Wednesday, 12 March 2014

My NASCAR Experience

I'm writing this now because I missed the boat on Clipsal 500 commentry (AWOL at my brother's wedding - congrats, bro!) and the F1 in Melbourne doesn't get started for another couple of days. So this will probably be my last chance to write it down before November, and by then the memories will have faded. Since I don't want that to happen, and to record this for posterity, here's my experience of life in a NASCAR stock car.

For anyone who doesn't know already, in November 2013 I took a weekend off work and headed to Melbourne, having booked a NASCAR ride with Adrenaline/Fastrack Racing, or whatever it is they call themselves. My reasons for choosing NASCAR over the more common "V8 Race Car" ride & drive package were four: firstly, everybody chooses the V8 drive, and I like to be different; secondly, on closer inspection those "V8 Race Cars" are just normal Commodores with lots of racing parts glued on; thirdly, having had a fair bit of fun with stock car racing on rFactor, I wanted to see what the real thing was like; and lastly, it was the cheapest thing they offered.

In retrospect, that's quite weird: in the briefing, the people in charge revealed the whole reason they started the business was so they'd have a way to run their race cars occasionally. The V8 Race Cars on the road circuit are just a way to pay the bills; NASCAR's where their hearts are really at (they even admitted that if they'd waited until today to bring NASCAR to Australia instead of trying in the late 80's it would have taken off a lot better - but of course now they have no money).

Anyway, the cars: the white #1 was patterned after a Holden Commodore and the orange #8 a Chevy Lumina, both ex-racing cars that saw plenty of action in the Thunderdome's 90's heyday ("This place used to rock," they told us. "We'd have 40,000 people here every Saturday night."). The engines were both racing-spec 358ci Chevy V8s; surprisingly, when I asked if they detune them to make them last longer, they said no, they just don't take them above 5,000rpm anymore. So there's probably still over 500 kW on tap there, if you hold off changing up... something to think about.

Walking up to the cars made me feel a little bit light-headed, buzzing. They're surprisingly small when you see them with your own eyes - on TV, dressed as they are in flashy sponsor colours, they tend to look larger-than-life, especially when the only people you see standing next to them are racing drivers. But racing drivers are short-arses like you wouldn't believe. Of the two drivers we had that day, only one of them - my driver, Mal Rose - actually stood taller than my shoulders. The other - George Elliot, who was actually Aussie NASCAR champion over the summer of '91-'92 - was about an inch shorter, and they were both kind of dwarfy dudes with pot bellies. But in their full racing gear, they were still pretty intimidating - think Kerry King, minus the beard but wearing a fireproof suit, and you get the idea.

Getting into the car is frankly humiliating if you're my size. I'm not a small guy in any dimension (ladies), and stock cars have no doors. They're just an aluminium skin draped over a roll cage, so the only way in or out is through the window. And it's not until you try to squeeze in that you realise these cars aren't built full-size, but about 80% scale. The "Holden Commodore" George Elliot was driving actually had a wheelbase about the same as my Corolla hatchback, would overhang maybe 200mm at both ends, and had a lower roofline. Squeezing down and twisting around the roll cage is the only way to get in, so if you're built like an NRL player I recommend taking up contortion as a hobby (alternatively, thankyou so much Dad for being a truckie who drove car-carriers and giving me a childhood of getting in and out via the window. The practice came in handy!).

Once you're in, the first thing you notice is the heat. It wasn't an especially hot day that day - high-20's maybe, with a cool breeze - but once you're inside the car it's nasty. You know how it is when you first get into your car after it's been parked in the sun all day? It's like that, the kind of heat dogs die in. Within seconds my forehead was beading with sweat. The difference is, there's no AC on a racing car, so it stays like that all day, even when you're doing 200+ with the window down. "Like sitting in a sauna with your overalls on," is an old cliche, but it's stuck around because it's accurate. Sweltering.

