I have an irrational fondness for loud engines. The distinctive “potato-potato-potato” growl of a Harley-Davidson, the thunderous take-offs from the airport near my house, the angry rumble of a stock car…these sounds make me blissfully emotional, no idea why.
I say this by way of explaining how I ended up wearing a flame-retardant jumpsuit (men’s small) with a helmet so heavy and huge I thought I’d topple over, climb-crawling through the window of a real race car at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Dear Duh Hubby gave me “The NASCAR Experience” for my birthday and I was equal parts elated and terrified as I joined our group of 10 at the sign-in. I was thrilled to see two other women whom I’ll call Grace and Frankie in the group.
“We gals gotta stick together,” said Frankie, who was celebrating her 75th birthday. She had jumped out of an airplane for her 50th. I told Frankie for my 50th I’d gotten Showtime. Somehow it didn’t seem the same. Grace, 71, was a petite fireball who missed driving 90 mph or so on boring stretches back home in Kansas. She described her bucket list plan to get a license that will let her do some long-haul truck driving. Her husband beamed as she talked. Duh stood nearby eating some chips.
Grace, Frankie and I sat with our “teammates” in the dark theater to watch the required 30-minute instructional video. One of the men immediately went to sleep.
The video was equal parts informational and terrifying. There was a lot of talk about what to do if your car exploded and stuff. (Remove the steering wheel–whaaaa???–and crawl out the window.)
They kept yammering about staying between “the white dots.” More on that later. And there was a big emphasis on not crossing the white line while in the turn. The turn is a huge, high wall that made my stomach flip when I saw it in person. How would I ever do this? Why did I ever agree to it? What are the white dots again???
A sweaty hour passed before it was my turn. Grace and Frankie gave me thumbs up and advice I couldn’t hear because my head was encased in a soundproof pumpkin.
The teenager whose job it was to push me through the window (these cars don’t have doors, remember) broke a visible sweat. Well. I never said I was limber.
He strapped me in so tightly I could feel my pancreas move uncomfortably into an area just below my throat. He fastened a metal plate behind my head reminiscent of the electric chair. He asked “Ready?” And I said “Sure,” but he had already turned away.
I eased into second, third and fourth gear a tad too slowly for my “spotter” in the stands. “Celia! Get in fourth fast as you can!” he barked through the radio in my helmet. I would’ve cried in my big pumpkin head if he hadn’t sounded just like Sam Elliott.
I was relieved not to have choked off like a couple of earlier drivers. I was in fourth gear in seconds and Sam Elliott was in my ear urging me to GET TO 2800 NOW!!!!!
I had NO idea what he was talking about, but figured it meant “drive faster.” Note to NASCAR: Just use English. I don’t speak RPMs.
Finally, I had the speed where it needed to be because Sam Elliott sounded more relaxed. Honestly, I had been a little worried about him. The turn was coming up and it was ominous. I flew up half the wall and accelerated.
And here’s the thing. The car does the work. “She’s got you,” I thought I heard Sam say through the staticky headset. He was right. There was no way she was going to crash. It’s hard to explain but these cars are such remarkable machines if you can even meet ’em halfway you’ll be OK.
I only had five minutes on the track (it’s not cheap) so Sam coaxed me back to the pit. In my dreams I will hear him shouting LEFT! LEFT!!! LEFT NOW!!!!! The white dots? I never saw ’em. Oops.
I exited the car with the grace of a wounded water buffalo, not knowing how fast I’d gone. A few days later, I got my certificate in the mail verifying my top speed over three laps was 137.28 mph. Just call me Ricky-Bobby y’all.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to Grace and Frankie but I’m going to assume Frankie had a fabulous birthday party that night and Grace will drive the big rigs someday. Me? I’m thinking of adding Disney Plus.