- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Steve Hurst, dressed in a fire-retardant suit, climbs in the window of a Late Model stock car at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas on a blistering Friday in July, clamps on his five-point seat belt, pulls on his helmet and fires up the car’s powerful engine.

The deep-throated roar of a stock car engine echoes across the pit row.

Mr. Hurst, a 27-year-old Fairfax County firefighter, then eases the car onto the three-eighths of a mile oval track and falls in behind pace-car driver Ray Andrews. It is a moment Mr. Hurst has been anticipating for weeks.

He has become part of a legion of race car fans and thrill seekers who have paid either to drive or to ride along in race cars at short tracks and superspeedways across the country. People undertake “drive and ride alongs” for pure excitement, to experience firsthand what riding in a race car is like or as a first step toward becoming a race car driver.

Mr. Hurst, who has been a NASCAR fan for many years, has been considering racing for a while.

“I thought I would come down and actually drive and see what it’s all about,” says Mr. Hurst, a Prince William County resident.

Mr. Hurst drives the 2,500-pound stock car around the track behind Mr. Andrews, a professional driver, for 15 laps, barrels down the straightaways and screeches through the turns in a little more than 20 seconds.

“It was pretty cool,” Mr. Hurst says. “It was well worth it. It wasn’t scary to me. The faster you go, the better it is.”

Mr. Hurst also liked the five-lap “ride along” afterward with professional stock car driver Mike Southard, one of the top drivers at Old Dominion Speedway. Mr. Southard also owns Try It Racing, which sells the rides. Mr. Southard revved up the car to race speeds as Mr. Hurst sat next to him, running at more than 100 mph in the straightaways and 70 in the turns.

The G-force and the pure physicalness of riding in a stock car are surprising to many participants.

“It’s a little like: ‘Wow.’” Mr. Hurst says. “Once Southard was out there driving, it’s amazing how fast you can go and keep the car in control.”

Cole Compton, a 28-year-old Manassas builder, is a veteran of Lowe’s Motor Speedway Driving School in Charlotte, N.C. Mr. Compton has driven 120 laps at Lowe’s but is still impressed with the acceleration of a short-track stock car at Old Dominion.

“You can feel the corners more here because at Lowe’s it’s a mile and half instead of three-eighths,” says Mr. Compton, who is also considering racing. “So you’re constantly turning here, whereas at Lowe’s, you have a long straightaway.”

Mark Jenkins, a Late Model stock car driver at Old Dominion Speedway, gets a kick out of giving people “ride alongs.” He is one of several pro drivers whom fans can request to drive them around the track for five laps at $40.

“I like doing it just to see the reactions from the fans,” Mr. Jenkins says. “We’re not going as fast as when we race, but to see the look on the fan’s face after doing it is awesome. When they get out and their eyes are lit up and they’re star-struck, it’s a lot of fun.”

Jason Doering, a 31-year-old engineer from Fredericksburg, Va., rode along with Mr. Jenkins.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Mr. Doering says. “I did the Drop Zone [Stunt Tower] at King’s Dominion the other day. It was a great ride, but it’s got nothing on the race car.”

Mr. Doering says he could not believe the way the car accelerated in the straightaways or how strong the G-forces became when Mr. Jenkins took the turns sharply.

Sandra O’Shell, 42, a fan of Todd Bodine and NASCAR, says she loved the “ride along.”

“I couldn’t stop laughing,” says Miss O’Shell, a Fairfax commercial real estate developer. “It was the absolute greatest and better than anything I’ve done.” She says she plans to come back and drive a stock car next time.

Patrick and Nancy Dempsey, of Woodbridge, Va., are both NASCAR fans and wanted to see what stock car drivers experience.

“It was awesome,” says Mr. Dempsey, 36, a sprinkler fitter.

Mrs. Dempsey, 49, an office manager, says, “Now, we know what the drivers are going through inside the car.” She also plans on driving when she comes back again.

