Hot Wheels

June 2012
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Andrew Stephen Cebulka

NASCAR Racing Experience puts you in the driver’s seat




When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? A fireman? Secret agent? Astronaut? Racecar driver? Oohh, yeah, that’s it. That’s the one dream of youth that, for many, dies the hardest. We spend most of our adult lives obeying the speed limit—more or less—and, even once, we want to put the pedal to the metal and barrel around a banked oval as fast as physics and our courage will allow. Well sir (or madam), your chariot has arrived—and it has NASCAR written all over it.

Under new ownership, the Myrtle Beach Speedway has ramped up its 2012 racing season, completed many track refurbishments (with more promised) and brought the exciting NASCAR Racing Experience to the beach. Perfected at 10 tracks around the U.S., including legendary race courses in Charlotte, Darlington and Las Vegas, the program lets any licensed driver (even those under 18 with parental consent) to choose from several “Experiences.” Ride-alongs start around $70 and put you in the passenger seat of a real NASCAR Cup car. Other packages start around $200 and allow for do-it-yourself racing where you, the amateur, can take the wheel to get the full professional racecar driver experience.

For 22 years, Bob Lutz, the Speedway’s new majority owner, has delivered racing experience thrills to an eager public. He’s joined by a small group of owners, which includes former Lieutenant Governor and current Congressional candidate Andre Bauer. Lutz is the operational boss and creator of most of the nation’s best-known driving schools. With names behind his schools such as Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon, and even an Indy car experience with Mario Andretti, Lutz has built a business model around fulfilling the dreams of thousands—and he’s brought that magic to Myrtle Beach.

In 2009, some of Lutz’s enterprises were rebranded as the NASCAR Racing Experience. Many thousands of adults, whose first dreams of racing date back to well before they ever had a driver’s license, have participated in one of Lutz’s experiences.

As a boy, my summer vacations in rural upstate New York often meant trips to the lake, which, to this day, are not unlike trips to the beach. If we went to Lake Ontario, then a visit to the Oswego Speedway was on the “Can we please?” list. If we went to Oneida Lake, then the Dirt Demon Brewerton Speedway tempted the local lads with a $2 admission. Sitting with your pals on the wobbly bleachers, you could have a Coke and a small bag of popcorn as you watched the cars rip up the short, dusty dirt track with a deafening roar. Pure 1969 magic. It made us all want to race.

Turns out those tracks of my youth were also the tracks of Bob Lutz’s youth. Also a central New York transplant to the area, Lutz grew up working in the family business at the very same tracks I frequented. “My father owned and operated five dirt tracks in upstate New York,” he said, “including the Brewerton Speedway. He also owned a sanctioning body that had 35 tracks as members.” So Lutz grew up racing, and eventually moved to NASCAR Mecca Charlotte and built his business. This spring he relocated with his family from Charlotte to operate the Myrtle Beach Speedway and continue to grow the NASCAR Racing Experience, though he has even bigger plans. “Once we’re fully up and running, I hope to bring the Indy cars here, too,” he added.

Of all the markets and small tracks around the nation, why pick Myrtle Beach as the next venture?

Lutz says the Myrtle Beach Speedway has character and history. He noted that while we have huge summer crowds, we’re not in a major market. This is still a small, hometown track. While not as spit-shined, glamorous or amenity-filled as the bigger, faster, longer tracks—such as the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway—or as legendary as Daytona, Darlington or Talladega, the Myrtle Beach Speedway has always been considered an important track in the world of NASCAR. Why? It requires skill to win here.

“The Myrtle Beach Speedway is known as a driver’s track,” said Lutz, noting the course is especially hard on the tires. A driver’s skills with braking, accelerating and hitting their marks are more important than the fine-tuning of the cars, though both are required to win races.

Racing History
In 1958 the Myrtle Beach Speedway (first called the Rambi Raceway) was built as a dirt track in the middle of nowhere on a desolate road, surrounded by pine forests. Today the Speedway hasn’t moved, but it sits in the midst of 54 years of commercial development and suburban sprawl, which crowds in on all sides. But in the early days, the Speedway had a special summertime allure that Lutz and his ownership group hope to reintroduce to new generations of race fans.

In the late 1950s, the Speedway was where many small boys vacationing in the region spent their summer evenings. For the next half-century the track, the cars and legendary dynastic family names behind the wheel thrilled race fans of all ages. Young and old alike watched then-unknowns like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, all the Petty men, the Waltrips and many other soon-to-be NASCAR superstars hone their skills. While May 5 marked the first day of the 2012 racing season at the Myrtle Beach Speedway, as of April 17, 2012, this iconic track, our hometown track, was open to those with guts and a few bucks seeking the same thrills as their NASCAR heroes.

My Turn at the Wheel
We love our cars, we love to go fast and we love to watch others go faster. If only we could take a few laps on that track ourselves, all would be right with the world. One day last April I got my chance, and now you can have your chance, too.

