Terrifyingly awesome: What it's like for a NASCAR novice to take on Daytona
A group of FOX Sports employees were having breakfast together in a Daytona Beach hotel last Friday when someone spoke up and asked a question that all of us wanted to ask but were a little too nervous to bring up.
"So, what is the driving experience thing on today's itinerary all about?"
A NASCAR official smiled and said, "You guys are going to be driving a race car around Daytona International Speedway."
Suddenly the second breakfast sandwich I had just plopped on my plate didn't seem like a good idea.
Commence butterflies and aggressive toe taps. Things just got real.
Shortly after that our group hopped in a bus and made the short trip to one of the most historic race tracks in the world. Daytona International Speedway is a place where in just days from now professional drivers will put their lives on the line with hopes of winning NASCAR's biggest race of the year - Sunday's Daytona 500 (12 p.m. ET on FOX). On this day, a couple of former NFL players and some other FOX Sports NASCAR novices would take the track head on and live to tell about the experience. Hopefully.
All I could think of upon entering the speedway were three things: 1. I don't know how to drive stick (hold the jokes, please); 2. I've never driven a car over 95 MPH; 3. I wonder if my dogs will miss me if things don't go right.
As our bus drove through the tunnel and made its way into the infield, we saw a race car traveling at a pretty good speed through Turn 1 and along the bank that leads to Turn 2. We could only really see the roof of the car because the bank is like three stories high.
Oh, and the noise that car was making? Talk about horsepower. Talk about insanely sweaty palms.
There were a lot of "oh mans" and some other words that can't be typed here said in the bus as we made our way to the center of the infield.
I instantly thought that I was in the wrong place and should quickly get off the bus and run back to my home in Los Angeles. Admission: I seriously get nervous driving down steep mountains that have slight turns (hold the jokes, please). I sure as heck wasn't ready for high banks and 160 MPH speeds.
There was no backing out, however. Sometimes in life you have to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, something dangerous.
Well, it doesn't get more dangerous than Daytona International Speedway.
Our group arrived at the Richard Petty Driving Experience office, where we were given racing suits to wear and three pages of waivers to sign. We had to initial a lot of things that seemed important but, to be honest, I wasn't really paying attention to what i was signing. I knew it probably wasn't anything good. My nerves were already through the roof. I didn't need to see words like "serious" and "injury" and "death."
We then made our way to a conference room to watch a 10-minute how-to video that would teach us everything we needed to know to conquer Daytona.
More toe tapping, more second thoughts about those breakfast sandwiches. The sound of cars flying around the track wasn't helping matters, either.
Suddenly we were out at the track. It was our time to tame Daytona. I tried to look confident. See?
But I was terrified. Like, really scared. See?
We started our adventure with a ride along. Meaning we got to sit in the passenger seat while some guy who does this all day for a living drives.
At 6-foot-4, it's a little tough for me to fit in a race car. Somebody helped shove me in, though, and then they quickly tightened what seemed like hundreds of belts (it was probably only four belts, but I was wishing for 100) around my waist and chest. I couldn't move a muscle. I couldn't turn my head.
My heart was beating really fast. The driver probably said something nice to me like "Good morning," but I wasn't listening. I was too busy giving a death stare to the track in front of me while trying not to pee my pants.
Oh. My. Gosh.
And just like that we were off, heading down pit road at a speed that felt faster than anything I've ever gone in real life. As we made our way out of pit road and headed toward Turn 1, I noticed my driver was nonchalantly putting on his gloves while kind of steering with his legs. I wanted to yell something like "PUT YOUR GLOVES ON ALREADY!" but I couldn't find any air in my body to do so.
We proceeded to whiz around Turn 1 and head along the bank toward Turn 2. My body felt like I was going down a roller coaster. My stomach felt weird. My head felt weirder. Those breakfast sandwiches were close to getting a second shot at life.
I tried to keep an eye on the speedometer as we went around and around the track at what seemed like a crazy rate of speed. The whole time I was thinking, âHe must be going a lot faster than I will be going. This seems way too fast."
