Driving Impressions and Tech Talk

Driving The Line
Behind The Wheel Of A Winston Cup Stock Car
David Cipolloni
November 9, 2001

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Ready to hop in

Make sure the First Gear indicator light is on, bring the tach up to 2,000 rpm's and ease the clutch out. The big Winston Cup Monte Carlo begins its roll down Pit Road towards turn one. Run first gear out to 5,000 rpm's and pull the Hurst shifter back into second gear, first turn is approaching a little quicker now as the tach runs back up to 5,000 for the shift into third and again into fourth. 

With 5,000 rpm's showing on the tach you run the first lap, making sure to follow the line and hit your marks in each of the turns. By now you have forgotten how tightly the five point racing harness straps you to the seat, you don't notice the neck brace under the helmet, your focus is total and complete, the pace quickens as the tachometer is now working its way to the 7,500 mark. The same thoughts keep running through your head - follow the line, remember the turn-in points, hit your marks, watch the flag-man, DON'T CRASH! 

I arrive at Pocono Raceway on October 8th with the thermometer quivering at the 30 degree mark. With teeth chattering I make my way through the infield toward the building that houses the classroom for Stock Car Racing Experience Corp. My goal this day is to attend class, put on a driving suit and slip behind the wheel of a real Winston Cup stock car for a 20-mile drive. Since my first trip to the speedway, one month earlier, was washed out with rain and fog, I had been itching to get back to the action. It's not easy waiting three weeks when your body seems pulled by a giant magnet located 200 miles away in the hills of the Pocono Mountains. 

The session begins when our instructor, Steve Fox, bounds into the room wearing his driving suit and a big smile. For the next couple of hours we hear about track design, track rules, vehicle operation and safety. We learn how to "drive the line" around the track and how to react to such emergencies such as a tire going down or a spin. The latter of which would end with you driving back to the pits in search of new undergarments. We are informed of the flawless safety record the organization maintains and how everyone will work hard to ensure our safety. At the conclusion of the classroom session we head out to the 15 passenger van for a ride around the speedway. In no time we are cruising around the speedway and gaining new admiration for the abilities of a late model Econoline van with 10 ply tires. "This isn't going to look good sliding down Long Pond Straight on the roof of this people hauler". 

Once the indoctrination ride is over we had the option of doing 3 laps around the speedway, riding shotgun in one of the Cup cars, how could I refuse. If you plan on doing the ride you will need to pay extra for this part. Some of these cars have a passenger seat installed for this purpose. Once securely strapped in place we move off pit road and enter turn one under hard acceleration. The 358 C.I. Chevy engine doesn't disappoint when 8,500 rpm's are soon indicated on the large AutoMeter tach. I am are here, this is not instant replay on Speedvision, the speed is real, the g-forces are real, we pass slower cars, there's the wall, it's all over too fast, the addiction complete. Here's my credit card, I'm not going home, sell the house.

Pocono Raceway is a very unique two and one half mile tri-oval and a real blast to drive. The first turn is 675 ft. long and has banking of 14 degrees. The second turn is 750 ft. long and has banking of 8 degrees. Turn three is 800 ft. long and has banking of only 6 degrees. The Main straight is 3,740 ft. long, Long Pond straight is 3,055 ft. long and the North straight is 1,780 ft. long. One look at these figures will tell you that different skills will be needed to handle each of the three turns. Turn one comes and goes quickly, not so for turn three which is much longer with less then half the amount of banking. You can get lost in turn three, you are there awhile, mistakes can linger. The challenge makes Pocono a great place to experience your first drive in a Winston Cup Stock Car.

Jeff Gordon move over

Now comes the part I have so eagerly awaited, the chance to drive one of the monsters we watch every Sunday during the Winston Cup season. You look the car over, examine every aspect, the procedures run through your head. OK, it's time to climb in and buckle the five-point harness. A pit crew member reaches in and checks your harness, cinching it up tighter than you might think is necessary (you'll be thankful later). You eye up the controls, do a mental check of all the switches, gauges, indicator lights and fire extinguisher system. You grab the steering wheel and lock it in place, now it's time to make sure all controls are within reach. Everything looks good and we give the pit crew member the thumbs up. Right hand switches on the main battery, left hand flips up the ignition switch (second switch from the far left) and now the toggle to activate the starter motor (far left). The beast lives!!

The crew member yells in to ask if everything seems ok, I give the thumbs up once again and the safety net is locked in place. Now it's you, the car and the track, you wait for the signal. During your drive you must follow your instructor around the track. His spotters will tell him if you are not hitting your marks, not following the line or doing something wrong that could jeopardize your safety. Only your ability to do what was taught in the classroom will enable you to reach 160 - 170 mph on the track. You must realize there is no way you would be permitted to run one of these cars wide-open without demonstrating the mental comprehension and a certain level of motor skills and reflexes necessary to drive at speed. Here we go, the instructor has started to move and I quickly move the big red #50 Monte Carlo out onto the track behind him. 

The first lap is run at the prearranged 5,000 rpm's, you take this time to become acclimated to the car and track. At 120 mph the car feels balky, unsettled, more speed is needed, we begin to pick up the pace. The instructor makes a quick move to the inside, I follow and two cars at high speed pass on the outside, this is the real thing. Each lap is a little quicker then the last, I hit my marks, everything looks good and soon I can feel the pedal under my right foot touch the floorboards. As we approach slower cars they give us some room, we stay to the outside and they quickly disappear. A quick glance in the mirrors reveals an image so often captured by those in-car cameras. The car following is just a blur in the mirrors from the vibration at higher speeds. As I approach 160+ mph the car behind me begins to fade, it's a good feeling. The final lap is here, we run hard all the way around and into the third turn, the wave from the instructor's right hand indicates he is going to back off and turn into pit road. We are off the gas now and slowing for our final drive down pit road. You are required to have the car in neutral on pit road because there are other cars and crewmembers moving around there. 

You flip off the ignition switch and silence once again overcomes the cockpit, you can hear yourself breathing. A crew member appears and lowers the safety net, you turn off the main battery switch and pull the release for the steering wheel. After releasing the five point racing harness you exit the vehicle. There is absolutely no conceivable way you could climb from this racecar without a grin on your face like you just won the Pocono 500.

This is a "must do" for any enthusiast that is in good general health and feels they have some good basic driving skills. Everything else you need to know will be taught in the classroom session and on Pit Road. If you should ever feel the need to experience the real-world of Winston Cup Racing, you wouldn't go wrong contacting the folks at Stock Car Racing Experience

Comments can be sent to the author at feedback@autoracing1.com.



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