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Learning to Drive: Three men and a lady

Racers show Serena Willoughby of Wheels.ca the ins and outs of Indy, sprint and pace cars.

Published July 20, 2012

It was every hot-blooded, reality-television-watching single female’s dream date.

I was at ground zero of the Honda Indy Toronto and about to climb aboard a two-seater Indy car with Arie Luyendyk Jr., a popular contestant on The Bachelorette, the son of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, and a pretty decent racing driver in his own right.

Waiting for my ride in a sweat-inducing firesuit, the scene oozed adrenalin. Luyendyk Jr. was getting his game face on and, as organizers rushed to get the track ready for the approaching Indy weekend, I tried to engage with the Bachelorette Casanova who’s also heir to a racing dynasty.

“It usually doesn’t take this long,” he said, referring to the amount of time we had to wait before going out on the track.

Serena tries out the sprint car below:

“So, Arie, what’s the verdict, are you getting married?” someone else asked about The Bachelorette, which will air for the final time on Omni1 Sunday night at 8.

“I’m sworn to secrecy,” he said flatly.

My turn finally came. I rushed to hop aboard and to tuck into the two-seater behind Luyendyk as a dozen arms rose up to fasten me in and to adjust everything.Then we were off and hitting incredibly high speeds on the straightaways before slowing down suddenly for the corners. Where slamming the brakes on hard in a regular car means that you could be in trouble, in a race car it’s just business as usual. After a couple of laps, my turn was over. Then it was a dozen arms freeing me from the car.

“Thanks for the ride, Ari!” I yelled, as I was hustled away from the car. But he’d already turned his attention to the next passenger.

Getting into the back seat with a reality-TV dreamboat and not getting my hands on the wheel left me unfulfilled — despite reaching speeds of 180 km/h.

The next stop on my summer initiation into the world of motorsports took me to Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford and that’s where I really got my hands dirty. No reality stars there.

My knowledge of sprint cars hardly went beyond a cursory Google search, so when they wheeled out the two-seater monstrosity, it seemed like pure science fiction.

Glenn Styres first took me out in a two-seater sprint car first to show me the ropes. Styres, a.k.a. the Ohsweken Flyer, not only owns the track but is a serious racer. I knew I was in good hands.

Across from the main speedway was a warm-up track where children were racing smaller cars. This gave me some comfort because, I thought, if kids could do it, it should be no problem for me.

Clad in my prison-orange safety gear, I squeezed into the back of the car and was buckled in.

It started to rain, so the track became softer and muddier. Accelerating around every turn meant that as we went sideways on the track I could see us drifting toward the barrier. At times, my only defence was to close my eyes and hope for the best.

It was a wild ride around that dirt track, fishtailing at every turn, mud flying, and a feeling that my heart might jump out of my mouth at any moment.

I was disappointed when it was over. Back on solid ground, I removed my helmet and overheard Keith Dempster, another of Ohsweken’s legends say: “I thought you might go easy on her Glenn . . . heh, heh.”

Just two minutes on the track had left me with chunks of dirt between my toes and a layer of dust everywhere else. But my turn as the driver would have to wait — it was just too rainy.

When I returned to Ohsweken, the skies were bright and I knew I had to pay close attention because this time, I would do the driving.

There is no shifting gears in a sprint car; just put it in gear, switch on the fuel valve and, once given a push by another vehicle, flip on the magneto (power) switch and hang on as the powerful 360 ci. engine kicks in.

There also isn’t really a brake: you can slow down but stopping quickly is out of the question. You either accelerate, or you don’t. The dynamics of a sprint car and the track are such that if you stop accelerating, you start to stop.

A sprint car is like a shark which, if it stops moving forward, starts to sink. So it’s most important in the race car to keep the power on and the shocks stable. More experienced drivers work with the downward pressure exerted by the wings (aerofoils): The faster you go, the more control you have.

The trick is keeping your foot on the accelerator and maintaining a consistent pressure, even when your survival instincts kick in and you want to slow down. In a racing car such as the sprint, certain triggers make you want to slow down, such as when you start to fishtail. But you’re not supposed to: driving a sprint car is all about acting against those triggers.

As Styres explained, “Your body is trying to save itself from being hurt — but you can’t hesitate.”

The dirt track adds an element of unpredictability. Weather comes into play, since the rain can loosen the dirt. Unlike on pavement, where you can relax a little on the straightaways, the dirt can become more sticky as it’s worked in and you’re constantly moving the steering wheel. Hugging the inside of the oval track does you no good, though it technically lessens your distance. To really get the most out of the sprint car, you have to ride the outside rim (the cushion) where the track is less tacky.

There is no speedometer on a sprint car, but Styres encouraged me to increase my RPMs. The first few laps I was hitting 35 RPMs pretty easily and, with some gentle coaching, I eventually made it up to 47 RPMs. My best time was 21.7 seconds to get around the 3/8ths-mile track; the track record for my class of car is 13.7 seconds (162.379 km/h).

OK, so I wasn’t exactly breaking any records, but it’s a start.

Afterwards, as I surveyed the track, I thought: there’s nothing like the smell of methanol on a hot summer night.

The next step in my motor racing education was the paved road-racing circuit at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (née Mosport) outside Bowmanville, Ont, where I was to be a passenger in a pace car ahead of the Sports Car Doubleheader Weekend in June.

I was struck not only by how friendly everyone was but how completely excited they were to be there. They’d come from far and wide to a track that has a great deal of cred with the motorsports community.

The anticipation for the weekend ahead was palpable and hung in the air like the smell of burning rubber.

My assignment was to get in the pace car, but I was a little shocked: it was just a regular car.

I jumped in and once again I was taken on an intense thrill ride, full throttle at 240/km an hour on the straightaways, brakes engaged as we crested the corners. My driver, Bob, explained that drivers love the circuit because of the variations in track elevation.

As we rounded those elevated corners I saw groups of Coleman tents on the grass, not far from the track. Here was a hardcore racing group, willing to travel great distances and camp out next to a race track just to be close to the action.

Pace cars, sprint cars, Indy cars. If there’s one thing my motorsport introduction taught me, it’s that I love the speed, but being behind the wheel is even more exhilarating.

Thanks for the rides Ari, Glenn and Bob — but I prefer to drive myself.

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