Five seconds after the stock car engines turned over, I knew I'd made a huge, HUGE mistake ... and there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I'd run head on into "too late" and as our nine-car squadron pulled out of pit row onto the Texas Motor Speedway track, I said my prayers and fervently hoped not to puke during our four lap jaunt.
You see, stock car racing -- like driving big rigs -- looks pretty easy on the outside. I mean, sure, they go fast, but it's not like they are navigating a maze of turns or dodging pedestrians, bicyclists and fellow car drivers. There's the fear of crashes and fires, of course, but in our case, there'd be no bumping -- we'd be staying a car length apart, with no jostling for first place. We'd basically go very fast in a big circle. C'mon, how bad could that be?
A LOT bad as it turns out. First, there's the screaming engine all of 10 inches in front of you. And when I mean screaming, I mean SCREAMING. My nerves were shot in an instant. Second, when we hit 163 mph into turn three on the first lap, it felt like the G-forces were ripping the flesh right off my face -- and a wide open window didn't help matters at all. Every turn drove me back into my seat like a punch to the gut and my mouth became as dry as a desert. How someone could even keep their hands on the wheel, much less DRIVE, under that G-force pressure gave me instant new respect for stock car racers, amateurs and pros alike.
Before we'd gotten into our cars, zipping up into our flame retardant suits, I mentioned to one of my fellow journalists that I wished I'd gone to the bathroom first. She replied that by turn one I wouldn't need to pee -- in fact, I wouldn't be able to think about much of anything. Except staying alive. Boy, was SHE right.
By lap two, I'd had enough -- turn three came up again and the wall looked WAY too close to me. I could see and feel just how deadly such speeds can be. Heck, Dale Earnhardt was killed by a less-than-spectacular head on tap into the wall. So I screwed my eyes shut and kept them shut till we pulled back into pit row and the motor cut out. I could barely get my helmet off and my hands shook for nearly an hour afterwards.
Todd Graham, an account manager for Eaton who's spent years learning to drive stock cars in his spare time with the Texas Team Driving School (the folks who manned the wheels for our troupe) later explained to me that it's all about throttle control and track position out on the raceway. "You can't think about where anyone else is on the track -- you have to focus on what you are doing, especially where you are on the track," he told me. "You learn to keep the throttle cranked up into the turn and take the right position so you can stay in the turn safely at that speed."
Todd also added that you don't just go out and rip off a 100 laps either. The school teaches you in 10 lap increments over a day and a half, gradually increasing your speed levels on the straightaways, then getting you to throttle up in the turns. "The instructors are the real crazy ones," he noted. "Because they are getting into the passenger seat with complete novices behind the wheel. That's truly scary." But if you keep up your training, your body and reflexes adapt to the conditions and the high speeds. Eventually, you become a natural.
There are lots of ways this relates to trucking (not 163 mph though -- please don't attempt that on the highway! PLEASE!) but most importantly when it comes to training. Stock car racing is a sport where mistakes come with deadly consequences -- just like trucking. And it takes a patient and oftimes fearless instructor to let a rookie have the wheel, knowing all the while how disastrous one error on the part of that rookie can be.
As for me, I am NEVER getting in one of those cars ever again -- NEVER. That may be fun for some people, but not this one. I'm going back to my old and slow minivan, thank you very much, without a shred of regret.