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The best way to appreciate NASCAR is not by cracking a Bud and plopping on the couch but by getting in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately that’s a pipe dream for most — but when PEAK Motor Oil invited me to their Stock Car Dream Challenge as they searched for a future driver for the Michael Waltrip Race team, I grabbed my helmet and Nomex onesie and streamed Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines all the way to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The competition involved 700 entries of all ages and abilities who submitted 90-second highlight reels of their driving and personalities as well proving street cred through social media “points”. The nine contestants with the most votes, views and points would meet in Charlotte to battle each other in a three day NFL-combine-like competition. Over the three days they would drive 600 horsepower Richard Petty Driving Experience stock cars, production Toyota Camrys and Karts through multiple courses and modules to be evaluated and judged by representatives from PEAK, as well as Michael Waltrip’s team.
The contestants — who looked more suited for bagging groceries than driving 200 miles per hour just inches away from Dale Earnhardt Jr. — would be tested on reaction time, car control, endurance and even media presentation (spoiler: I killed that one). It was 72 hours of blood, sweat and tears going full tilt and learning a great deal about these “stock” cars and the business behind one of America’s greatest sports. I technically wasn’t eligible for the coveted Team Waltrip spot, but that’s not to say I didn’t dream about Michael Waltrip deciding to throw the rules out the window because of my incredible talents.
My nerves were pulsing as the competitors and my fellow journalists all gathered in the media room on our first morning of the challenge. The room was full: Michael Waltrip and his crew of professional drivers, who would act as our personal instructors throughout the challenge, had just entered and were scoping out potential drivers like 15-year-old Amber Colvin (who had the highest number of wins for her age) and 24-year old Harvard graduate and medical school student Patrick Staropoli (a weekend racer). I wasn’t the only tense one. The range of young talent understood what an amazing opportunity this was, and no one wanted to blow it.
I steered with too much input, whipping the wheel to the right to correct; it was too abrupt, and the rear of the car narrowly missed fishtailing into the scaffolding.
After the media briefing, I grabbed my suit and helmet and headed for the first challenge: timed laps on the short oval focusing on car control. The low-speed short track was essentially a cone course — the perfect place for me to get a feel for the 600 hp stock car without risking a close encounter with the concrete barriers. My instructor drilled mantras like “look where you want to go” and “smooth on the gas and brake” over and over until they became second nature. I kept the car in first gear most of the time, hanging around 15 mph, caring more about lines and lanes and than speed.
The second module tested reaction time. The goal was simple: drive a production Toyota Camry down a straightaway holding at least a speed of 35 mph, then turn into the right or left lane when prompted by a light. I drove a few laps in with no light, and then randomly the left one lit up. It caught me off guard and I steered too sharply to the left; tires squealed and I overcorrected to the right, which broke traction and the rear of the car narrowly missed fishtailing into the scaffolding. My instructor, who didn’t flinch, mentioned I entered at 37 mph so I should try to slow my speed. At 35 mph I was smooth and controlled. I was amazed at how much control you lose with just a couple mph.
I grabbed a boxed lunch and joined the group meeting featuring marketing and public relations directors from the sport, who took us through the importance of branding and sponsorship dollars. I was blown away to learn each car costs an average of $30 million per year to operate — and that nearly 80 percent of that money comes from sponsorships. Unfortunately, for most teams, it’s not as easy as simply making a phone call for the dough. There’s a dance involved on both the team and sponsor side because the companies not only want a winning driver but one that represents the brand well. This somewhat political and seemingly childish business model creates a ridiculously high cost of entry often times eliminating great drivers who simply don’t have the backing; it’s also why you have the Ricky Bobby moments of sponsorship whoring.
Armed with the importance of name dropping and glad-handing I headed to our final module for the day: media relations. I was drilled on tough questions about the future of the sport, how alternative fuels might factor into race day and what NASCAR could do to attract a younger fan base. As I hung up my fire suit for the day I continued to think on these questions — especially the idea of making this sport relevant in a world concerned with wasting gas and a younger demographic that seems to care less about cars than ever before.
After a solid night’s rest I was looking forward to the second day of challenges. We started, appropriately, with endurance. Driving for hours at a time on the freeway can be tiring but driving nearly 200 mph while fighting your car on the straights and battling for position (“rubbing is racing”) is downright grueling. To experience a small dose of this we competed in a 30-minute Karting session on the highly technical track, where I learned firsthand how small mistakes or corrections transform into major differences in the final running order. After driving cleanly for 20 minutes, I made a greedy decision to pass when I should have been patient. I lost all the spots I had gained. How could I stand the pressure of high-intensity racing with millions watching if I couldn’t do it on the Kart track?
The last module of the day was the quarter mile oval. It was finally time to put all I had learned into practice. I was given a pit team, scuffed-in tires and a crew chief who talked to me from the crows nest relaying pointers and timing across the radio. After a quick chat with my coaches I geared up and contorted my 6’1″ frame into the tightest, least comfortable car seat I’ve ever been in. It was like sitting in the lap of Andre the Giant as he bear hugged you.
With my HANS device connected and helmet radio crackling in my ear, I finally heard those magical words: “Gentlemen, start your engines.” I flipped the ignition switch and the 600 hp engine exploded to life. If my previous modules taught me anything, it was the importance of driving smoothly. A car like this is essentially the weight of a Honda Accord with the engine of an Aventador and no traction control or power steering: if you make a mistake, everyone knows.
As the laps went on my times improved; I accelerated hard on the straights and eased off near the corners, using smooth and strong braking. With the tires already toed left slightly, I loosened my grip on the steering wheel and let physics pull me off the wall and into the corner. I feathered the throttle on the entry, hit the apex and accelerated smoothly till I hit the flat straight and crushed the gas pedal. It’s actually a lot more complicated than just “turning left.”
Unfortunately the trip wasn’t completely a success. The two previous days of beautiful weather made way for a massive rain storm throughout the third, ending my hopes of the full NASCAR track experience. As I sat in the media room waiting for the weather to change I couldn’t help but think of all I had learned in the past 48 hours and how so many people have this sport pegged inaccurately. It’s not about faceless rednecks driving loud cars in circles, wasting gas and making noise. This sport is about kids like Amber and Patrick (who went on to win the search and currently drives the 99 PEAK Toyota in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series) who are passionate enough about racing to dedicate their (young) lives to it. It’s about families with an average income of $50,000 who pay $100 a ticket plus expenses as their family vacation to watch their heroes race. It’s about icons like Michael Waltrip who care so deeply about this sport and instill their passion in others.
I might not have come to any conclusions on how to appeal to a younger demo or how to address the problem of fossil fuel scarcity, but I did learn to see these drivers as skilled technicians able to drive 200 mph inches apart for hours at a time, and that their level of focus, commitment and bravery is worthy of respect. They certainly have mine.
Entries begin February 18th for the 2014 PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge