Copyright 2007-2010, Scott D. Murdock.  Additional photos and video Copyright 2007, Denise L. Pemberton.

Watching the Races

I've been to a few NASCAR races at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS).

November 2006: Kevin Harvick won the Busch Series race in his #21 car. Tony Stewart won the NEXTEL Cup race in his #20 Home Depot Chevrolet and climbed the fence to receive his checkered flag! Trivia: These were the last leaded fuel NASCAR races at TMS.

April 2007: Matt Kenseth won the Busch Series race in his #17 car. Jeff Burton won the NEXTEL Cup race in his #31 Prilosec OTC Chevrolet. Trivia: These were the first unleaded fuel NASCAR races at TMS, this was the last time the "NEXTEL" and "Busch" names were used at TMS, and this was the first time Toyota competed in a Cup race at TMS.

April 2008: Kyle Busch won the Nationwide Series race in his #18 Toyota. Carl Edwards won the Sprint Cup race in his #99 AFLAC Ford and did a backflip from his car! Trivia: This was the first time the "Sprint" and "Nationwide" series names were used at TMS, this was the first time Toyota competed in a Nationwide Series race at TMS, and this was the first time the Cup series winged "Car of Tomorrow" raced at TMS.

I've been to one set of NASCAR races at Kansas Speedway.

October 2010: Joey Logano won the Nationwide Series race in his #20 Toyota. Greg Biffle won the Spring Cup race in his #16 Ford Fusion.Trivia: This was the first time the Cup series "Car of Tomorrow" raced at Kansas with the blade spoiler instead of the wing. This was the last time the current type Nationwide series car raced at Kansas.

Riding at Texas Motor Speedway

On 21 July 2007 my racing pal Denise and I returned to Texas Motor Speedway -- not to watch a race this time, but to snag passenger rides with the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE).  They offer driving schools with their NASCAR-style stock cars (slightly modified by adding a passenger seat).  They also offer the "ridealong" for those who just want to see what it feels like to ride the track in a racecar.  Of course we took our cameras, but we were not allowed to take them on the rides, so the only photos I have to share are from before and after (plus a video Denise took of my ride).

The RPDE cars are painted to resemble various popular NEXTEL Cup Series cars.  Our car resembled Ryan Newman's number 12 Dodge Charger, and others in use included crowd favorites such as the number 8, 01, and 20 cars.  Denise and I rode in the same car, me first and her next.

In preparation for your ride you put on a fire suit and a large, heavy helmet.  A crew member fits you with a HANS (Head and Neck Support) device.  It is difficult to get into the car wearing the helmet and HANS device, because you can't turn your neck or move your head very much at all.  Stepping in through the window opening was easy enough, but getting my head inside was comical.  Bump, bump, bump -- finally I slid inside!  Once down in the low seat, my driver Chris and the crew member fastened my five-point harness, and they snug it up tight.  I felt like I was bolted into the car -- especially since I couldn't turn my head to look at my driver while we were chatting.

Once the cargo (um, that would be me) was secured, Chris fired the engine and the V-8 roared.  He takes off and the acceleration is awesome.  Before we even leave pit road I was thinking "Oh geez, we are going way too fast!"  He turned onto the track and sped up even more.  The ridealong is a three-lap event.  With no traffic and clean air, Chris was able to stick the preferred groove all the way around.  The straightaways were fun and very fast -- about 165 mph top speed on the front stretch, just a few feet away from the wall!  But the turns were the amazing part.  When you dive into a corner you're pushed to the right, but because of the incline of the track, you're also slammed down into the seat with a surprising amount of force.  With the turns at TMS banked 24 degrees, the effect is very much like making a hard, climbing turn in a high-performance aircraft!  I have a whole new level of respect for what the drivers go through during each race. 

Here's video Denise shot of my ridealong.  I'm in the lead car of the three seen here on the front stretch. 

        Large 10MB file for high-speed connections.

        Small file for dial-up connections.

I was about halfway through my ride before I reminded myself to breathe.  I was so tensed up against the physical force, that I was holding my breath.  In the turns it seemed almost certain (to me) that the back end was going to break loose and we would hit the wall.  But those big Goodyears have a tremendous amount of grip, and we kept going through those turns at higher speeds than I would have guessed possible. 

Here's Denise being fitted for her helmet, crossing the start/finish line at about 150mph (still accelerating down the straightaway), and smiling after her ride!

