• Wheels columnist takes shot at NASCAR experience

Wheels Columnist Takes Shot at NASCAR Experience

Our cars had limiters on them, restricting us to 240 km/h (150 mph).

Jim Kenzie By: Jim Kenzie December 15, 2019

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.—“Hey, Jim, wanna drive a NASCAR race car on the Daytona International Speedway?”

Alisha sure knew how to get my attention.

“Sure. What’s the deal? Am I taking over from Kurt Busch?”

“Um, no. It’s a promotion for a new hotel in Daytona Beach. You get eight laps in a real NASCAR race car.”

You betcha.

I’ve been to a lot of tracks, as driver or spectator, and “enjoyed” a wide variety of sleeping accommodations. The passenger seat of a Jaguar E-Type at Mosport. A shipping container turned into a “cabin” at the 24 hour Touring Car race at the Nurburgring. Not exactly five star.

Alisha’s offer sounded pretty good.

The Daytona, a new ultra-lux hotel with the latest in first-class amenities, is directly across the street from the Speedway, and about six kilometres from the beach where NASCAR racing got its start. It means there’s no need to drive to your hotel afterwards, especially if you have enjoyed a few daddy pops during the race (not me, of course).

The Daytona’s decor, no surprise, is race-car themed, with an ever-changing array of race cars in the lobby and posters and photos throughout.

Sir Malcolm Campbell, one of history’s great land- and water-speed-record holders, lends his name to the hotel’s excellent dining room. His Bluebird land-speed-record car is on permanent display.

One of the pubs is named “Blue Flame,” presumably after a jet-powered car that Gary Gabelich drove to a land speed record in 1970, although that was in Bonneville, Utah, not Daytona.

A race fan could spend hours just wandering around.

The hotel is smack in the middle of a new mall, which, coincidentally, was hosting a vintage car show this weekend. Cars and Daytona — a natural fit.

Wheels Columnist Takes Shot at NASCAR Experience

Wheels Columnist Takes Shot at NASCAR Experience

The mall also has a variety of restaurants whose excellent and varied fare we sampled.

On the Saturday before our track day, we went for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill in nearby De Leon (as in “Ponce”) Springs.

Just what you want — fatten yourself up before going racing the next day.

Then we went kayaking! Not your usual pre-race activity, but it helped burn off some of those pancake calories.

Getting into the competitive spirit of the weekend, the other Canadian in our group, Wendy Helfenbaum from Montreal and I felt compelled to lead the paddlers back home.

First thing on Sunday was a safety briefing at the track, which included a welcoming video from NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. This felt a bit weird, since he died in a NASCAR crash at Daytona in 2001.

Wheels Columnist Takes Shot at NASCAR Experience

We were fitted into race suits and helmets.

There were several genuine NASCAR race cars on hand, retired from active duty, but pretty much as they had been when they were on the circuit.

A NASCAR seat is bolted to the floor, so we were assigned to cars whose former drivers were more-or-less our sizes.

Mine had been run by 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.

No power steering, no power brakes, front suspension out of a 1963 Ford pickup truck, four-speed manual transmission, and a V8 engine generating somewhere in the 800 horsepower range (ours had been detuned a shade).

NASCAR drivers must be braver than Dick Tracy to drive these things at speeds over 300 km/h, mere millimetres from one another.

Our cars had limiters on them, restricting us to 240 km/h (150 mph).

I was the only one in our group with much track time — I have one year of racing experience, 40 times.

The plan was to head down pit lane, accelerate hard up through the gears to get up to speed, then “blend” onto the racing line as we exited Turn Two.

By the time we got on the back straight, we would be up to our top speed.

Just like real NASCAR racers, we had a spotter high in the stands to tell us where we were, where we should be, how we were doing, and also to warn us of any possible dangers. As if going 240 km/h in a fishbowl isn’t dangerous enough.

Except my car didn’t. It wouldn’t even go 100.

I hit the red button on the steering wheel that connected me to my spotter, whose name was James, but he said he preferred to be called “Mario.”

Hey, man, my life is in your hands. “Mario” it is. I told him my car was sick.

“No problem,” he replied. He warned other cars over the intercom of the issue, and instructed me to come into the pits.

A couple of crew members fell about the car. One of them grabbed some electronic gubbins from under the dash and replaced it with another. I gathered it was the speed limiting device that was over-limiting my speed.

Back onto the track — now, that’s more like it!

The car zipped up to what was indicated on the speedometer as 150 mph. It felt like I was in my easy chair back home.

Wheels Columnist Takes Shot at NASCAR Experience

Except I knew that if I screwed up, it would be like my easy chair had been swept up by a tornado.

Even as a fairly experienced racer, the one thing that really got to me was the banked oval turns. I have walked this track in the past, and unless you have thighs like Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt, you simply could not walk up these slopes.

And because the cars are set up to turn left, on the straights you actually have steer to the right to keep straight.

One of our group, Britni Rachal from Austin, Texas, had never driven a stick shift car in her life. A tip of the crash helmet to her for having the guts to give this a shot.

The ultra-professional and friendly staff had this covered.

She was told to put the car into fourth gear, hold the clutch pedal to the floor, and a truck would push her down the pit lane.

When they got to about 65 km/h, the truck would brake, and she would release the clutch pedal and off she’d go.

Once into fourth gear on a super-speedway, there is no more gearshifting until you pit.

Rachal ended up recording the second-fastest top speed of our group, 229 km/h.

That’s about 70 km/h faster than she had ever driven in her life.

Modesty prevents me from revealing who had the fastest top speed, but it was only four km/h faster than Rachal recorded. She hasn’t enrolled in any racing schools yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

This is something every car-racing fan should experience.

So should nonracing fans. It will give you a whole new level of respect for what these people do for a living.

Next time you’re in Florida and are sick of anything to do with that cartoon mouse, head over to Daytona Beach and take a shot at a NASCAR race car.

Especially if you a Formula One fan and think the roundy-rounders aren’t real racers.

This will set you straight right quick.

Jim Kenzie is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.