|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.
|Registration, Memorabilia, Water, Chips|
|Going down the front stretch|
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.
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|
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|
|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|
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|
|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|