Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Peter Bleakney

It would have been all too easy to trick myself into thinking this was some kind of fantastic, virtual thrill ride. After all, I was at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida, and the last two days had been spent experiencing a myriad of barf-inducing rides with my kids.

But no. This was definitely the real deal. The un-muffled howl of the 600-hp, 358 cubic inch small-block Chevy was way too convincing. The manhole-sized steering wheel was writhing in my hands, and as I dove deep into turn one on the tail of the Kellogg’s Monte Carlo, my neck muscles fought a losing battle to keep my helmeted head reasonably upright.

This was the real magic kingdom, kids. As in The King: Richard Petty.
The Richard Petty Driving Experience operates at 25 major tracks across the U.S., and offers an unparalleled fist-pumping taste of what the big boys in NASCAR do for a living.

I went for the Rookie Experience, which costs US $399, and gives each participant eight laps of the speedway after only an hour of instruction. Talk about instant gratification. The fact that just about anybody can operate one of these race cars right out of the gate says a lot about the accessibility of

Author Peter Bleakney climbs into the number 24 car. Click image to enlarge

this sport. If you can drive a stick and squeeze your butt through the window, RPDE says you’re good to go.

The cars we drove are built by Richard Petty Enterprises in Charlotte, North Carolina, and are very close to the Nextel Cup racers – the main differences being a fibreglass body (the real cars use steel) and a motor slightly detuned for reliability. In all other aspects, they are the rude, crude and nasty instruments of counter-clockwise navigation we see on TV.

Click image to enlarge

Technologically, these 3400 lb vehicles are from the Bronze Age. At the very least, a couple of decades have passed since you could buy a solid axle, rear-wheel-drive, manual four-speed car powered by a V8 breathing through a four-barrel carburetor. Power steering? Fuggetaboutit. But this is the time-honoured formula NASCAR sticks to, and it obviously works. It keeps the costs down and the competition close.

After a short introductory presentation, we hit the track in some high-powered vans with our instructors at the wheel. The Walt Disney World Speedway is a one-mile tri-oval with the three corners banked at 10 degrees, 8.5 degrees and 7 degrees respectively. It was originally built for the Indy Racing League. My instructor is Travis Wilson, a 21 year-old professional driver who races Super Modified cars on weekends. Each driver in our group gets a one-on-one, eight-lap session with Wilson. He leads and we follow at three car lengths – hopefully.

Click image to enlarge

“I’m going to give you a lot of information in the next twenty minutes. All of which you will forget when you’re strapped in the car on pit lane.” he joked.

Acceleration and deceleration points on the track are marked with coloured cones (no need for braking), and Wilson stresses that a quick glance at the flagman when exiting turn three is imperative. A coiled green flag means get closer to the instructor. Yellow says you’re too close. A blue flag with an orange stripe indicates you’re off the racing line and a red flag with the number four screams: “Shift into fourth gear, bone head!”

Apparently, some participants forget about that last cog, and the King gets real pissed if you blow up one of his engines.

“If you only remember two things,” says Wilson, “Stay three car lengths off my bumper, and follow my line. If I leave the track and go to McDonalds for a burger, I want you to go with me. And if you try to pass me, I’ll put you in the wall. I’m a professional racer. I can’t help it.” Gotcha.

Click image to enlarge

In no time I am suited up and strapped in the trembling beast, waiting for Wilson to lead me out. Believe me, those few minutes are an eternity. The interior of a NASCAR racer is not a pretty sight. It looks like the aftermath of a horrible bicycle accident. As the acrid smell of burnt 110 octane racing fuel tickles my nose, I scan the gauges and toggle switches and check that the green first-gear indicator light is on. Don’t want to stall the sucker.

What else did Wilson tell me? Oh yeah, hold the wheel at 10 and 4 o’clock and take a real deep breath before triggering the fire extinguisher ’cause it will suck the oxygen right out of the cabin.

Wilson pulls up and we’re off. Twenty-five hundred rpm launches the car nicely and by the time we reach the end of pit row, I’m in third. Initial impressions – firm but progressive clutch, heavy steering and a hellatious racket.

Click image to enlarge

Out on the speedway we hit the chute up into turn two – way up high on entry and then a hair-raising dive down to the apron for good exit speed. After the first two laps I find a rhythm and each time round is a little faster and smoother. With speed, the steering lightens up and it requires a gentle touch. What’s most surprising is how much speed we can carry through the banked turns. The G-forces are roller-coaster level, but there is little sensation of understeer or oversteer. The car just steers and sticks.

By the final few laps, I’m deep in the throttle coming off the turns, trying to keep pace with Wilson who evidently knows exactly how far he can push each student. And then it’s over.

Instructor Trevor Wilson (right) shows Peter Bleakney how to hold the wheel. Click image to enlarge

At the closing ceremony, we each receive a certificate with our lap times, average speeds and top speed. My best go-around was the final lap with a top speed of 122 mph.

The Rookie Experience is one that definitely cries out for an encore, and RPDE is there for all Tony Stewart wannabes. But you gotta pay to play. There are four further levels to explore, ranging from $799 to $2999.

Would I do it again? Do ‘gators pee in the bayou?

Related stories on Autos

Also see:
Richard Petty Driving Experience

Connect with