy SUV, but I can at least say it's nothing like driving on the freeway.

Even with my light-footed attempt, it was an amazing experience - and I want another shot.



Richard Petty Driving Experience: www.drivepetty.com

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