All I see is track, ahead of us and disappearing underneath the car. Kristen, my right-seat instructor, directs: “Go left to the white line … steer toward the top lane, to the wall … get closer to the wall … closer … OK, now arc back down to the inside, toward the apron …”

Cary Magazine editor Nancy Pardue checked off a big item on her bucket list: She drove eight laps in a stock car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

We’re making 12 lane changes per quarter-mile lap. At the single-cone marks I pull my foot off the gas completely to round the turns. A couple of seconds later, double cones signify full-on acceleration, and I stomp it.

My hands on the wheel are at 10 and 3; the car is designed to naturally turn left, so there’s no need for a white-knuckle grip.

Kristen’s a pro driver who’s been racing since she was 13. We’re sitting shoulder to shoulder but can only hear each other through a communications system plugged into our helmets.
She’s also maintaining radio comm with her track colleagues, so knows to hold me steady on the inside as the No. 10 car passes on our right.

An onboard video system is recording the experience in split-screen format, one camera on me and one on the track.

As RSI, Kristen has a throttle control device to reduce horsepower if necessary, and a brake pedal to avoid danger; there’s no speedometer in the car.

Thumbs Up
“You won’t need to brake; just let off the gas. And you’ll be in fourth gear by the end of pit road, so once we get out of the pit, you won’t need to shift again till we come back in,” Kristen had explained during crew preparations.

The biggest challenge of the day has been climbing into the car through a 15 x 30-inch window, wearing a HANS device (Head and Neck Support) latched to my Stilo helmet.

I got stuck on the first try. On the second try I slid in Matrix style, cocking my head to fit it through the window.

Crew chief Don Winchester gives a confidence-boosting thumbs up before announcing Nancy at trackside.

A crewman buckled me into a five-point safety harness, and wedged three cushions behind me so I could reach to push the clutch to the floor and practice running through the gears. It’s been a while since I drove a 4-speed manual and I stalled out in the pit, but as Kristen reminded me, it’s like riding a bike.

After the crewman attached the steering wheel, and just before he pulled up the window net, I gave a thumbs up to my teammates, all of us part of a media group invited to take part in this Richard Petty Driving Experience at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Serious Fun
Earlier in the day we had signed a few forms, and wriggled into zip-up fire-retardant suits.
Crew chief Don Winchester led our training-room orientation, which included a video starring Richard “The King” Petty himself, and instructions on safety and mastering the track driving line and shifting patterns.

“It’s all about precision, lap after lap,” Don said. “Our goals are fun, and safety. It’s a thrill ride, but this is serious fun.”

Out on pit road Don escorted me, announcing, “In lane two, car 53, is Nancy Pardue!” My teammates cheered.

But now Kristen is saying, “Last lap. Pop it into neutral and pull on into the pit.”

The crew’s waiting, and getting out of the car is much easier than getting in. I can’t help but pump my fist in the air, feeling a sense of bucket-list accomplishment.

According to my lap-time sheet, I actually did increase speed with each lap, and reached 111 mph. But I was hoping for 160, I tell Don, and he laughs.

“Average rookie speed is 120, so you didn’t do too bad,” he says. “Would you do it again?”

In a heartbeat, I say, just to hear those four little words: “Drivers, start your engines!”

The Richard Petty Driving Experience is available at major speedways across the U.S. At Charlotte Motor Speedway, offerings range from junior and adult ride-alongs to eight-lap self-drive rookie runs and 50-lap racing experiences. Pardue drove in fall 2015.

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