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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Around the track at 140+ MPH

This all started back in mid November last year when I happen to get a discount coupon for the Mario Andretti Racing Experience from the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA). The coupon was good for a five (5) minute drive in a NASCAR vehicle or in a IndyCar  valid at any number of race tracks in the US. I forwarded the information to my wife, who immediately asked which I would prefer. I have always wanted to drive a race car. When I had a Miata I would autocross it whenever I had the chance. Autocross was the closest I ever figured I would get to racing, though I always have wanted to get my SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) racing license. That is a little out of reach, due mainly to the vehicle requirements, but that is another story. I have also been a fan of Mario Andretti and the other racers from the past, like Andy Granatelli, Parnelli Jones, A.J Foyt and Bobby Unser. So, the decision was, IndyCar - open wheel.

Mario Andretti Racing Experience Car

This was my Christmas present. So, where should I redeem this? Which track should I go to to enjoy driving as fast as I can? I had to be in Charlotte, NC for a conference in June, the Charlotte Motor Speedway was probably the place to go. Since I had planned to stay an extra couple of days to go visit my brother Bill and his wife Sonja in Greensboro, NC, then staying one more day to participate in this event was doable.

So, after checking the schedule at the track, I registered for a 11:00 AM driving slot on Sunday, June 23. It was interesting to note that on June 21 & 22 they were doing the NASCAR Experience and they only had June 23 for the IndyCar Experience. Apparently they do not mix the cars on the track.

Concord, NC home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway was the location for this awe inspiring event. The vital statistics of the track (thanks to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Website) are: Length: 1.5 miles or 7, 920 feet, Front stretch: 1,980 feet, Back stretch: 1,500 feet, Turns 1 & 2: 2,400 feet, Turns 3 & 4: 2,040, Radius Turns 1 & 2: 685 feet, Radius Turns 3 & 4: 625 feet, Banking in corners: 24-degrees, Banking is straightaways: 5-degrees
Seating capacity: 134,000, Suites: 113. Built in 1959 by O. Bruton Smith and his business partner and NASCAR Driver Curtis Turner the track has expanded and added additional venues such as a 1/5 mile oval, a Dirt Track Oval and a Drag Strip. An auto racing fan place for sure. Much more of the track history and other details can be found here. I will note, that in all of the instruction at this event, the straight stretch on the West side or Grandstand side was referred to as the Front Straight and the one on the East side (longest) was referred to as the Back Straight.
Looking down at the Speedway. 2005 Google Earth image
From the Charlotte Motor Speedway website

What was I to expect? What should I wear? Was there anything special I needed to do before I arrived? Well, the Mario Andretti Racing Experience website answered a lot of my questions, and the others got answered through the marvelous Google search. Basically, show up an hour early, don't drink before you drive, safety is everything. OK, I was good to go.
I arrived at 9:50AM, and discovered that I could not find where I was to go. The complex is rather large and the signs I expected to see to guide me to the event were not to be found. So, I called the 800 number I had, and the nice lady that answered directed me to the tunnel at Gate 26 which is on the east side of the track (opposite side from Highway 29). I got to the gate, and after signing a waiver stating that I would not sue anyone for injuries suffered at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, we waited until 10AM to be allowed into the infield of the track.
Gate 26 Tunnel

After parking, I went to the registration area and left my Driver's License and got a Racing Suit to put on over my clothes and a pager (like a restaurant pager). This is a fire retardant suit (coveralls) that is supposed to help protect you in the unlikely event of a fire.
I was told to take pictures, as many as I wanted, walk around, and wait for the driver's meeting that would be announced.
Registration, Memorabilia, Water, Chips
So, I took pictures, walked around and talked to a few of the Race Crew and other participants. Now, at the same time many of us would be driving, many came for the ride-a-long experience. You sit behind the driver in a lengthened version of the IndyCar and ride around the track. These have the term "Ride Car" and play an important role in the Driving Experience as I will explain later.
Going down the front stretch
A little before 11AM, Bob, our Crew Chief made the announcement that the Driver's Meeting for the 11AM drivers would be starting. We all collected by the registration trailer and were guide to the Media Center, passing the Winner's Circle and the Winner's Circle Lounge on the way.

