By Mike Doughty
It just so happens I was in Florida a while back for this thing. And wouldn’t you know it no matter where you find yourself all of the holidays still happen on their respective dates each, and every year no matter if you’re on the West Coast or East Coast or as it happened in my case, Florida. Weird, right? And so it was that Father’s Day once again came up on the calendar while I was living in the Sunshine State.
I’d been in Florida only a few months when I had an epiphany (And only probably 3 more before this one in my entire life, with one involving parachute pants). Anyhoo, you know that sort of epiphany when you realize that one of the most important stock car and enduro tracks in the US, the Daytona International Speedway, happens to be just a short drive from where I was living. Shortly after this realization in May, I had a conversation with my parents who were looking to pay me a visit. We settled on Father’s Day for the visit. Perfect. I told you that holidays would play a part in this story.
Soon after I’d gotten off the phone I had yet another epiphany…ok not quite like the one the folks at Reeses’ had when they combined chocolate and peanut butter for the very first time. You’re right it wasn’t on that level of epiphany, but it was clever nonetheless. And the clever part was this, since my dad grew up building cars to race, and cruise around in a sleepy Southern Indiana hamlet where dirt track, and figure eight racing played a prominent role, and in a state that’s fielded more than its fair share of stock car and race car drivers what would be better than sharing a father-son event behind the wheel on the same track where the son could take the proverbial torch from the father or best him in view of the ultimate arbiter, the finish line and checkered flag?
What venue could serve witness to this epic contest of nerves and speed? Hmmm, somewhere special. It would need to be a hallowed place worshipped by those who pray at the temple of speed or in this case the temple of the speedway. Now many of you have probably watched motorsports of one sort or another on television, and maybe a few of you have even attended a race in person, but how many of you have walked a track let alone driven on it? Until that Saturday, I hadn’t either. How could you not be moved by a venue with so much history left on the track, in the stands, in the garages, on the walls, in the banked turns, and in plain sight of an ever-present white concrete wall with legendary golden letters identifying itself as one of the hallowed and iconic speedways where championships have been won, careers started, hardships endured, and fortunes changed in an instant. That place is Daytona.
Now with the venue sorted out, I needed to find out how to get both me and my dad inside the speedway and on the tarmac to hold our epic generational battle. As luck would have it Richard Petty has established one of the best stock car racing experiences in the country. Bless you Richard. At many tracks around the US, you can choose from a variety of motor fueled experiences by booking a date with stock car destiny at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
Fast forward a few weeks, and the day of my parent’s visit was upon me. And with it our date with destiny at Daytona would be less than 24 hours away. But I had a problem. A problem you say? Yes. Let’s call it a 24 hour bug type of problem that hit the day before their scheduled arrival. I’ll spare you the inglorious details. I should say that we decided to meet at my place then drive and overnight at a Daytona hotel to be our freshest for our big day. Fast forward several hours, parents arrive, pleasantries exchanged, we travel to Daytona, check-in to the motel, challenge delivered to father, and challenge accepted by said father, evening approaches, fellowship concludes, and we all retire for the evening in preparation of the big day.
Zero hour. Normally I don’t share my pre-race rituals, but in an effort of full disclosure and to set the proper mood I will reveal my tried and true system with you dear reader. The morning of any motoring event I like to wake up slowly with quiet surrounding me before sitting down to a solid breakfast, one that sticks with you, but not so much so that it knocks you out like a bear shooting NyQuil to make it through winter in a cave. The morning ritual is of course setup by a restful night of sleep beforehand in order to fully enjoy the morning ritual. And to ensure that I decided to book us at a motel close to the track.
We lodged at La Quinta, and while it was a bonafide bargain and model of efficiency it was in no way a restive or sanctuary of silence or fortress of refreshing. No, it was more like the level of energy that exists when parents leave a high schooler on a Friday, and eliciting a promise from said high schooler that no party will be held in said home. The frenetic energy was just like that, except these were adults without the age restriction from acquiring alcohol or vehicles with proper sound suppression. If I’m being honest, it would have been a great group of collective strangers (they were very friendly) to hang out with to get my weekend started were it not for the fact that I was recovering from a bug, parents in tow, and only hours from stepping onto the track and sliding into the seat of a stock car. I like to picture Chuck Yeager experienced the same restful evening prior to his legendary trial when he broke the speed of sound. Or he would have had the same experience if his flight crew had lovingly booked him a reservation at the same hotel on a Friday. Silly me for thinking a good night’s sleep and a quiet meal would be had before we stepped onto the track. Let’s just chalk it up to a lack of research. Daytona 1, Mike 0.
