Speed bracer 

For about $350 you can buy an illusion of invincibility. It isn't racing. But it's close. It is surprisingly difficult, when throwing a car into a turn at 120 miles per hour, to see what the hell you're doing. Oh, you can see the car ahead of you well enough, and you can see asphalt disappearing beneath your hood. But mostly you're going on feel. You feel the vibrations of the engine and the road through the steering wheel. You feel yourself being pulled toward the wall, even though the car is not. That old Driver's Ed thing where you're supposed to scan your instruments and check the mirror every 20 seconds or so -- that's completely out of the question. Because, see, you're going 120 miles per hour ... into a turn! That old Driver's Ed thing about not driving 120 miles per hour into a turn? Forget that, too. This is the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway. The special thing about this is that the car would like to go into this curve at 150 miles per hour. That means you're going to feel vaguely unfulfilled, as if you scored the touchdown but only after the other team had brought in its third string. You'll feel mortal. Even humble. And you're going to want to keep going. For about $350 to drive eight laps, you might hope for more, and the folks who spend the money mostly do. The Experience allows anyone over 18 with a driver's license to drive a genuine tube-framed, Hurst-shifted, 600-horsepower stock car, which in itself is pretty amazing. But to truly "BE PETTY," as the 1-800 number promises, one would have to be allowed to pass. To bump. To race. To race. This would, of course, be insane. To allow your average redneck to race a 200-mile-per-hour car on a mile oval would be to invite the most expensive demolition derby since that rental truck blew up in the parking garage of the World Trade Center. So the Petty people do their best to make the experience as wild a ride as possible, within a very narrow corridor. Their efforts are a monument to modern tourism and to the American spirit of thrill-seeking without danger. The Richard Petty Driving Experience stands for the illusion of invincibility and limitlessness that animates the American psyche. And it all hinges on the smell of Unocal 110 octane racing fuel. Opened at Disney in February, the Experience has coaxed some 13,000 people so far to part with sums of money up to $1,165, the price-plus-tax for the "Experience of a Lifetime" -- 30 laps in three 10-lap intervals. The reason for intervals is twofold, says Toren Peterson, general manager of the attraction. One, it gives instructors a chance to critique and sharpen the driving of the rookies. Two, he says, "People who have never done this before, you bring 'em back into the pits `and` you have to tell 'em their name, pry their fingers off the wheel." Disney's is one of five tracks where the Petty people let you do the driving. And just last month they finally opened up shop at Daytona International Speedway, although the steep turns contribute to make Daytona safe only for a passenger to spend $100 to ride alongside a trained driver. (The same costs $10 less at Disney, where the track is much smaller and the history much less fabled.) Yet cost hardly deters business. That's because Experience aficionados pay not merely to go fast, but to feel uncomfortable going fast. The key is the motor -- the motor with a cam shaft so mountainous that it won't even idle below 1,600 RPM. Now, a stock car idling sounds like a bassoon full of bolts clamped in an industrial paint shaker. Like mama's lullaby. But the high idle speed makes it supremely difficult to start out from a parking space. As you pull onto the track from pit road, the coach advises you to "feather the clutch." You let the heavy pedal up slowly and peel out, feeling the motor balk as the oil pressure light flashes. Then you give it some gas and jerk forward wildly, peeling more rubber from tires as wide as twin beds. Even in first gear at 2,200 RPM, the car seems to be going too fast, and it won't slow down. But so choppy is the cam in these engines that until you get to around 3,000 RPM the car surges -- almost bucks -- trying to go faster. This feel of barely-controlled power is the beginning of the thrill. Because this is not a normal car, and because the person willing to spend $350 to drive it for five minutes is not a normal driver, the Petty people must instruct all students in safe operation and track etiquette. It boils down to this: pay attention and stay in fourth gear. "What will happen if we try to pass?" asks a student I'll call Pete. Bad things. (The deepest irony about the Richard Petty Driving Experience is this: If you actually try to drive like Petty, they throw you out.) "What happens if we get a flat?" Pete asks. "You fix it." "You fix it." The man giving the answer is Brad, who is driving the minivan that carries eight of us around the track. As Pete persists, making an effort not to let five seconds pass without another query, Brad apologizes to my companion and me. "Hey," I demur, "people get excited." The outing had begun with a short initiation class in a double-wide trailer. Soon you're fitted with a red, white and blue "Petty" union suit and you sign away your right to litigate in the event of a bad outcome. Then you are assigned an instructor and you hit the track. Now, in the van, Brad slowly drives through each turn and points out the "line" we must follow, marked with white paint on the tarmac. On the right as you go into the turn is an orange cone, which means, "decelerate." At the end of the turn, on the left shoulder, are two little cones: "kick it." Brad tells us to follow no closer than three car lengths, no further than five. Each round will consist of him in the lead, followed by two students in single file for eight laps. If you get out of line, the flagman points a yellow flag at you. If you get too close, Brad puts a hand up. Too far behind, and he'll slow down while encouraging you to catch up. The goal is to reach a top speed of 120 to 125 mph. "I want you to be comfortable," he says. Not that this crop of drivers -- all male, all mostly around 40, all great drivers; just ask us -- would admit to discomfort. If a lead student isn't able to stay five lengths behind the instructor, Brad explains, the