Friday, June 3, 2011
Jeff Allman on “Finding Your Inner Race-Car Driver”
Being a life-long fan of stock car racing came about easily for me—my dad raced at regional short tracks for several years in the early 50s and although he quit before I was born, he continued to attend as a fan, and when I was about four years old, he took me to my first race. The sound, the sights, and even the smell all grabbed me and has continued to this day. I still attend races during the season and have seen a lot of NASCAR’s greats compete.
There are probably few people who are fans of auto racing who haven’t fantasized about trying it, and I’m no exception. I did race in an entry level race locally one time years ago, which was a thrill. However, my fantasy of driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup car remained. As stock car racing began developing a bigger audience through TV in the 80s and90s, entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to satisfy some fans’ yearnings. One such group, the Buck Baker Driving School, founded by a Retired former Sprint Cup driver, was founded and started running driving schools at various NASCAR race tracks throughout the southeast. After years of toying with whether or not to spring for the money to do this, I finally decided to scratch this item off my “bucket list”, and go for it.
I close Darlington (S.C.) Raceway as the site where I’d do the school. Darlington, known as
one of NASCARs toughest tracks, is also host to its oldest event, the Southern 500. Sentimentally, I picked it because my dad was a pit crewman for a local driver in the ’54 Southern 500.
Driving into the infield of the track was a thrill—I was on hollowed ground as far as stock car racing was concerned. My fellow students heard a lecture by one of the driving instructors regarding safety— they didn’t want their expensive race cars torn-up by Richard Petty wanna-bes –-and I didn’t want to be one who was tearing them up, so I listened carefully. We were then fitted for firesuits and helmets, and then all awaited nervously (yep, I was nervous) for our turn as a passenger in one of the school’s fleet of cars.
I thought (erroneously, as it turns out) that my few laps as a passenger would be laid-back, at least building up to higher speeds---WRONG! On the very first lap, I could feel centrifugal force pushing my down into and against my seat, and we weren’t going anywhere near as fast as the pros do it during competition.
Next, I got to drive, with my instructor assuming the passenger role. I was DEFINITELY nervous at this point, particularly since what I was going to be doing was going to be scrutinized. As I drove through Darlington’s tight backed turns, I could see the tell-tale tire marks left on the wall when drivers at the last race had got into incidents that left them coming into high speed contact with those walls. This was anattention-getter, and a reminder that there was a fine line here between having fun and very undesirable consequences.
After my laps with my instructor, he told me that I’d done well, with his advising me to take a different line going into turns 1 and 2, and to slow down going into turn 3. This was flattering in a way, as I didn’t want to be “pokey” in my driving endeavor.
Then it was “solo” time. By this point my nervousness had decreased a bit and instead I was filled more with excited anticipation. I then did a 10 lap session, then a 15 lap session. Though I was still mindful that I was not Dale Earnhardt, I was feeling a little more confident. There were other students on the track, some 3-4 at a time, and my ego did not want me to be passed by anyone. I was happy that I was able to pass several cars during my sessions, and was not passed by anyone (take that, Jeff Gordon!) and was signaled by the flagman a couple of times to slow down. Not that I was driving like a maniac; the school later said that they take a close line on how much latitude they allow its students to push the boundaries. Well, I’m glad I pushed ‘em some! Although our lap speeds were probably some 40 mph slower than the race speeds
of some 170 registered by NASCAR Cup drivers during competition, it gave me a greater appreciation for what those guys do for a living, for hundreds of laps at a time, along with a field full of other competitors wanting to beat them.
All too soon, it was over. I was given a couple of “atta-boys” by instructors and fellow students, and then it was time to turn in my driving suit and helmet. All of us even picked up a “diploma” showing we’d successfully completed the course. I felt more than a twinge of sadness as I turned in my equipment—there was a group of new students coming in for the afternoon session, looking as nervous as we did that morning, and I felt some mild jealousy that they were getting to drive, and I was headed for home.
People have asked me: was it fun? Undeniably, yes! Did I “get it out of my system”? No (“it’s” probably worse now!) Will I do it again? Heck, yes!