Mr. Southard, a driver at Old Dominion Speedway for 10 years, came up with the idea of selling stock car rides to people or letting them drive after he let some of his crew members drive his race car during slack times. Crew members would climb out of the cars after the ride ecstatic.

“They were just totally amazed and excited and had a new appreciation for what it’s like out there,” says Mr. Southard, who formerly built elevators and escalators.

Try It Racing’s main package includes 15 laps driving and then five laps with a pro driver for $240. Track flagman Dave Menefee instructs drivers on safety, how to get in and out of the car, and what drivers should and should not do, as well as how to fasten seat belts.

Drivers follow a pace car slowly at first and then faster if they can keep up the pace car’s speed.

“If they pay attention and they do it right, we’re going to teach them how to drive race cars without a lot of money and without making them drive five hours to get to a track or requiring them to take a lot of classroom instruction,” Mr. Southard says, “and when they climb out of the car, they’ll be excited because it’s more car than they’ve ever driven.”

When people take the ride-along, they usually reach for something when the car hits full speed taking the corners, he says.

“This is the real deal,” Mr. Southard says. “I have some guys who just scream the whole time that I’m doing it, like they’re on a bungee-cord jump or something. People can’t believe how powerful these cars are.”

Legends Cars of Northern Virginia also offers people the chance to drive one of its cars at Old Dominion Speedway when the Legends racers practice at the track. These up-and-coming race cars are becoming very popular in racing circles. At a recent race at Old Dominion Speedway, for example, 28 drivers showed up to compete. Legends’ popularity has climbed because it is economical to buy and keep up and easy to maintain.

The cars are five-eighths scale versions of 1930s and 1940s vehicles that legendary drivers including Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and Buck Baker drove in the 1950s and early 1960s. Legends cars are 47 inches high and 10 feet long and weigh 1,100 pounds. Each car also contains a 1200cc Yamaha motorcycle engine, and the car’s weight-to-speed ratio is strong enough to provide a thrilling ride.

Jason Chilton, a 32-year-old Severn, Md., policeman, scoots inside a Legends car in early August at Old Dominion Speedway after receiving safety and driving instructions from Roger Austin Jr., who is the current points leader at the track. Mr. Chilton, like all drivers, wears a fire suit and a helmet.

Legends Cars of Northern Virginia doesn’t provide a pace car unless a driver requests one.

Mr. Chilton is a bit nervous as he rolls his Legends car out of the pits and onto the track. He says he can’t believe he is actually on the track in a Legends car, with experienced drivers buzzing around him. He keeps the car down low until he gets comfortable enough with it to try a higher line on the oval.

When a Legends car starts rolling fast, it sounds something like an angry giant bumblebee. Some people don’t like it; others do.

Mr. Chilton, a race car fan since his childhood in Indianapolis, drives more than 10 laps, which costs him $100. He says the ride itself is excellent and he plans on buying a Legends car to race next year — however, he recommends the experience to others even if they don’t plan to race.

His biggest concern is wrecking the car, he says.

“I didn’t want anybody to put me in the wall because the other Legends cars were out there practicing for their race Saturday,” says Mr. Chilton, who has police training in driving cars fast. “I was just out there having a little fun after a while.”

Mr. Chilton says the other cars are running much faster than he is. “I’ve still got a little ways to go,” he says, but he adds he felt more confident about handling the car the more laps he drove on the track.

Scott Wilkerson, a friend of Mr. Chilton’s, races go-karts at King George Speedway near Fredericksburg and is also planning to race a Legends car next year. After his ride on Old Dominion’s track in a Legends car, he says the car’s power gave him a rush as he sped around the track.

“You have enough power to spin the tires at just about any point around the track,” says Mr. Wilkerson, 38, who lives in Stevensville, Md. “With go-karting, you come off the corner, and when you put your foot all the way to the floor, there’s no way to spin the rear tires. [Legends] are a handful to drive.”