We were guided to the Briefing Room inside the Media Center. This is the same room that all the Drivers and Crew Chiefs meet in prior to the race to go over the rules and get questions answered.
Crew Chief Bob, going over the rules

Bob started out by going through the safety procedures, including how to conduct ourselves on the "hot" side of the wall in the pit area, (look toward the incoming cars all the time), that the Race Crew would guide us to the car, would strap us in, would install the steering wheel (which comes off for easy entrance and exit from the car), and describing the rules of the road. The "Ride Car" has the right of way, and will be in the top two lanes of the straight stretches. Bob also described how to navigate the corners, to stay three (3) to five (5) feet off the apron (or you will crash into the outer wall), and where to place the car in the straight stretches. We were to enter the track on the back straight stretch and could only pass in the back straight stretch. Safety was the most important factor. A big point was made that these are not go-karts. These are IndyCars that weigh 2200 pounds and are powered by a 600 horsepower engine. They will go in excess of 150 miles and hour. Bob also described how you were to interact with your Instructor/Spotter via radio. Each vehicle is equipped with a radio, with a PTT (Push-To-Talk) button on the steering wheel. You are to acknowledge every transmission from your Instructor. Since you can basically only see straight ahead when you are in the car, with maybe a 20 degree window left and right when you turn your head, the Spotter (Instructor) is a very important part of the team. The Spotter will tell you where you need to be on the track, will tell you to speed up or slow down, will tell you when you are going to be passed, when to pass and when you are clear to go like hell. Safety is the most important thing to remember.
A video was then shown that went over the things that Bob had talked about. The videos gave more information on the proper corner handling procedure and the spots to look for on the track so that you have your car properly set for the corners.
After the video, Bob went over the information again and then answered questions. We were then sent back to the registration area for a briefing by the Pit Boss and to wait for our pagers to go off. It was also suggested that we stop and use the restroom prior to driving.
Pit Boss, giving safety instructions

The briefing by the Pit Boss reiterated the safety rules in the pit area and the proper way to enter the pits after you finished your time. Now it was time to wait. Since I was one of the first to arrive, my wait time was not long - unless you happen to be on your way to the bathroom. Following their suggestions, I completed my mission, then went to the helmet stand.
Helmets of varying sizes
At the helmet stand they first gave you a set of ear buds, which after getting them sized appropriately were taped in your ears so that they would not fall out during the putting on or taking off of a helmet. Then you were provided with a sanitary/disposable helmet sock to put on, then the proper size helmet. After you got your helmet, then you waited until a car of the "proper" size was available. The vehicles are designed to fit people of varying heights. Supplemental cushions are provided to go behind your back so that you can fully depress the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals.

Car 4 was "my" car. Getting in is no easy feat for a 60 year old, with a helmet on and in a racing suit. I am not as limber as I once was. I stepped over the side onto the seat bottom (not much padding), and then slide my legs forward into the foot-well.

Driver getting into Race Car
Cockpit of an IndyCar (Steering Wheel removed)

From Mario Andretti Racing Experience website
I discovered that I could not fully depress the clutch pedal, so they added a cushion behind my back. Problem solved. The five-point harness was buckled, the steering wheel installed and checked, and the radio plugged into the helmet.
Hooking up the harness

Again to wait. It is hard to describe what it is like to sit there in that car waiting. All of the things going through your mind. Push in the clutch, once you start rolling, count to three and let the clutch out. Go easy on the gas. Acknowledge radio transmissions from the Instructor/Spotter. Drive the "dots" in the corners. Two "dots" go between them, one "dot" stay to the right, three to five feet off the apron, what have I gotten into? I look out of the car down pit row. All I can see is straight ahead. I see the front racing slicks, out in front no more than an arms length. I feel like I am sitting on the ground (actually I am three inches above it). I wait, sweating in the heat of a warm day, a racing suit and a helmet. Thank goodness the "helmet sock" was absorbing the sweat so it was not dripping into my eyes.