Let me first say I am not a thrill-seeker. I like to think I am, pretend I am, and I get close to the edge on occasion. But, at heart, I’m a chicken who likes to avoid pain. So while I was excited at the prospect of driving at possibly more than 100 mph around the half-mile, semi-banked asphalt oval, I was apprehensive, to say the least. That apprehension became plainly evident with my question to my instructor, 23-year-old Lucas Williams, a winning Myrtle Beach Speedway stock car driver.

“Will I die or be horribly maimed?” I asked. He replied “Probably not.” Then I asked “How many others before me have died or been horribly maimed?” Lutz had already provided that answer. “In all these years at all these tracks with the Racing Experience,” he said, “we’ve only had three wrecks and no injuries.”

So with statistics on my side, and a legal waiver signed, I started my “Experience” in an old workshop on the Speedway’s infield.

I watched a 20-minute instructional video where I was shown the safety features of the car—fire extinguisher, five-point safety harness and window netting, and how to exit the car Ricky Bobby style, if need be. Williams gave me a few more pointers, like how and when to accelerate, how to take the corners and where the steering wheel was (bet you didn’t know it comes separately, almost as if it was an afterthought).

With the video complete and a bit more Q&A behind me, I stepped up to pit row and started to sweat.

Donning a fire suit (yes, they had one large enough for my 250-pound frame) and a helmet with radio control that stripped me of all my senses except panic, I walked to an actual NASCAR Cup car. The shiny, 500-horsepower car is capable of speeds of well over 200 mph. Standing beside it, I faced my first challenge. I would have to get inside the car.

If you’ve never entered an automobile that has no doors, you really should try it sometime. The Dukes of Hazzard made it look easy. And I suppose if you’re a 20-year-old Duke boy, it is easy. If you’re not, it’s quite humiliating, requiring contortions, contractions, two personal assistants, deep breathing, several yoga positions and bending your neck further than its ever been bent. But once seated, it comes with a real sense of triumph.

Like one being prepared for surgery, I was hovered over by my own personal pit crew; one on helmet duty, another giving me last minute tips, while another strapped me in for what seemed like a Space Shuttle launch. I began talking with my crew chief/instructor, Williams, who was positioned on top of an infield building. He would watch my every move and stay in constant communication through two-way radio. With the car in neutral, I was instructed to depress the clutch. One of my crew reached in, flipped a switch and the engine roared to life. You thought Harleys were loud? Even through the helmet I could hear this car rumble and purr with the power of the 500 horses stuffed under the hood. It was then I realized just exactly where I was, and that it was too late to do anything but drive.

Given the final thumbs up, I put the car into first gear, eased off the clutch and started slowly down pit row toward the track. I was told the car would drive pretty much like any other four-speed manual-transmission car, and, surprisingly, it did. I made it out of pit row without stalling, while Williams, the ultimate backseat driver, magically spoke to me through my helmet, and told me exactly what to do and when to do it. “Ease on the gas—that’s it,” he said. “Coast through the corners. Stay low. Good, now accelerate.”
The car was nicely responsive and let me drive it—it was actually much easier than I thought. You step on the gas, it goes faster. You let off the gas, it decelerates so you can coast through the turns. Then you accelerate out of the turns. That’s pretty much it. Once in fourth gear, I never shifted or touched the brakes until I was instructed to re-enter the pit. After my first tentative lap I gained the courage to unleash the NASCAR driver within and began to move—really move.

On this short track you have two brief windows to accelerate hard before you’re in another turn, but you’ll have no problem going about as fast as you ever want to go. A chip in the engine’s computer will stop you from being completely reckless, but it only kicks in with excessive RPMs. The first time I really pressed into the gas the car took off and screamed, and then I screamed. It’s the same profanity-laden primal scream I sometimes use on roller coasters. I was in excess of 95 mph on the straight portions, and probably around 75 mph in the banked corners. My take-home NASCAR Racing Experience certificate proclaimed my top speed was 97 mph. The track record is around 105. I was told that I had done better than most, but not as good as the guy before me. Way to burst my bubble. But it made me want to race again.

An acquaintance of mine, who happened to be at the track that day watching, couldn’t stand to just watch and hear me talk about my driving experience any longer. He shelled out $216 for his own five minutes of glory. With enough registered drivers on any given day, bigger Experience packages allow for multiple cars on the track and up to 32 minutes track time, where passing is allowed, all for around $1,300. Ride-alongs put you in the passenger seat and your speed experience is even greater. These pros behind the wheel are actual racecar drivers—they’re not timid. They’re charged with giving you the ride of your life, and they will. At the larger tracks around the nation, your NASCAR Racing Experience can have you driving at speeds in excess of 160 mph. Ride-alongs at these big tracks are even faster.

The new owners hope to capitalize on the huge numbers of visitors to the area, not only to fill grandstand seats for regular race days but to consider the NASCAR Racing Experience as well. This was something I had wanted to do since first reporting on the racing experience trend a decade ago, and now that I’ve done it once, and my pants have dried, I’m ready to race again.

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