With the Legends’ short wheelbase and power, any mistake a driver makes is magnified, and the cars spin out easily. “They’ll get you in trouble real quick,” Mr. Wilkerson says. “But it was fun to ride with other Legends cars.”

Mr. Wilkerson also drove a stock car at a Richard Petty driving school in Charlotte, N.C., last year. “There’s really no comparison in my book,” he says. “Legends are so much more fun because it’s so much like racing.”

The faster, the better.

“Anytime I get speed, I’m happy,” Mr. Wilkerson says.

At Allsports Grand Prix go-kart track in Sterling, Va., participants experience an entirely different form of racing. The track has a Grand Prix-style layout with six turns, two of which are hairpins. The track rents go-karts for $25 for 10 minutes, and each kart contains a four-stroke Honda engine that has 5.5 horsepower. The karts, however, ride just an inch above the floor and run at speeds of 35 to 40 mph, giving the sensation of traveling 50 to 60 mph.

“Getting the fast times requires a lot of precision and a lot of practice,” manager Jeffrey Rapipong says. “You have to combine all of the kart’s inputs — the gas pedal, the brake pedal, the steering wheel and the angle the kart is going to get around the turns as fast as possible.”

He says the turns and the fast race line are the hardest elements to learn at the track.

“It’s very serious,” says Ron Epstein, a Baltimore resident who drove on the track for 3 hours getting his fix for speed. “It’s not beach karts; it’s not bumper cars. You get going 40-plus miles an hour, and a 300-pound go-kart can make a big impact. Nine-tenths of the people who drive take it very seriously.”

Allsports offers not only competitions on various nights, but also leagues for both corporate drivers and non-corporate visitors. Drivers also can race against the clock and have their lap times recorded by the track, or race against other adrenaline junkies.

Mr. Epstein, whose brother races go-karts, has taken practice runs on the bigger karts. He says Allsports’ karts are easier to drive. He doesn’t have enough financing to race, he says, so he comes down periodically to Allsports to fulfill his racing needs.

“For the cost of a round of golf, you can live your dream for a while,” says Mr. Epstein, a car salesman.

Drivers at Allsports receive a helmet, racing sock and fire suit, as well as instructions. It took him about 50 laps to get the feel of where the kart should be on the track when it passes through six turns, two of which are hairpins, he says. His goal is to get around the track as fast as possible, which in racing parlance means being smooth and not losing the kart’s momentum.

Mr. Epstein says he is an adrenaline junkie and loves it when he finds another skilled driver for a competitor. “You try and follow him around for two or three laps and size him up for what his strong points and weak points are, and then see if you can get by,” he says.

Professional race car drivers also visit the track to hone their driving skills during the off-season. Stock car drivers, sports car racers and even Le Mans series drivers all practice at the track. The owner of the track, Francois Duret, has driven in the 24-hour Le Mans race several times.

Johnny Pulcherio, a Centreville resident who works for a cellular phone company, raced karts at Allsports for the first time recently and got hooked.

“It wasn’t hard initially,” he says, “and everything is fun about it. My friend brought us here, and we saw everybody racing and decided to try it. We’re going to do it every weekend now.”

More info:

• Try It Racing will offer rides on the following dates: Sept. 5 and 28, Oct. 18 and 25. Web site: www.tryitracing.com. Phone: 703/368-3232. Old Dominion Speedway is located at 10611 Dumfries Road (Route 234) in Manassas.

• Allsports Grand Prix is open from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Allsports Grand Prix is located at 45915 Maries Road in Sterling, Va. Web site: www.allsportsgp.com. Phone: 571/434-9566.

• Legends Cars of Northern Virginia offers drive-alongs whenever two people sign up. It’s located at 1313 Jefferson Plaza in Woodbridge, Va. Web site: www.legends carsofnova.com. Phone: 703/492-6910.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide