Commentary: Reality check in a race car is the perfect way to start Speedweeks

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Did the car get smaller, or did I really get that much bigger?

I’d done the NASCAR Racing Experience roughly 20 years ago when I was younger and, in stock car terms, a much more aerodynamic individual.

Sliding into the cockpit through the window as cars whizzed around Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday morning, the very first thing I noticed was how much tighter they’d made the windows.

Only they said the windows hadn’t really gotten smaller.

It takes significantly more twisting and bending to slip in the driver’s seat at 45 than it did at 25.

The NRE — previously called the Richard Petty Driving Experience — gives regular folks the opportunity to ride as a passenger or drive solo around one of the most famous tracks in the world. There’s never a bad time to do it if you haven’t, but there’s something about driving the track during Speedweeks that just makes things feel more authentic.

There’s a different feel around Daytona International in mid-February than there is during any other time of year. The infield is buzzing with RVs and campers. The start of the season is hours away. And there’s nothing like being at the track days before the “Super Bowl of Racing” with a chance to slip on a firesuit and take a few laps around the Speedway.

And then, you squeeze yourself into the car and things get real in a hurry.

There, you’re greeted with more gauges than you’ve ever seen before. And you quickly come to the realization that you should have paid a bit more attention to the instructor in the 20-minute pre-drive class.

Want to have a little fun? Go drive a go-kart.

Want nerves, excitement, flat-out panic, sheer adrenaline and sweaty palms as you rip into a 31-degree banked turn at 140 mph? Go take a few laps around a superspeedway and then tell me how you don’t think a professional racecar driver deserves to be labeled as one of the most athletic, nerves-of-titanium professions out there.

The big question many people ask and have asked when it comes to NASCAR is just how much skill does it take to actually drive one of those things? Drivers aren’t really athletes. How athletic can a racer be when their car is doing 99% of the work. In its most basic form, NASCAR is just left turns and staying on the gas, right?

There is nothing simple or easy about driving. Even buckling in takes somewhere between basic Boy Scout ability and three years of college to figure out the restraint system.

There are straps on both sides, a harness across your midsection and between your legs that all loop in to buckle and lock you in place. The head and neck restraint limit your ability to rotate your head a little more than half a turn to either side. When I say your body has very little room to move in any direction, an MRI tube feels like a two-bedroom apartment compared to the driver’s seat of a race car.

Until you are strapped into the front seat of a machine like that, flip the switch to fire up the engine and shift into fourth gear by the time the car hits the pavement of the racing surface just 300 yards later, you can’t quite understand how skilled and mentally refined drivers at any level of professional racing have to be.

It’s natural to want to hit the brake going into a turn. At Daytona, that’s a major no.

Stay on the gas and hang on to the steering wheel. Speed and G-force does the rest and keeps your car pinned to the track.

The first lap is a total feeling out process. Your hands are vise-gripped around the steering wheel. You watch the RPMs and try to decode the instructions from your spotter, who you can barely hear above the roar of the engine.

“Get closer to the apron.”

“Stay low. Pro driver is passing you high.”

“Don’t touch the brakes!”

By the time you’ve done a lap around the Speedway, the nerves settle a bit before a pro driver roars by on the outside lane. Then another pro driver sails by on the backstretch. By your third lap, the grip around the wheel loosens and you’ve got the perfect line down pat. Your spotter is proud.

That must be what real racing is like! Get me Rick Hendrick or Richard Childress on the line. This isn’t so hard.

That is until you get the printout at the very end of your ride that brings the reality to you on a slip of paper.

Top speed: 143.8 mph.

On a beautiful morning in Daytona, the absolute fastest I got my car up to wasn’t even the average speed of last year’s Daytona 500 field (144.4 mph).

That’s with no traffic. No four-wides into the turn. No pit stops. No competition — except getting in and out of the car.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.