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The experience of a lifetime

Richard Petty rookie drive at Richmond International Raceway

24 November 2014, 10:51am
The 600 horsepower, 5867 cc engine 2010 Dodge Charger driven by Alfred
The 600 horsepower, 5867 cc engine 2010 Dodge Charger driven by Alfred
By Alfred A Farrugia

Richard Petty, popularly known as ‘The King’ of NASCAR, is the most decorated driver in the history of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) in the United States, having won a record number of 200 career races and 7 NASCAR Cup championships during his distinguished career.

1,184 races do not seem to have been enough for Richard Petty, so after he retired from active racing spanning 3 decades, he set up the Petty Enterprises and subsequently the Richard Petty Motorsports team, currently with three racing cars, and introduced the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) programme to offer an opportunity to motorsport fans a taste of driving a real NASCAR race car.

As I was on a visit in Springfield, Virginia, last month, I could not miss the opportunity of redeeming a gift card donated by my daughter and my son for a Richard Petty “Ride-Along Experience” at the Richmond International Raceway, the closest racing track to Springfield.

The 1.2 km (0.75 mile) Richmond International Raceway is one of the shortest tracks used by NASCAR, but it is quite challenging. The oval has the shape of the letter D, with 14 degree banking in some sections of the track.

I had driven Lotus Formula 3 and Lotus Formula Ford racing cars several years ago at Snetterton circuit and Brands Hatch circuit, respectively, in the UK. But this programme was completely different. In contrast to the open wheel single-seater, the first challenge is to get into the car through the window!

I had also taken a tour of Daytona Internal Speedway some years ago, at normal cruising speed, and in Las Vegas, I “drove” a NASCAR racing car on a simulator. But this time the drive was for real. The 2010 Dodge Charger of Richard Petty had a 5867 cc 600 horsepower engine built according to NASCAR’s requirements – even though they do not actually participate in competitions.

The Richard Petty Driving Experience operation is based in Concord, North Carolina, where they build the cars – chassis, body and engine - from the ground up in the form of Ford, Chevy, Dodge or Toyota, a fleet of more than 100 racing cars, which together log over a million miles every year.

The cars themselves are actually a little heavier than the racing cars used in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for safety reasons, but they are more powerful than anything I had ever driven. These driving experiences are currently being offered at more than 15 tracks across all of the United States, and at the Orlando (Walt Disney World Speedway) the programme runs for more than 360 days a year.

While I was very eager to redeem the gift card for the 3-lap Ride-Along experience, I thought that after driving more than 150 km (96 miles) to Richmond, it would make sense to take the opportunity and drive a few laps on the raceway myself, instead of just a ride. So I booked an 8-lap ‘rookie drive’. All the driving slots had already been booked, so the only opportunity to drive was to join the class at 8.30 in the morning.

Waking at 5.00 am was not a problem, and by 6.00 in the morning I was already on the road. It was still dark. Unfortunately, some of the ramps leading to the Interstate 95 highway were temporarily closed for night road construction and improvements, and the GPS continued to re-direct me to the same ramps. 

Shortly after I succeeded to find a way of getting on the I95 highway, I was stuck in traffic as the night works were still going on, even though it was a Saturday morning! 231,000 vehicles drive through this very busy eastern United States corridor every day, including 14,000 tractor-trailers. If one wishes to know what real traffic congestion looks like, he or she should drive through this highway!

Eventually, I arrived at the Richmond International Raceway, but I missed the first briefing video of my class. Chief instructor Don kindly explained to me what the first video covered, after I watched the second video about the safety features of the racing cars.

This Richard Petty operation provides participants with racing suits, helmets equipped with microphone and audio equipment for communication with the instructor, and the HANS device protective equipment for head and neck. The 3-lap Ride-Along experience was quite fast and thrilling, and it made up for what I missed in the briefing.

To help drivers follow the racing line, the track is cleverly marked with pairs of orange/red marks at strategic points along the track, which are called “gates”. So there were “gates” on the track approaching the apex of the four turns – which could also be considered as two sets of double-apex corners – and there were other “gates” at the exit of the turns and on the short straights. 

My instructor Marc was excellent, but he was sitting in the passenger seat, so I was a little cautious when approaching the outside wall on the straights. As a result I missed the “gates” by a few centimeters in some of the laps, as I did not want to drive too close to the wall at top speed. I did not need to try to break any records, so I just decided to enjoy myself reaching a top speed of only 150 km/h (94 mph). With a few more laps I could have gone a little faster.

As this was the very first time I was driving a NASCAR racing car, it was truly the experience of a lifetime, and I purchased a plaque with two photos, and the videos of both the ride and the drive. I suggest that those fans who plan to travel to the US on business or pleasure, try to include a visit to one of the tracks for a similar experience.

This Richard Petty programme is professionally managed by Pete Bartlett, assisted by a whole team of efficient instructors and helpers. RPDE is the best NASCAR racing entertainment experience that racing fans can find. Who knows, perhaps the racing track in Malta, if and when it is developed, could be added to host these Richard Petty driving experiences in the Mediterranean.    

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