Once awake, and dressed we decided to dine at a quality place where the culinary standard, and quality of its products would be beyond reproach. Where you could have fine meal for a fine value. We dined HERE.
With our bodies recharged with restive sleep, and a simple but filling meal we pressed on to the speedway. We arrived well before our session started. We completed what seemed a thorough amount of waivers, and quite possibly some sweepstakes entry forms. Did I just make Richard Petty my heir or grant him power of attorney…oh well it’s just “words” on those forms anyway, right? 45 minutes later we were shown to a partially lit room approximately 50 feet by 30 feet with a screen at one end with a table and a few chairs set up just in front of the screen where it looked like our guides on this journey would tell us what we’d gotten ourselves into. moving back toward us 15 feet in front of the table and chairs were 6 rows by 5 deep formation of chairs, and some of those were already occupied by a few people who managed to sign all their organ donor forms, last will and testaments, sweepstakes entries, and waivers for Richard Petty, Daytona, La Quinta, and Waffle House. That’s weird, how did they know we stayed there, and ate there? Never mind, there are more pressing things to focus on like getting a best of the rental driving suite, and making it to the driver’s briefing.
When the briefing started I began surveying the other participants who decided to spend their Saturday with us on our quest for speed. I wanted to see what kind of people choose to do this activity, and was I abnormal for doing this? The short answer, no. Now, with survey finished, our driver’s briefing complete we were ushered further into the recesses of the speedway admin building until we found our way out the other side and onto a service road outside the speedway with 3 passenger vans awaiting us when we emerged. All belted in, the van departs, and drives on a service road that heads directly to the stands and walls separating the glorious tri-oval from the parking lot. We look to run into a dead end at the side of the speedway before the road descends dropping us beneath the speedway at the last minute running underneath the track in what seems a worm hole only to remerge in the middle of the speedway’s in-field.
We expect to exit the vans, but are given instructions to remain as our driving tour will continue shortly. This time the van drives onto the track from pit lane. We have barely enough time to absorb all the new sights was we take to this 40′ wide 2.5 mile tri-oval when the van enters the track proper just before turn one. The pitch of the van begins to change as it tilts while driving on the tracks’ 31 degree banking. As someone who’s raced sailboats, I can attest to the fact that heeling or tilting is not a natural feeling, and can take some adjustment. Side bar: when you think about how 31 degrees of tilt affects you, and you just can’t wrap your head around it, look at THIS graphic to get a better understanding.
With our track tour completed, and our bodies once again leveled we were deposited back on pit row to select helmets, HANS gear, and set the order of who would run in which group. There are several options for experiencing Daytona as part of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. You can, if not interested in actually taking control of the wheel yourself, opt for a ride along with a professional driver. If however you see yourself as a “driver” and not a “passenger” then you can purchase laps and play follow the leader. Follow the leader is my phrase for driving your own stock car, but following the line set by your instructor in his car directly ahead of yours. I opted for the ride along to get my bearings before playing follow the leader. I again chose poorly. Daytona – 2, Mike – 0.
The driver for my ride along was awesome, but my covered and smothered breakfast from earlier was not prepared for the carnage that a professional race car driver can inflict on a civilian body. The 3 laps of the trip were at best a blur, cross between a tilt-a-whirl ride, and a 350-358 CI pushrod V8 powered banshee gravity defying machine driven by who I thought was a madman determined for punishing me. Whatever it was I’m quite certain I may have screamed once or twice like a little girl, but the good thing about stock cars as in space (no one can hear you scream) nothing will be heard over the 110-119 decibels generated by that nasty 650 horsepower power plant. Click here for a little taste of what that sounds like. Which is why people without radio headsets (like me) tend to use hand signals once the engine fires up, and when I say “tend” I really mean that’s all you do is use hand signals. And before you finish your first lap you’ll get it. It’s not bad, but you sort of have to give yourself over completely to this petrol fueled thrill-ride.