procession will be stopped and the two students swapped, so that the lead student moves to the back of the line. He says this with an affable flatness, free of judgment. We hear the challenge. Pete, a construction worker from Connecticut, is put in the first pair, and after a few laps is promoted to lead driver. But as they go around he seems to be falling back, too. Then he catches up -- quickly. The flag man unfurls the checkered and the trio comes into the pits for coaching. "I got yelled at," Pete explains later with sheepish pride. "I would slow down and let him get way ahead, then speed up and catch up fast." In other words, he would see what this baby could do. That behavior cuts to the contradiction inherent in the Petty Experience. Stock car racing is racing. And men want to race, not play follow-the-leader. Insurance adjusters know this, which is why it's amazing that this activity exists at all. Imagine the conversation as Petty's business agent called the firm's insurance man with this scheme. Petty's man: "OK, here's the idea: We open a NASCAR track to fans, and — " Insurance guy: "So they can walk on it, right?" PM: "No, they'll drive cars, but — " IG: "Not their cars. You'll have pickup parts strewn from end to — " PM: "You're way ahead of me. No, not their cars. Ours. We're gonna let 'em drive — " IG: CLICK IG: CLICK Barry Graham, an Australian stock car champion and Petty's business partner, says the conversation did go something like that. "I went to Lloyds of London; they wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole," he remembers. Still, at the time, he wanted only to conduct a search for drivers. He was looking for green talent to staff a racing circuit Down Under, because the cost for the American racing stars to ship their cars and crew over there was outrageous. But even then the early cost to try out was $2,800. "Between 1989 and 1991 we did this search," Graham says. "Hundreds of people called and said, 'just let me drive this thing.' So in 1992 it became the Driver Experience. The early premiums were extremely astronomical. Now that we've established a track record, it's gone down quite a bit." Statistically, the Petty Experience is less dangerous than the drive on I-4 into the park. But it is only as safe as the psyche of your fellow travelers. Graham says there have been very few spin-outs, mostly owing to flat tires, and no injuries. According to spokeswoman Karla Mathis, only one student has crashed, and he was an especially "uncooperative" guest. After he hit the wall he was sent, uninjured, on his way -- with a full refund. This, despite wrecking a $75,000 race car. What is surprising is how few of him there have been. By its nature this ride attracts the kind of person looking to prove his mettle. When at last my turn comes, I am paired with a European gentleman named Eduardo and we climb into almost identical seven-eighths-sized Monte Carlos. I snap on my steering wheel and, after I press in the clutch, a crew member shoves a thick cushion behind my back to move me up in the seat. He straps me in the complicated harness, snaps in the webbing and flicks the toggle to start my engine. The starter man asks if we have ever raced before. Eduardo says yes, so he is elected to lead. I stumble off the starting line behind him. But within two laps it is apparent that Eduardo, whatever his previous racing experience, is uncomfortable. We pull in and switch. Three-to-five car lengths seems awfully close to me. On the highway I allow seven to 10 lengths, and generally drive like a geriatric nun who has misplaced her specs. I struggle for two or three laps to judge the distance, and feel the motor begin to smooth as we top 100 miles per hour. Then we're flagged in again. The pit man signals me to kill my engine. Did I do something wrong? I hear him demand of Eduardo: "Did you downshift?" As an experienced racer, Eduardo went searching for more torque through Turn Three. It's not a totally outlandish thing to do. So far we've just made it to the ragged lower edge of the car's power curve. But Brad was adamant that we stay in fourth. Eduardo gets yelled at. Then we're off again. With Brad in front we take a low line through the turns, giving maximum run-off room. Diving into each turn as we do increases the G-forces and makes the car feel harder to handle. I strain to follow at three-to-five lengths. I see Brad's hand shoot up: back off. A few laps more and we're flagged in. I hadn't looked down at the moon-faced tach during the whole trip. The turns came too fast, and I kept clipping them early in an effort to keep away from the wall. But the Petty people have been testing a computerized lap timing system, which spits out a top speed. Mine reads 123.2 miles per hour. Dan, my companion, managed a respectable 117, but wants to come back. He asked about a frequent driver discount; such a program is on the drawing board. He was tense behind the wheel; the power unnerved him. He thinks a few more eight-lap trials will acclimate him to the vehicle, and then he'll be able to ... What? What? The Richard Petty Driving Experience has no connection to NASCAR. Driving these cars is not the route to a racing license. Anyway, at best you're only doing pace car speeds. Whatever the facts, he will be able to brag that he can drive those things. Has driven one. On the track. He has the pictures to prove it. Actually, so do I. Jimmy Moore of Lake County took a drive for his 32nd birthday, courtesy of his wife. "There's nothing else like it," he beams. "If you watch racing even any little bit, it's worth it to find out what these guys go through, week in and week out." His wife didn't drive. For her birthday, she wants to sky-dive. In terms of adrenaline pumped per dollar spent, I recommend that over this. The Petty Experience is an amusement park ride for Daytona dilettantes, much sound and fury signifying nothing. Yet the speed, the G-forces and fumes, are as intoxicating as a belly dancer in a Riyadh speakeasy. Pete buys two more drives this afternoon, 24 laps and over $1,000. "Money is for spending," he says. After his first brush with authority, he calms down mightily and follows his instructor to 125 miles per hour. And he never stops smiling.

More by Ericson, Edward Jr.


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