It had been at least 15 years since I’d driven a stick shift but when offered the chance to take the wheel of a NASCAR race car — provided I knew my way around a manual transmission — I signed on. Driving is like riding a bike, right? And I’m from the Motor City. We know cars in Detroit. Surely the shifting would come back to me as soon as I buckled up. Surely.
My introduction to driving a four-speed was in a used car lot after I bought my first set of wheels, a 1974 Austin Marina GT. Purple with red interior. Dad showed me the basics and left me to my own devices. I stalled mid-left turn at the first intersection, but learned to master the odd little British import and drove it for a good (well, mostly good) six or seven years. That car gifted me with great road stories — I once drove from Cincinnati to Detroit without a clutch — but never set a blistering pace. Not like our minivan, which in its early years easily handled 90+ mph on long stretches of empty interstate.
Getting in Gear
Once I commit to driving eight laps at the Walt Disney World Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) the reality and panic set in. I will be hitting a one-mile tri-oval in a 600 hp 358- cubic-inch V-8 NASCAR race car at speeds, they claim, of up to 120 mph.
Is this a responsible activity for a mother of two teens? How many civilians lose control of the vehicles? Hit the wall? Rollover? Will the Petty-issued jumpsuits fit over my mom jeans? Am I nimble enough to climb through the window of the door-less car and maneuver into the bucket seat?
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’ve graduated from Epcot’s Test Track simulation car ride.
- There are no troopers or risk of a ticket, fine or points for excess speed.
- Good for: those who can’t wit until their next life to fulfill a dream of becoming a race car driver.
Starting Our Engines
The May day comes when our group of 20 travel journalists arrives at the Walt Disney World Speedway, one of 23 U.S. tracks that offer the RPDE. Several folks choose the Ride-Along option and let a professional driver take them three laps around the track. Most of us want to feed our need for speed at our own pace.
We show our valid drivers licenses and prove we are at least 18. We sign documents that acknowledge we could be “seriously injured or even killed” and promise that we are not drunk and will not sue. We laugh nervously. Hearts pound. Stomachs churn. We pull the blue and beige jumpsuits on over our street clothes.
Our orientation includes a video appearance by NASCAR great, The King himself, Richard Petty. Then the Crew Chief tells us about acceleration and deceleration points and that we should stay within three car lengths of our instructor, who will lead us around the track. We head out to the heat and noise and smell of rubber and gather around a sticker-plastered race car to learn about the safety harness, lights, gauges and, unsettlingly, the fire extinguishers — not that there’s much need for them, we’re told. As we circle the track in a van to get oriented our driver advises, “Go fast and have a lot of fun.”
Putting Pedal to the Metal
I watch and hoot and holler as my associates take their turns behind the wheel. Did I mention the noise? Finally, I pull on my helmet and head to the car behind my instructor, Shawn Cannon.
Before I can decide whether that’s his real name, he’s off like a cannonball and I’m hitting the clutch and gas and grind ROAR putting it into first and grind ROAR shifting into second and grind ROAR third ROAR and lurching out of pit lane, chugging onto the oval then ROAR slamming into fourth and I’m on my way. At least I don’t stall.
It takes a couple of laps for me to realize I’m driving a race car! I feel the rhythm. I accelerate after Shawn. I gain confidence. Step on it. Love the speed. I’m flying. Got to be 130, 135 mph, easy. I hit my stride and — checker flag! It’s over. I’ve done my eight laps. I roll into pit row, climb triumphantly out of the car and high-five my fellow drivers.
At the end of the day we gather to receive a certificate and individual lap-time sheet that shows our average mph and top speed. My imagined 135 mph? Not even close, though on my last lap I hit 121 mph. Fastest in all the group, and a mile faster than the advertised top speed. Not bad for a minivan mom.
Accommodating a Back Seat — that is — Right Seat Driver
Perhaps, with a professional driver at my side, I could top my personal best. That’s the spin the Richard Petty Driving Experience is putting on the new arrangement. A Right Seat Driver, a pro, now fills the passenger seat next to the novice driver. Wearing helmets with a built-in communication system the pro can offer the novice driving tips and, if necessary, respond to the driver’s screams for help.
- Walt Disney World Speedway is one of 23 tracks that offer the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Prices, experiences and schedules vary.
- You must be 18 to drive a car; youths ages 6-13 who are at least 48 inches tall can experience the Junior Ride-Alongs at Walt Disney World Speedway.
- If it’s been a while since you’ve driven a manual transmission brush up on your skills before heading to the track.
- If you want to experience the thrill are not confident about driving, opt for the Ride-Along.
- Walt Disney World Resort info: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/, 407-824-2222.