With my ride-along complete we settled down for our 4 laps each where we would be turned loose in our very own stock car. Turned loose, but required to follow an instructor and their line. But before that happened we were made aware that our Days of Thunder (you knew it was coming, right?) moment would be over if we couldn’t operate a standard transmission or if you peeled out (wheels breaking free without simultaneously generating forward motion – burning rubber – elevenses – smoking the tires – etc…) My father was the first out of pit lane.
And I think it bears mentioning at this point that both he and I learned first hand that stock cars cars are not big-guy or husky friendly. Both of us are north of 6’4″, and tree trunkish. Although on the positive side, you have less room to maneuver or wiggle around or be tossed about it a crash. And once you slide in, ad strap in, you’re in for the duration as no egress will be quick. It’s like a studio apartment that way. When you see it the first time you think there’s no way you’re going to be able to fit your entire collection of hermetically sealed vintage action figures or Precious Moments collectibles (insert relevant hoarder stash), but somehow you do. You’re just not sure how you’re going to get all the stuff out when you eventually move or they find your body buried under mountains or crap that you stuffed inside. This was like that except with a aerodynamically shaped sarcophagus of steel on the outside hiding an unruly small block beast in the front, a seat underneath you with harnesses, safety equipment, steel tubed roll cage, and no creature comforts besides the previously mentioned seat. You are surrounded by painted body panels, bordered on one side by a steering wheel without the civilian lever to lower it or move it towards the dash to make more space for you, on your right side a fire suppression system that once activated consumes all the oxygen within the cabin for 30 seconds, and did mention the fact that while it is a detuned Chevy small block, 650 horses is still 650 horses.
My father completed his 4 laps without incident, returned to pit lane, exited his vehicle, and seemed satisfied he did his best. No hint of adrenaline surging wildly out of control, just a quiet satisfaction that he met the challenge or confident that the lap times he laid down were not in imminent danger by the younger upstart, me.
Finally my time had come. While watching my dad scream by every minute or so I had a chance to reflect on what it was we were doing out here, how little sleep I had had, what a delightful breakfast that had been redistributed internally on my ride-along, and how I was only 24 hours removed from a fast moving bug the had somewhat left me incapacitated. Snap out of it! The crew chief wants to know if I’m ready, “Um yes” being the only reply I can muster. I start the process of contorting my 6’5″ 200+ pound frame into this badass stock car sarcophagus (read 5 minutes of shimmying). They hand me the steering wheel that gets installed, my harness is fastened, the window netting placed on, and finally the engine fires up. Wow, great day in the morning when that happens. Regardless of your feelings about stock cars, if you have the slightest ounce of petrol in your blood you just love the sound of a purpose built, non-smog compliant, muffler-catylitic converter less small block V8 beast of an engine starting up and idling (Just got goose bumps again while writing this). Simultaneously I am both frightened and exhilarated. Frightened because I’m being turned loose with what can only be described as a really powerful vehicle to someone without a competition license to ostensibly turn laps at an iconic “speedway” with some really steep banking. What could go wrong? Actually, nothing as it turned out. My instructor’s car was just ahead, and as soon as I had fired my engine up he appeared to take off like a jack rabbit. Now I wouldn’t say he peeled out, but he did depart with a slight, but noticeable amount of flare and then he was at the end of pit lane, before I had grasped the gear shift. Grasping the gear shift the sense of excitement overtook me, and I tried to steady myself. Quickly I found the gear, and eased the clutch out and the car sprung forward. Seeing the Union 76 sign at the end of pit lane is a surreal feeling, but was quickly replaced by the sensation of the first banked turn.
