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In the driver's seat

This racing stuff is kind of fun

By Don Ward
Editor

SPARTA, Ky. • "Have you ever driven a race car before, Mr. Ward?"
The question seemed absurd at the time, considering I was sitting behind the wheel of a loud, vibrating Winston Cup stock car parked on pit row of the Kentucky Speedway.

Don Ward

I had been drilled and dressed in an authentic looking race uniform, complete with helmet and VCR camera mounted over my shoulder to record the entire event. I wondered if the viewers back home would be watching and replaying the action later as I wet my pants seconds before crashing into the donut table they had set up that morning near the finish line. But the overly cheerful man leaning into the window to fasten the harness around my chest seemed like he really wanted an answer like we were going to keep the world waiting until we finished our benign conversation about my driving record.
"Only on the interstate. But I got a ticket for that," I quipped, trying to sound upbeat as the color disappeared from my ever-tightening fingers gripping the wheel. Another man donning a race suit and helmet sat across from me in the passenger seat. His job was to get me around the 1.5-mile race course 10 times without banging against the wall or another driver or worse, running over someone on pit row as I coasted in at the conclusion of my "driving experience."
I have to admit, for a brief moment there, I felt like Jeff Gordon on a Sunday afternoon at the Brickyard. I wondered if a beautiful woman and a bottle of champagne would be waiting for me when I pitted after lap 10. I pictured myself leaping onto a podium in the winner's circle and being handed one of those oversized cardboard checks in the amount of $100,000 for my effort.
Yeah, I could handle Victory Lane. It was those other six lanes out there that worried me the ones with other amateur drivers speeding around at 155 mph.
"OK, Mr. Ward, any time you're ready," chimed Mr. Happy. I could do this, I told myself. Just like Spaghetti Junction at rush hour. I knew the routine. Take no prisoners. No one cuts in. Keep it tight in the corners. Stay out on lane six until you pass the orange cone. Or was that the red cone?
Wait a minute, maybe I'd better review the instructions we went over earlier that morning before sunrise... But it was too late. Suddenly, my car started to move forward. A couple of men were back there pushing me down pit row toward the first turn. My drive captain motioned forward, pointing hard.
I gave the pedal a push and the engine revved up. We were off and racing.
And so began my day Oct. 20 at the Kentucky Speedway as part of a media event to take part in the Skip Barbar Racing Experience. The school was one of three that visited the new track this fall. The others were the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the Fast Track Driving School.
The Skip Barber school prides itself as being the closest thing to really racing by putting the driver out there on the track with other cars and without having to follow an instructor's car the entire time. All three schools provide extensive instruction prior to getting behinf the wheel. Officials from those schools report that the enthusiastic response they had in Sparta has them already planning to return next year. Track officials are negotiating to possibly have one school permanently located there next year, according to media director Tim Bray.
Considering that none of us amateurs have ever been in a real race car, much less one that's moving, you have to wonder what track developer Jerry Carroll was thinking. 
But after talking with track officials about this idea of bringing amateurs onto their new $152 million track and hearing driving school officials rave about the response, I guess it only seems natural to let race fans experience for themselves the excitement of auto racing. "What better way to market this sport in a new area than by letting the fans come out here, put on a uniform and drive a race car around the track?" said Bray. "It's great for promoting our track and for building fan support in the area."
By the end of the week, hundreds of people from the tri-state area had experienced the Kentucky Speedway like no bleacher seat could ever do. Plus, they went home with stories to tell their friends and families, along with arm loads of expensive souvenirs. "We're making race fans out of people who have never even seen a race before," Bray said.
He's right. Prior to the opening of the Kentucky Speedway, I had never watched an entire stock car race on TV. Now I can't wait until the ARCA series returns to Sparta next summer. I just hope my race team has my car tuned up and ready to go.
onto their new $152 million track and hearing driving school officials rave about the response, I guess it only seems natural to let race fans experience for themselves the excitement of auto racing.
"What better way to market this sport in a new area than by letting the fans come out here, put on a uniform and drive a race car around the track?" said Bray. "It's great for promoting our track and for building fan support in the area."
By the end of the week, hundreds of people from the tri-state area had experienced the Kentucky Speedway like no bleacher seat could ever do. Plus, they went home with stories to tell their friends and families, along with arm loads of expensive souvenirs. "We're making race fans out of people who have never even seen a race before," Bray said.
He's right. Prior to the opening of the Kentucky Speedway, I had never watched an entire stock car race on TV. Now I can't wait until the ARCA series returns to Sparta next summer. I just hope my race team has my car tuned up and ready to go.

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