OK, lets talk about the weather. Late June in Charlotte. It is 87 degrees and overcast with about 70% humidity. Just as we came out of the drivers meeting it rained lightly for about 10 minutes. All of us were expecting the drives to be postponed. With luck, the rain stopped and the track was dry in minutes.

I feel the bump of the four-wheeler as the push bar comes against the back of my car. Then we are rolling.
Car 4 headed down pit lane
I have only said "hello" to my Instructor. Where is she? She is supposed to tell me what to do next. I let out the clutch and the engine roars to life. I don't even touch the gas and I must be doing 50 MPH. I follow the apron around Turns 1 & 2 until I reach the back stretch, here there is a 5 degree bank instead of the 24 degree banking on the rest of the track. My Instructor comes on the radio and tells me to give it some gas and ease onto the track. I look for my rear view mirror, oh, right, there is none. I turn my head to look for traffic, I can't see much more than straight ahead. The Instructor is telling me to give it a little more gas and to just relax and keep the car pointed in the right direction.

The first lap is done. Boy, these cars are a little difficult to steer. One-to-one steering, you turn the wheel (no power assist) and you go that direction. Lap two starts and I give it more gas, I am getting more confident, until I drift high coming out of Turn 4 and into the short front straight.
Coming out of Turn 4
My Instructor is urgently telling me to get lower on the track, to stay in the bottom two lanes, get down (remember where the "Ride Car" is supposed to be?). I acknowledge, move down to the lower lanes of the track, increase the gas and we both settle down. As I come around the track, I am passed by a faster car, who drops down in front of me, behind a slower vehicle. We proceed around the track with the Instructor telling me to stay close on the tail of the car in front and we will pass the slower car on the back stretch. As we come to the back stretch, I am not close enough to make a safe pass, so around the track for another lap with the Instructor urging me up closer and then getting very animated saying go, go , go, and go I did. Around the slow car and dropped back down to split the double dots going into turn three. I remembered something Bob, our Crew Chief, had said. "These cars are set up for this track and to turn left. They will stick on the corners at full throttle, there is no need to slow down." So, I did not. However, by the time I hit the front straight again the Instructor told me "Checkered Flag" which meant the drive was over. Continue speed until you come to the back stretch, and ease off onto the Apron. As I ease onto the Apron, I do what they have told me - check the brakes. Make sure that I know how much pressure is needed to stop the car.
Coming down Pit Lane

So, on down Pit Lane I go and bring the car to a smooth stop right on the stop line. How many laps did I drive? Did I make the 150 MPH club? Can I walk? The short answers are; I don't know, No and Yes. The Race Crew came asked how the drive was (awesome) and unbuckled the harness, helped me out of the car and back to the safe side of the Pit wall. The helmet was removed, and I was left standing among other just returning drivers going "that was freaking awesome."

I went to the covered bleacher area and removed my Racing Suit and took it back to the Registration area. I got my Driver's License back, my plaque with a picture of me in my Racing Suit, holding my helmet and an autographed picture of Mario Andretti in his race car. A certificate showing completion of the event with my speed, and my official Mario Andretti Racing Experience Driver's License. Since I did not break 150 MPH (144.70) I forgo the 150 MPH T-Shirt and get one that just says I completed the Mario Andretti Racing Experience. Then it was off the the rented Chevrolet Terrain SUV for the drive to the hotel.

So, would I do this again? In a heartbeat. One of the things I did was to add an extra three (3) minutes to my track time. I upgraded from five (5) minutes to eight (8) minutes and I am glad I did. I wish that I had another two minutes, as I was finally getting comfortable with the car and what to do when it ended. If you have the desire to drive a race car, this is the way to be able to do it. This costs about $40 a minute, but those eight (8) minutes were the most fun of my life.

Getting Driver's ready
A lot of credit go the the people with Mario Andretti Racing Experience. They made the event fun and did everything possible to make this a fun and safe event. Everyone of the staff that I talked to were polite, friendly and just wanted this to be a great time for you.