Despite the heat though, the cockpit was a surprisingly cozy place to be. Both cars that day were built by a guy named Marshall Brewer, and clearly he knows how to play Heavy Metal - you have four-inch thick steel piping all around you, some of it wrapped in the foam they make pool toys from. The seat felt like it was made of particle board and moulds to your back very nicely, even though I'm not really... erm... identically shaped to a real racing driver. Maybe that seat was made just for civvies. Anyway, all the solid steel and the way everything's so cramped makes you feel nicely cocooned, like you're wearing the car more than riding in it. But at the same time, it makes you nervous - like, gosh, there must be a reason they made the car this strong, right...?

When they fire the engine up, it sounds absolutely wicked. The engine note on an Aussie V8 is a bit too polite, a bit soulless (although Mercedes and Volvo seem to be doing their bit to fix that). Not on these. They snarl and crackle on the overrun and you get the distinct impression there's nothing between you and the cylinders - the exhaust pipe would barely be a metre long. The driver revs it like a pit bull straining at the leash, and for a second you decide that no, you don't want to do this after all... but then the spotter gives the cars a final visual check, and gives the drivers the thumbs up - and you're off.

The launch is surprisngly gentle - I've ridden in cars that should come with a neck brace, and this wasn't one of them (or maybe being hard up against the seat already took a lot of the shock out of it). The difference was, these guys didn't stop accelerating. All down pit lane they ran it up through the gears and the speed just kept building. The fastest you can go on Victoria/NSW roads is 110km/h: I'm guessing we were past that landmark in, oh, about three seconds. And we didn't drop below it again until we were safely back in pit lane.

So there I was, finally seeing the Calder Park Thunderdome as it should be seen. The sensation of speed was impressive, but not overwhelming... until we hit Turn 1.

The turns are where the experience went from "exciting" to "oh God, get me out of here!" For starters, in the middle of a race, I'm pretty sure you could lick a NASCAR brake disc and still enjoy a Mr Whippy afterwards, because the brakes will be stone cold. Yes, the drivers do slow down for the turns, but they consider themselves slowed down enough just by backing off the power. In NASCAR, the brakes are mostly decorative.

Next, the tyres. If you've ever been karting you'll know what I'm talking about already. For the rest of you... good God, you have no idea what slick tyres are like. They're nothing like the tyres on your car, which are really just to keep your rims off the tarmac and maybe clear some rain. Racing slicks are different, they hang on hard. Like you're welded to the track at all four corners, like you're hanging from the tyres but right-side up (I had a guy in a jobseeker class tell us it was a weird feeling, like the chassis was ready to slide but the tyres wouldn't let it. This is absolutely correct). The product of this is a simply incredible amount of G-force. The Fastrack page I linked above claims 2 or 3g, and I wouldn't dispute that, because for me it was only just below the pain threshold. You can feel your brain squishing against the inside of your skull and your left-hand lung trying to emigrate over to your right side. The closest thing to it is riding a rollercoaster - a rollercoaster that's constantly slipping off the rails and jumping onto some more.

That's the other thing about the turns - they're bumpy. Part of that is neglect (the 'dome never gets used anymore) and part is that racing cars simply don't believe in ride quality. Put together, the sensation is kind of like a speedboat bouncing from wave to wave. Every bump triggers another half-inch slide, and the driver's going at a speed that just allows him to land, grind out another slide and bounce to the next bump without losing control and careening into the wall.

I remember years ago reading a journalist who got to try out Sebastian Bourdais' title-winning ChampCar, and came away saying, "the faster you go, the higher the concrete walls seem. At full speed, it feels like you're driving in a squash court." Weirdly, I didn't get that feeling. In turns as steep as this, the wall is sort of hanging overhead, like the barbed wire section at the top of a security fence (in fact, it's so steep it almost feels like the turn is rising before you, like the tunnels in a waterslide). It never felt especially close because these guys hug the low line all the way around - but at the same time, it was what made the whole experience so thrilling.

