"Are there any other questions?" our racing school instructor Jeff Boyer asks to a class of about 50 students who have signed up to drive a real racecar around Lowes Motor Speedway.
A fellow down the row from me has a query. "What should we do if we catch on fire?"
Before Boyer can answer, the student re-words his question, "What should we not do if we catch on fire?"
Combustion determines your post-wreck action, Boyer advises. If you aren't on fire, wait patiently in the car for the on-site ambulance. (Learning that the Buck Baker Racing School employs EMS responders was both comforting and unsettling.) But if you are burning, get the hell out. That, however, is easier said than done. It takes unclasping the steering wheel, figuring out all the places you are harnessed to your seat, then unhooking the window net from the outside. (Racecars don't have doors.)
A 30-minute overview is all it takes before the Buck Baker School lets you into a real racecar -- without an instructor if you desire. During the session, words and terms are thrown out that seem to make sense to everyone else ... but not me. I'm warned against loose conditions, doglegs and riding aprons.
I'm the only person to raise my hand when Boyer asks who hasn't driven a four-gear before. In fact, I hadn't really driven manual before, ever. The only time I tried was with a van on hilly roads in Australia, where they drive on the left side of the road. My skater friends who were teaching me eventually decided I was too slow and unsafe to learn.
So, why not try it again in a racecar on Lowes Motor Speedway with four other amateur racers on the track? Since you don't ever downshift, all I had to do was get the car into fourth gear. That shouldn't be impossible, right?
I signed my life away, hopped into a fire-retardant suit and waited for my turn while thinking about how great my spine felt perfectly aligned and unbroken.
Buck Baker, the first two-time cup champion in NASCAR history, was also the first racer to open a driving school. When the school started 25 years ago, with students such as Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, it was geared towards wannabe professional racers. But now, costing around $400 for 15 laps, the class is targeted on the pot-bellied, middle-aged demographic. (Staffers urge me to mention they do corporate functions as well.) Unlike Richard Petty's driving school, Baker's school allows drivers to pass on the straightaway. At Petty, all cars must follow a lead car, caution lap style, in the order they start (Lame to the Baker crowd, sexy cautious to me).
It's hard to get into the car gracefully, and I somehow manage to leave three of my limbs dangling outside of the car when I tried to stuff myself inside. After they add two cushions so I can reach the clutch, I'm harnessed tightly into the seat.
It's racin' time!
Driving feels more like a video game than highway cruising. Bars on the windshield make your line of vision boxy, and limited head mobility only lets you look straight ahead. At four stories high, the turns are more vertical than I realized; going up in them gave the sensation that you were not too far from toppling over. Over the whole ride, centripetal force pulls heavily on your skull.
Without Boyer in the car with me, disaster would have been unavoidable. Boyer had to steer the car to prevent me from veering towards walls or into the grass. When cars going 140 MPH came up on our tail, he grabbed my arm, like I was his puppet, to wave them by in the mirror. Other times, he pushed my leg down to give the car more gas. The few times when we came around the second part of a turn and I could accelerate and keep the car straight by myself, it was indeed quite thrilling.
To sign up for racing school. Call Sandra Rester: 704-649-9943. (Some racing knowledge is beneficial).