The Need for Speed

A mother and son take on the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Atlanta Motor Speedway

PHOTO BY KATIE VANBRACKLE
Bobby climbs out after his ride-along.
Katie gets ready to roll.
RICHARD PETTY DRIVING EXPERIENCE
PHOTO BY KATIE VANBRACKLE
“The King,” Richard Petty
Photo
By KATIE VANBRACKLE
Posted

Like many mothers of teenagers, I have entered a terrifying new phase in life. My 15-year-old son, Bobby, is now behind the wheel of our family car. In the passenger seat, I often find myself sitting ramrod straight, eyes ahead, heart racing and trembling hands clutching my knees. I repeat quick, earnest little prayers over and over in my mind. And this is before we even leave the driveway.

It makes him nervous when I critique too much, so I stay pretty quiet except for two words that are repeated rather often. “Umm, sweetie…slow down. Slow Down. SLOW DOWN!”

I shouldn’t be surprised, however; he inherited his lead foot from me. I inherited it from my mother who, during her high school years, cruised around in a 1961 white Chevrolet Impala convertible named Jezebel. The need for speed seems to be in the genes.

So when I heard about the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, I knew we had to give it a try. Of course Bobby was too young to actually drive one of the race cars, but RPDE also offers ride-alongs – three laps around the track with a professional driver. Maybe, just maybe, riding in a real NASCAR stockcar at 160 miles per hour would satisfy his inner speed demon, making him a calmer driver afterward. It was worth a try.

Located just south of Atlanta in Hampton, Georgia, Atlanta Motor Speedway is a 1.54-mile quad-oval track, known as one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR. On race days, the stands are packed with thousands of cheering fans, but on one cool, sunny morning in February, the parking lots were completely empty as we drove around the perimeter of the track looking for the entrance to the RPDE. A lone security guard flagged us over, saying, with a mischievous glint in his eye, “Well now, y’all must be here for the Drifter’s Club!”

“What’s a Drifter’s Club?” I whispered to my husband. He rolled his eyes. “Not what you are going to be doing, don’t worry.”

I should stop here and point out the obvious – my complete and utter ignorance of the car racing culture. Sure, I’ve seen bits and pieces of NASCAR events on TV occasionally. Doesn’t someone drive a yellow Cheerios car? But unless you count Disney’s Lightning McQueen in the Piston Cup, I’ve never actually followed an entire race.

Even I, however, have heard of Richard Petty. He’s the guy with the big cowboy hat. The sunglasses. The big smile. And quite an impressive racing record. In fact, statistically, he is the most accomplished driver in the history of the sport, most well known for winning the NASCAR Championship seven times. People call him “The King.”

In 1992, he opened the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, giving ordinary folks the opportunity to experience a bit of the thrill he felt during his many years behind the wheel. Now the RPDE operates on 18 tracks across the nation, and lucky for us, one of those is close to home.

“Cool,” murmured my 12-year-old son as we drove through a short tunnel and entered the center of the Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was right. It really was cool to see it in person – the track, the grandstand, pit road and, of course, the cars.

RPDE uses custom-made NASCAR stock cars with 600-horsepower V-8 engines. And when those babies start up, you pay attention. You feel the roar in your bones. I couldn’t wait to get a closer look.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, frowning as we approached the cars. “These aren’t real. The headlights and grill are just painted on!”

My husband rolled his eyes again before patiently explaining that race cars are built according to strict NASCAR rules, making sure the cars are all the same to ensure a fair race. Each car has the same outer shell covered with stickers to make it look like a normal car. Race cars really don’t need headlights and brake lights anyway. It’s not like Jeff Gordon is going to drive off the track and go to the store for a gallon of milk.

With the assurance that the cars were not fakes, my enthusiasm was renewed. We decided to take a peek in the classroom where the day’s group of RPDE drivers-to-be were participating in a training course.

“As long as you are using the proper technique and listening to your instructor, you can go as fast as you like,” the instructor was saying, showing video footage of reference marks on the track for correct corner entrance and exit points. “Just remember, that wall hasn’t moved since 1960, and it’s not moving today. Keep away from it.”

Right seat instructors coach RPDE drivers through as many as 50 laps around the course, communicating through open-mike radios in their helmets. If a driver gets a bit too enthusiastic, the instructor has the ability to reduce the throttle.

Driving experiences range from $449 to $2,599, depending on the number of laps. Ride-alongs are shorter, but much more affordable at just over $100 – and more my style. No pressure, just fun.

Back on the track, Bobby and I got ready for our ride-alongs by pulling on thick body suits and padded helmets under the careful supervision of our pit crew, Christian Selent and Shane MacMillan. We waited for our turn as other riders zoomed by so fast and loud that it really got the adrenaline pumping.

I texted my friend Meg in Tennessee to tell her what I was about to do.

“You know Jeff Gordon is retiring this year,” she said. “You can take his place. We’ll get you a pink car and call you Hot Flash.”

Very funny.

Then our car, the sleek, black No. 10, pulled onto pit road. MacMillan slipped a metal head and neck support (HANS) device around my neck, which reduces the likelihood of head and/or neck injuries during a crash.

Climbing into a car through the window is not particularly easy when you are dressed like an astronaut. But once I managed to get both feet inside, I tilted my head back and slid right on down into the seat.

“Hey, well done!” said my driver. “You look like you know what you are doing.”
I just smiled. Guess those years of watching “Dukes of Hazzard” paid off.

Then he started the engine. And oh boy, there’s nothing like the feeling of being thrown back in your seat when the driver floors it.

Bobby said later that the initial acceleration was his favorite part of the ride. He was surprised at how quickly the cars got up to speed and how little they slowed down on the turns. It gives you an entirely new appreciation for the skill of NASCAR drivers.

But I didn’t notice any of those analytical things during my ride. I was too busy whooping with excitement. The wind, the dust stinging my cheeks, the wall coming up so close and then falling away, the blur of the stands going by. All of it happening so unbelievably fast – 160 miles per hour! And not once did I say “slow down.”

“That. Was. So. Fun!” I yelled to my family after climbing back out of the car. I saw Bobby walking toward me, still in his body suit, helmet tucked under his arm, smiling.

We’ve done it, I thought to myself. We’ve satisfied his need for speed, at last. Now he’s gotten it out of his system. He will be calm and patient on the highways from here on out. Mission accomplished!

Then he called out to me, “Hey Mom, how old do you have to be to come back here and drive?” Uh-oh.

Richard Petty Driving Experience
Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Georgia
www.drivepetty.com

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