Common sense tells us that when we approach a turn we need to let off to avoid losing traction by having the tires turning and becoming perpendicular to the line you’re taking. That is sound logic in turns on level roads, but when you are presented with a banked turn that resembles a ski jump then you just keep the hammer down. Not sure I ever shifted down past 4th after exiting pit lane, but the first two turns did find my instructor pulling away from me in the corners, a sign I was still letting off the accelerator. I hadn’t made the connection yet because it was only instinctual to ease off, and apply power only past the apex coming out of the turn. Unfortunately this prudish behavior continued for 2 laps. Finally, on lap 3 it clicked, and probably as much to me as to my instructor who must have been wondering why it was taking so long for this guy to “get it”. It’s at this point that I should mention hand signals again, On the track your instructor communicates with you by two hand signals. The first is what I like to call “Increase Acceleration” and resembles a hand beckoning you onward. The second is the universal sign for enough, and is represented by the bird. For half of my laps I saw the former signal, while I would later find out that my father would see the latter almost before the end of lap 1. So you have it, not quite identical driving styles. Now, back to my laps.
I finally came into my own somewhere on lap 3 just before little droplets of rain began landing on the windscreen. An ominous sign, as it should be noted that when water enters anywhere on Daytona’s tri-oval speedway all racing is suspended. Probably a good idea considering that you have very heavy vehicles fitted on tires with no tread driving at high rates of speed over tarmac on steep banks. Good call. So while I followed my instructor’s lead and took the car to bottom of the track and essentially parked at the beginning of pit road, I thought it would be a good time to narrate some of the events taking place to the onboard camera. Each car has a camera that films your lap so you can purchase it as a keepsake to remember your day of glory. I planned to include the video to be a large part of this story, but would find out later that the microphone was open-unprotected and none of my audio could be heard over the soothing sounds of the engine. So my keepsake video resembled an image of me turning the wheel, and mouthing words that cannot be heard over someone screaming for the entire duration of the drive.
With the rain finally relenting, the put crew comes to me to say they are adding a few laps to my run to make up for the wet laps that we just circled the bottom of the track. No argument from me. Another bit of good news is we will be allowed to run through pit lane without any speed restrictions since we are the last two cars on the track. That meant everyone else was now a spectator of my last laps. Once again my instructor sprinted away, and this time I was able to get going quickly and kept within 1 1/2 car lengths through pit lane. And if I’m being honest, tires may have broke traction briefly out of view of prying eyes who were at the other end of pit lane. If I’d wrecked and been suppressed by the fire suppression system I would have died knowing that I did elevenses albeit briefly at Daytona. I’m now at the end of the lane, and merging onto the track. At this point I receive my first “bird” signal, and I find myself a little annoyed at having to ease off the throttle a bit. The last two laps are delightful as I feel fearless on the tri-oval, confident in staying on the throttle into, through, and out of the turns. It really feels like a slingshot when you hit turn 1 just right, and emerge onto the chute of the rear straightaway. The car hunkers down forced towards the track by the centrifugal force created by the banking and speed. The engine screams down the chute and into turn 2 which is a triumph, and then hitting the bump just near the tunnel just after the turn 2 is perceptible to me on this last pass as I finally pull off and return to pit lane confident I have given a good account of myself.
I separate myself from the car, and my long of rental race gear. We commiserate with other participants who have now been baptized by the church of speed while we wait for the all important paperwork that will tell us how we performed.
Finally we receive our paperwork, and I quickly note that each of my laps showed shorter lap times, and each lap showed incrementally higher speeds. My dad doesn’t look that happy with the results of his laps. I try to comfort him, while hiding my joy at beating someone who can do most things well, and if he’s not a natural at it then he reads about it then makes you look bad at it. My joy is suddenly and completely removed when I read a key indicator at the top of “my” lap sheet. That’s it, that’s all it takes is a single letter to erase all my feelings of elation and accomplishment at besting my father. The letter on my sheet reflected on the line for my name is wrong. It should be my middle name listed, you know for the driver who’s lap times were recorded on this sheet. Now normally this wouldn’t bother me since most people throughout my life have gotten my name wrong at one time or another. No, this is different. Different because my middle name starts with another letter. This is my father’s lap sheet, and his inconsistent lap times are really my inconsistent lap times (Ahem, just the first 2 laps only). I mention the mistake, hand him his lap sheet, and immediately I see him smile. All is right with the world, especially since my last 2 laps were as fast as his. This is where my point total exceeds Daytona’s, finally! I had a great experience driving a car I’d never driven before which gave me a new perspective, and a great story. It also allowed me to share it with my dad who as it turns out was still better (faster) than me, and I’m ok with that.