This was a really cool experience that I recommend to any racing fan.  I may go back another time and actually *gulp* take one of the driving schools, if I can get up the nerve!  And I extend my thanks to Chris and all the friendly RPDE crew that made this such fun.  An added bonus was driving my car through the tunnel to the infield, parking in the garage area, and seeing the speedway from a different perspective.  It was fun to look back at the tunnel, and see the Sunoco pumps and victory lane up close.  All in all, a great day for a pair of NASCAR fans!

Driving at Homestead-Miami Speedway

The NASCAR Racing Experience (NRE) was at Homestead when I was in town on a research trip. I signed up for their entry-level driving package on 31 Jan 2010. After surrendering my driver license and donning a fire suit, I attended a drivers meeting to learn what I was about to go through. I was going to drive a real racecar -- a former NEXTEL Cup car -- on the speedway. When NASCAR ended the season here just over two months prior, I studied the track layout knowing that I might have this opportunity. NRE operates differently from most of the driving experiences; you are not in a car with an instructor sitting next to you. Rather, you are in a car by yourself. You have radio communications with your racing instructor who serves as your spotter. The experience is an 8-minute timed driving session. The cars have modified engines putting out 500 horsepower instead of 850, but the general operation is the same.

When your turn comes up, a crewmember walks you out to your assigned car. I drove a #26 Ford Fusion that Jamie McMurray raced in the 2007 season -- maybe this was the car I watched him drive at Texas in April 2007? Once you climb in, they fasten your five-point harness, connect your communications cord, point out the controls and gauges, start the engine, then secure the window net. Then your spotter speaks to you by name, telling you to go ahead and put the car in first gear (a green light on the dash lets you know you're in first -- not third or reverse). Then the spotter tells you to proceed down pit road. You acknowledge each of the spotter's instructions by depressing the talk switch on the steering wheel and saying "Ten-four."

You press gently on the throttle and ease back on the clutch, being very careful not to spin the tires as you move out. (You were lectured in the drivers meeting that if you spun the tires, your spotter would hit the Kill Switch and your experience would end then and there). Shifting up to second, then third, you get a feel for how much power is under your control. At the end of pit road you steer left onto the access road that takes you around turns one and two; by the time you merge onto the back stretch you're in fourth gear accelerating up to 3,800 RPM (about 106 MPH) as you hit turn three. You hold that RPM as you come around and down the front stretch, getting a feel for the car. With 18-22 degrees of banking in the turns, there is no need at these speeds to slow down in the turns. Your spotter tells you this, but I'm here to tell you it defies three decades of safe highway driving to keep your speed when you launch into a turn at over 100 MPH! When you approach the turns, the track looks like a wall in front of you! But after a couple laps you gain confidence in the grip of the tires and the holding force of the banked track and you hold steady. But your spotter wants you going faster; when you come out of turn two the second time he's telling you to take it up to 4,200, then 4,400, then 4,800, then 5,000. The rev limiter chip in the cars is set for 5,000 RPM, and when you hit it you know it because of the stacatto sound and feel of the engine. That's when you know you've met your speed objective of 140 MPH for the day (although my certificate says only 139.95), and the spotter tells you to just ease back a little bit from that point to stay off the chip. A few laps at this speed and you get the feel for the track, although you realize you really can't see much of anything except the track itself. The stands and the infield are pretty much a blur. In the corners, you feel a helluva lot of physical force; sideways and down. I found myself holding my breath and gritting my teeth in the turns, with my vision focusing tightly on that white line I was trying to stay three feet away from. That's when I thought how hard it must be to do that lap after lap while dealing with other cars at the same time! I didn't pass any other cars, or get passed, during my ride so I guess I was holding my own, speed-wise. When your eight minutes is up, your spotter has you ease off the throttle when you come out of turn two and test your brakes. Then you turn onto the pit access road, at the entrance to turn three (Homestead is kinda different from most tracks). You're off the gas now, and once you turn onto pit road you put the car in neutral and coast back to your starting point. Once you come to a stop, your crewmember opens the window net and shuts off the engine before unstrapping you. You climb out giggling, with a huge grin on your face.

While at the speedway, I also enjoyed looking around at the garage area, media center, medical care center, Sunoco pumps, and victory lane.

A bonus treat for the day was taking a 3-lap passenger ride in the back seat of a "stretched" Indy car at 170 MPH. The Indy cars are operated by the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, affiliated with NRE and operated by the same people at the track.