- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

How would you like to drive a real race car on the same course that the pros do?
Envision yourself as a would-be Mario Andretti or Al Unser Jr.?
Well, I have found a way, two actually, where you can live out your wildest dreams and drive an open-wheeled CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) race car. Driving 101 is a company, started by young entrepreneur Robert J. Lutz, that gives average people like you and me the chance to drive a 500-horsepower, 1,800-pound race car at speeds approaching 180 miles per hour.
Just you, the race car and your nerves. Driving 101 runs two venues, one at the Las Vegas International Raceway in Nevada and one at the California Raceway in Fontana. These are two of the most challenging banked ovals in the country. They are racetracks that are downright intimidating just standing in the infield and looking up the steep banks of concrete.
If driving really isn't your cup of tea, but you would really like to experience the thrill of speed, the company offers a less dramatic, but equally impressive ride.
You can take a ride in a dual-seat CART race car that is nearly as thrilling as the single-seat car. This one is driven by one of Driving 101's capable instructors with you sitting just 20 inches behind him. The dimensions of a standard race car are modified slightly to accommodate the extra passenger. The chassis is stretched 10 inches and the fuel tank that is usually located behind the driver, is reduced in size and moved to the side of the passenger.
A formed seat and full five-point racing seat belt is provided so the rider gets the most authentic experience possible. The good folks at Driving 101 wanted me to experience the full treatment so they strapped me into the dual-place vehicle first so that I can see what the customer experiences.
Even though I have driven some of the fastest production cars in the world, this was my first experience in a Championship open-wheeled racer of this type. As the pit crew strapped me in and gave me some pointers on what was about to happen, I could feel my pulse beginning to quicken.
Although I couldn't wait to get behind the wheel of my own car, I was excited to be where I was right then.
Later, with the tandem experience behind me it was time to don my fire-retardant driver's suit and safety helmet and squeeze myself into my own CART car. However, before the instructors would allow me to venture onto this hallowed strip of pavement, they had me go over the rules of the track. They wanted to be sure that if anything went wrong I would have some idea of what to do to lessen the consequences.
The instructors were very quick to point out that this is a powerful race car, on a very demanding course, and that racing is very dangerous. This came pointedly to light just the day before when the up and coming young professional driver, Greg Moore, was killed in a race in California. In a sad, yet comforting, gesture they asked that we have a moment of silence in memory of a fallen comrade.
Following the somber moment came the adrenalin, and I could feel the pulse again begin to quicken in my chest. The time had come to slide into the cockpit of my own CART car. As the pit crew strapped me into the harness I continued to go over in my mind that I could do this and not embarrass myself in front of my newly found friends.
The drill was simple, follow the instructor in the car in front of you, do what he does, go as fast as you dare, but do not pass your instructor. Oh, and remember to have fun. As I drove my car along pit row and the powerful engine's increasing rpms grew louder and louder in the exhaust my pulse began to return to normal. Just like the pros there is no speedometer in the car so I would not know what my lap speeds were until the session was over and I got to see the telemetry printout.
Since these cars are equipped with two-speed transmissions, one up-shift from first to second is all that is needed and I accomplished this without any grinding of the gears. Pressing down on the accelerator I could feel the 500 horsepower growling behind my head.
Even though the car didn't match the 900-plus horsepower and lighter weight of a true racer, I knew in my soul that if I did the unmentionable and stomped down on the accelerator I would surely perform an embarrassing pirouette.
Fortunately, I didn't do either and my self-esteem remained intact. I found driving the car much easier than I had anticipated. All I had to do was stay within the area of the tri-oval, as I was told, and maintain the distance behind my instructor. Most of the time I was pushing my instructor to go faster, feeling I could go considerably faster than we were.
At the end I would be told that I indeed didn't achieve the speed I wanted. I had reached 148.9 miles per hour, well below the 175 mph I had hoped for. I could easily tell this CART car would adhere wonderfully well to the track surface, and I could have easily reached that 175-mph goal. I was astounded at how well the car handled and how the sensation of speed had been camouflaged by the tremendous down force the huge wings created.
I was enjoying getting to know the car and felt it was becoming my friend when I spotted the checkered flag at the start/finish line that signaled the end of my session.
As I entered the back straight my instructor started to slow to begin our entrance onto pit row, I could feel an incredible sadness that my time was over. I wanted nothing more than to continue for the rest of the afternoon. But it would have to wait for another day.
As I wriggled and twisted my way from the cockpit, the pit crew all gave me the requisite high-fives and how was it out there.
Part of the program?
Probably, but I didn't care. It contributed to the great feeling.
Life was good, I just drove my first CART car, and as I removed my racing suit I promised myself this would not be my last. I would be back.
Information on all of the Driving 101 programs is available by calling 702/651-6300 or log onto the Web site at www.driving101.com.

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