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Getting Up to Speed: A NASCAR Skeptic Burns Some Rubber in a Rookie Course

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How do the hungry drivers of NASCAR fuel up? With Ragu Rich & Meaty Spaghetti Sauce.

I snap off the TV. I flip past the magazine ads screaming about speed and about the men in helmets who achieve it.

I am sure that America's top drivers burn calories thundering around tracks in sponsored stock cars. And, yep, I understand that NASCAR is hot. What used to be the sport of greasers is suddenly more popular than basketball or baseball.

But, if you ask me, it's only pressing a pedal. Turning a wheel.

How hungry can you get?

Is it so tough to drive fast? I do it on the FDR Drive in Manhattan. I do it on Boston's jammed and junked-up Route 128. I do it in my 1988 Chevy Nova that hasn't been souped up in the least.

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A few summers back, it is my wife's car-buff secretary, Renata, who lets me know there is a way to find out.

"The Richard Petty Driving Experience," she says, "named after the champion driver. For 379 bucks, they'll let you race on actual pro tracks like the New Hampshire International Speedway. They will time you."

Renata's smirking when I sign up later for the eight-lap Petty 'Rookie Experience.' "Bring your time sheet back here," she commands. "If you crack 100 mph, I'll be amazed. If you don't smack into a wall. Or spin out or blow a tire at the top of the first turn."

You'll see, I say, flexing my fingers, sliding around an invisible gearshift.

You will see.

It is race day and some of us NASCAR rookies may be slightly nervous. There is a men's room in the infield of the New Hampshire International Speedway that says "Drivers and Crew Only" and we are in and out of it during our hour of instruction.

The panther growl of 600 horsepower engines is in the air everywhere around us, rattling the room, keeping us silent as we suit up in official red-white-and-blue Richard Petty overalls. "Made from ProBan Flame-Resistant Cotton," says the tag. And in ominous small print: "Recyclable."

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There are nine of us, all guys--although I'm told there are occasionally women--and we are ready to drive. But first, some paperwork: initialing a Richard Petty release. I understand "that driving...a race car at a high rate of speed...is a dangerous activity." I understand "that I can be injured or killed, EVEN IF I DO EVERYTHING AS I WAS INSTRUCTED TO DO."

But what exactly am I going to be doing?

Our instructor is a 20-ish driver, Derek Slade. "You'll drive behind a professional in a pace car during your laps," he tells us. "If you keep up, if you stay in his tracks, he'll go faster. You'll get up to a 41 second lap, if you can do it. That's 110-115 mph."

115 mph. I'm pretty sure I saw a guy once doing that down I-95.

One warning, says Derek. "Going 100 on this track will feel like 180 at the Daytona Speedway. At Daytona you've got 31 degree banking around curves. Here the slant is only 12 degrees. It'll feel like your car won't stick. But you've got to trust it."

I've never raced Daytona so I am not disturbed.

We circle the track in a van, to get the lay of the thing, and we are reminded about manual shifts. "Do you have an automatic?" asks one guy, hopefully, but Derek glares at him. "These are stock cars," he says.

When we are driving we must watch the flag stand: A rolled-up green flag means "faster." A yellow one says "back off." Blue means we're not behind our instructor and we need to get there.

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"What do you think?" I say to one of the other rookies, Al Holton, who is maybe mid-50s with an air of regal calm. "It's gonna be a piece of cake," says Holton. "My daughter, Diana, races vintage motorcycles. Now that's hard."

Um, yeah, I say. A piece of cake.

Now we're out on the infield of the track, country tunes are pumping out of speakers, and here are our cars. Instead of listening to the lecture about fires, about escapes from the seat, I am admiring the modified Ford Taurus that I will be racing.

Yellow-and-black. A Nextel-Cup car equipped with Goodyear Eagle tires. It is like a wasp that has been washed and waxed.

"Pennzoil," says my car on its hood, and "Die Hard" on the roll bar. That is me.

It is time to start the engines.

Head sock: check.

Helmet: check.

Neck brace: check.

Seat harness: check.

We're in the pit lane, and everything is happening fast. My chin strap is cutting into my jowls, but there isn't time to complain. I'm being made to climb in the window of my car. And not that I'm fat, but the steering wheel is removed to let me do it.

"Why can't we just open the door?" I say.

"It's welded shut for safety like in all stock cars," replies the pit guy. He looks like he is having second thoughts about letting me drive.

The dials on the dash say WATER, FUEL, OIL, RPMs, and BATTERY VOLTAGE. I am strapped in low and tight and told to put it in first. I slot the shift up, trying to be fast yet smooth, and click it into gear.

I'm there--a green light says so--here's my pace car rumbling in front, and seamlessly, at the precise split second of starting, I punch down on the gas.

The pit guy is staring. I have stalled out.

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We try again. This time, when I get the hand signal, I am careful, but I see the pro guy in his pace car already out on the track, and I am not yet in third. I gun it, squealing the tires, chasing him as hard as I can up to the top of the first turn.

I am slammed against the harness, struggling to spin the wheel and get up closer to the back of the pace car which is chewing up the track on straightaways and cutting in at carnival-like slants at every turn.

I get a flag. It's blue.

What does it mean? I can't remember and I am dumped into another turn, and there is no time to think. The pace car is down in the curve, way down, and I am up near the wall.

That's it! Blue flag: get back in the tracks of the pace car. I try and try, and give my engine some more gas. I get a hood-length closer and I am tucked in tightly, not so far out of line.

No flag for me on the second or third laps and I am feeling confident on four and five and six, reminding myself the pace car has a timer ticking away. The engine of my Pennzoil sounds like singing, low and strong. It is humming 100, 100, 100.

I have got to break 100 on the time sheet I'll be given. 100 to show Renata. 100 to say "a piece of cake" to Al.

I am hungry for 100.

On my last lap, I give the Pennzoil everything I can. This is the Air Force. I am jetting into clouds of exhaust that puff from the tail of the pace car. I am flying so loud and low and hot that I forget to get off the gas before the final turn.

Something is off. I feel like the Pennzoil is angry. It is handling like my Nova, starting to slip, and I am looking up at ads for Winston and for Mr. Goodwrench instead of at the gray of the track.

"Trust your car," I say out loud. And just as I'm talking I hit the turn. There is a second when the speedway is black. No one is smoking Winston. And Mr. Goodwrench is gone.

I brace for something. An explosion? But there is nothing. Only the 100 hum of the engine droning on and on.

The Pennzoil has taken the turn all by itself. And we are safely in the stretch and getting waved at by the checkered flag.

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I keep staring at the printout of my laptimes. Clutching it hard. Al has gone faster: even Al's daughter, Diana, could have caught me out for a run on one of her vintage cycles. But there it is in print:

Peter Mandel--Rookie Experience

Top Speed: 109 mph.

The Pennzoil and I have done it. We have broken 100, though barely. I can grin at Renata. And I am alive.

More important is a need I seem to have for spaghetti. For a hearty ragu with meat.

I am a hungry driver, a hungry rookie.

I am the hungriest I have ever been.

Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).

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