I saw the speedometer rise to 220 ... and then I realized I had been looking at the oil gauge.
I know nothing about cars.
After about eight terrifying laps we pulled back into pit row.
"How fast did we get that up to," I barely said.
"About 165," my driver said.
Great, that's the speed we're supposed to get up to, I thought.
I slowly popped out of the car and headed back to the area where the rest of my group was waiting for their chance at the ride-along. Right before I got there, though, somebody grabbed my arm and said "Andy!? Let's go, you're first to drive!"
Well, great. At least I didn't have any time to think about things.
I crammed into my car and met my instructor, Eddie, who was sitting in the passenger seat. We could talk to each other through a microphone and speakers in our helmets. I told him I was terrified. He laughed and said everything would be fine.
That's how real men handle things, I told myself.
Because I can't drive stick, Eddie put the car in fourth gear and we had a truck push us down pit row while i put my foot on the gas ... and cursed my parents for never teaching me how to drive stick. Onlookers probably had a nice laugh at a grown man needing a push down pit lane.
Eddie then told me to hit the gas even more as we pulled away from pit lane. The car was shaking, my arms were shaking ... but I hit the gas like Eddie said and, amazingly, off we went.
As we merged onto the track I tried, out of instinct, to look behind me to see if any other cars were coming my way. I forgot, however, that it was impossible for me to turn my head at all. So I merged and hoped for the best.
Nobody ran into us, so things were good, but Turn 1 was approaching and that bank I saw upon arriving at Daytona was awaiting my arrival.
I continued hitting the gas pretty hard as we went through Turn 1. The car, as I was told it would, wanted to go right, so I got pulled up toward the wall. There was no messing around at this point. This was all about survival.
Well, I survived and "flew" through Turn 2 and headed down the backstretch. Life was good.
When you're going that fast it actually feels like you're going that fast, if it makes sense. The noise of the car and the shaking of the car never lets up. It's like you're holding on for dear life while totally in control of everything, for better or worse.
We zipped through the first lap and, as we made our first pass through the finish line, I remember thinking something like "(bad word) (bad word) (bad word), I'm actually doing this!"
You can see my little yellow car cruising around in all of its glory:
However, you never really get comfortable because you keep thinking one bad move can lead to disaster ... and you want to avoid disaster because you have a loving wife and two great dogs back home that you want to see again.
Along the way Eddie would say things like, "You need to get closer to the wall," while you were thinking things like, "I need to get farther away from that wall." And then he would say things like, "Give it some more gas," while you were thinking, "I need to let up on the gas right now."
But I learned to trust Eddie and continued to power through -- even when it meant you had to head right up the bank toward the wall when it felt like your car might just go airborne.
Halfway through my eight laps we noticed a slower car up ahead of us. Eddie confidently said something like, "We're going to need to pass that car if we get the opportunity."
Um, that's the last thing I wanted to do.
Thankfully, we never caught that car. During about the sixth lap I remember thinking that I wanted to be done with this because the longer I'm out there, the better the chance is that something terrible happens.
During the seventh lap Eddie told me to let 'er rip. I pressed down on the gas as much as I could and the car felt like it was really moving. It also felt like I was soiling my racing pants.
I later learned how fast I was going on each lap. The seventh lap was my best, as I topped out at 163 MPH.
Daytona International Speedway is 2.5 miles long but at those speeds, it feels like it's about 100 yards long. As I slowly made my way back to pit row I couldn't stop thinking about how the professionals go close to 200 MPH on that track ... WITH 42 OTHER CARS AROUND THEM.
Eddie asked me what I thought of the experience. I told him it was "bonkers." He laughed and said he'd never heard it explained that way before. I was glad that I was able to finally make Eddie laugh with me, instead of at me. We shook hands and I jumped out of the car. I was alive.
It probably took me about 15 minutes to stop shaking.
Driving a race car at 163 MPH around Daytona International Speedway was easily the scariest thing I've ever done in my life.
And it was easily one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life.
Oh, and those NASCAR drivers are insane. In an amazing way.