Normal people, you see - me, you, anyone not-crazy - drive our cars according to consequences. We approach a corner at such a speed that, if we do get it wrong, we know we can recover or, at worst, hit that tree slowly enough that we'll emerge unharmed. The thing is, I didn't realise this was how I drove a car until I climbed in with someone who doesn't think like that. This was the real crux of the experience for me - all that G-force means you can feel how hard you are going to hit that wall when that monstrous grip finally does run out. And a racing driver doesn't care. Mal Rose barrelled into those turns like that concrete wall wasn't even there. While I was hanging on, fighting just to hold myself upright against the G's, he was giving it a bit more throttle and sliding through the rest of the turn - because he thought it was fun.

By this point the car was starting to seem less approachable than I first thought. You want to know the difference between a normal car and a racing car? It's that a racing car hates you. It's kind of like that scene in Avatar where Sam Worthington is trying to find a dragon-thingy to ride: "How will I know which one's mine?" "It will try to kill you." The impression I got from being in the cockpit at racing speed is that road cars are demure, helpful things that sort out a lot of stuff without you even noticing, like a good butler. A racing car is a pissed-off dragon you have to wrestle to the ground with sheer talent before you can make it behave. If you haven't got the talent, well...

On that note, Mal definitely had the talent. It never made sense to me that the career ladder for NASCAR starts with Saturday-night dirt oval racing, like the kind we have even in my home town Gilgandra. It does now: on a couple of laps, Mal (or as I shall call him from now on, Sir) held that car in a perfect four-wheel drift from the entry of the turn right through to the exit (and for the other laps, they were imperfect drifts, meaning he had to correct it with the steering wheel or, as to borrow Mr McLaughlin's phrase, with some jandal). Dirt-tracking on tarmac. With slicks, and concrete walls at arm's length. That is brave. Oh, and the banking sits lower than the straights as well, so you have to drop into it. In the photo the gradient seems gentle enough; at full speed it feels like a BMX jump. Remember all those times your dad ramped the family car into a sudden drop and left you dizzy with your heart in your mouth? Yeah, that, twice a lap.

So overall, you do a BMX jump and ramp the car into the turn, land with a thump, go sliding dunk-dunk-dunk across the bumps, trying to keep your insides from coming out while your driver deliberately provokes more sliding to find more speed, then do another BMX jump onto the straight. Where you'll get at most a few seconds' rest before it starts all over again.

The joke about NASCAR is that it stands for, "Non-Athletic Sport Centred Around Rednecks." I'm never making that joke again, because if that's the non-athletic version of racing then I'd hate to try the others. It's physically draining just holding yourself up against the G's, never mind all the strain of actually driving the car (we'll get into how incredibly heavy a brake pedal is another day...) especially in that 45-degree heat. Four laps is all they give you, but for me, four laps was enough. I was knackered, ready to get out. God only knows what it's like to do it for three and a half hours, with 40 other cars crowding you out. Afterwards I drove back to the motel with my brain ringing like your ears after someone slaps them, and had a good ten hours sleep. And the punchline I usually give is that these old blokes - in their late 50s, both of them - had both been in the car for over an hour by the time I got in, and the first thing Sir Mal said to me was, "I've gotta get back to Charlotte, they still let over-50's have a steer there!" These old guys are tough, tough like old leather, or a truck tyre. And they have absolutely no fear, none at all. God only knows what hard bastards they were back when they were in their prime.

And the next day, as I drove back home, all I could think was: "Do it. Hit the treadmill. Start karting. Get yourself a CAMS license. Get a car and go racing." It's an adrenaline rush like you wouldn't believe. Like Fight Club, after being in a racecar, everything else in your life gets the volume turned down. For the first time, I understood Maurice Trintignant's famous words: "Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is... just waiting."

The waiting is killing me. I need to do it again.

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