The impact was a shock as the 1600kg Nascar slammed hard into the barrier. It sounded like you’d expect nearly two tons of metal sounds as it’s catapulted into a concrete wall at speed.
Then the car was slewing sideways across the track, out of control, wheels askew, panels crumpled and a trail of smoke and spilled fluids in its wake. It came to a smouldering halt on the infield grass and there was suddenly total silence. Normally you never get to hear a Nascar wreck as there is an angry swarm of around 40 other 800hp race cars giving your auditory gear a comprehensive workout at the same time. But I now know that a Nascar crash is loud. Bloody!
This was my first experience driving a Nascar and it definitely wasn’t turning out how I expected.
Fortunately I wasn’t in the now somewhat compressed car. It would be my turn soon enough, but the first driver out definitely got more than he bargained for when a rear tyre exploded as he approached the start/finish line at better than 140mph (we’re talkin’ Nascar here so if you want metric, you work it out...).
Emergency response staff were on site in seconds, with the car’s occupants quickly removed from the wreck. Driver and instructor were immediately taken by ambulance to the medical facility and were eventually diagnosed with mild cases of the James Bonds – soundly shaken, but not stirred too much.
At Las Vegas Motor Speedway I was soon to suit up for my own turn behind the wheel at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
Prior to hitting the track (pun intended) we had a 20 minute briefing about the cars and driving procedure and then we suited up and went out onto the pit apron where we sweltered in 40C-plus Vegas desert heat. The crash, which was swiftly and professionally dealt with by the RPDE staff, created a delay of an hour while the debris was cleared up. At least we were distracted during the wait by the high powered comings and goings from Nellis Air Force Base right next door to the race track.
Packs of fighters spewed thunder overhead in an awesome display of American military might.
And then, suddenly, it was my turn to take to the banking in one of three cars waiting on pit road.
Climbing into the driver’s seat felt a little like attempting to squeeze into a washing machine, with a few steel tubes in the way. We did it Nascar-style, of course, so it was legs first through the window, followed by what was left.
Eventually most of me was shoehorned inside the car and with a final push on my helmet I was in. The Hans head restraint was secured, the belts were tightened and the window netting was clipped in place. The steering wheel seemed a little high and close, but otherwise it felt normal. Sort of.
A bloke named Ryan introduced himself. He was seated to my right and spoke to me through my helmet intercom.
Ryan: “Ready to go?”
Me: “Uhhhh …” Ryan: “Okay, that’s the start button. Push it.”
Me: “Uhhhh …” Ryan: “Now ease the clutch out … No, ease the clclutch out and feed in some throttle …”
Ryan: “Actually, look, it’s obvious you’re the next Marcos Ambrose. No need to even leave the pits. There’s a driver contract with Richard Petty Racing ready for you to sign in the garage…” I might have made that last bit up, but I was now at least ready to put the theory into practice.
We had earlier been told that there were ‘gates’ painted on the track at various critical points and we were to aim for them as we made our way around the speedway. There were also cones to indicate when to ‘stand on it’ and when to ‘get off the gas’. Once we were in fourth gear there would be no need for brakes. Hopefully.
Given that the school’s cars are ‘virtual’ Nascars, pretty much dinky-di in most respects except we were down around 150hp and there was another guy next to the driver, potential outright speed was close to 160mph.
By way of comparison, the Sprint Cup cars that rub sponsor’s decals off each other’s bumpers each March at the Las Vegas track do so at speeds approaching the double-ton.
The world outside the car instantaneously ceased to exist as I hit the start button. The throaty, staccato bark of the V8 hinted at what lay ahead.
Eight very large pistons were now reciprocating wildly inside the 355 cu in engine in a cacophony of acoustic violence.
The clutch felt surprisingly light as I eased it out and we rumbled out of the pits and around the infield service apron.
Entering the back straight and by now in fourth gear, Ryan instructed me to move right up onto the racing line and “get on the gas”.
From here on in I was on my own -- up to a point. If Ryan felt that I was a little out of my depth, he had an electronic module at his side, which he could use to limit throttle movement to slow the car down.
The following eight laps went by far too quickly, but my over-loaded neuron network managed to
record the following impressions: Nascars are really, really loud, especially when they are around a metre away from a concrete wall and travelling at better than 150mph.
They also accelerate fairly impressively given their weight.
Once you get used to the steering it’s fairly effortless. Through the banking it’s pretty neutral and on the straights you just need to apply a little right hand down to counter the oval track steering bias.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account actual race conditions in which your tyres might be in shreds and with your car feeling like its running on marshmallows soaked in 30W. It brings to mind the lurid slides and constant steering adjustments that full-time Sprint Cup drivers have to endure each and every time they take to the banking.
The transition from the near-horizontal of the straights to the 20-degree banked turns is pretty smooth – if you don’t have several other cars nudging your behind, that is. The world view is changed as the banking fills the windscreen for a second or two. It certainly provides another dimension in terms of sensation as you encounter noticeable G forces in the turns.
On the back straight and tri-oval you get an invigorating sense of speed as the wall is close enough for the instructor, at least, to reach out and touch.
But most importantly, Nascars – or at least the somewhat tamed versions we drove – are industrial strength FUN!
In fact, I came away convinced that Aussie Marcos Ambrose simply wasn’t trying hard enough during his nine years in the world’s toughest car race series.
To any Nascar crew chiefs looking for another Wonder From Down Under to mix it with the Sprint Cup hotshots, know that I am ready and waiting by the phone.
I mean how much harder can it be when you’ve got 41 other guys out there travelling at 200mph and all willing to do absolutely whatever it takes to make sure they get across the line before you do after up to 500 miles of ferocious fender-bending mayhem ...?
“We get a lot of Aussies out here and we always have a lot of fun with them,” says head driving instructor Mark Skinner, who has been with the Richard Petty Driving Experience for nine years.
An accomplished racer himself, Mark says while the school’s cars are skinned and framed to be very similar to Sprint Cup Nascars, they are closer in performance and behaviour to the Nationwide support series machines.
“We run 355 inch Chevy Bowtie blocks with alloy heads, hi-rise manifolds and 900cfm carbs. Rear ends are nine-inch and we run Richmond 4-speeds," said Mark.
“A lot of Aussies tend to get a little too close to the wall in Turn One on their first couple of laps, so we sometimes have to bring ‘em down the track a little. But they always have fun.”
Visitors can book the three-lap Ride-A-Long Experience, which has you in the passenger seat being chauffeured around the track by one of the school’s instructors for $US109, or you can take on the banking yourself for eight laps with the Rookie Experience, with the instructor coming along for the ride. This one will set you back $US499.
All the cars are well prepared and presented and the instructors go through a thorough training program before they qualify to sit in the right seat.
For more information, go to: drivepetty.com.