How many times have you heard someone say, “Racing? That’s not a sport. All you do is drive and make left-hand turns all day.”
The next time you hear that, you stop that person in their tracks, because after getting a little, tiny taste of what professional race drivers do, I can definitively and enthusiastically say that racing is absolutely a sport – it might be the toughest sport there is.
I was fortunate enough to get an invite to New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s Media Racing Challenge in July, the third annual such challenge. The track invited 16 members of the New England media – including my former Monitor colleague Nick Stoico, who won the inaugural racing challenge in 2017 – to come down and get behind the wheel of a slightly toned-down Nascar stock car and rip around the track for a little while. When you get an invitation like that – and you’re as much of a car geek as I am – you do not turn it down.
The challenge consisted of two main parts – the driving part and a tire change competition. For the driving part, the part that everyone was there for, the goal was to just drive as fast as possible. For the tire change part, the goal was the same – do it as fast as possible.
Because there were 16 contestants, none of whom were actual professional race drivers, the field was staggered – it was probably a wise choice not to let all 16 of us get out there at once. At any given moment there were only two or three drivers on the track, and everyone else was either waiting to get in a car, inside learning about how to drive the car or over at the tire change section.
The first order of business was learning a thing or two about driving a race car. The cars for the Media Racing Challenge were less powerful than the ones the pros use, we were told in the training session. Our cars had about 400 horsepower, whereas the cars guys like Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick drive push about 800. Again, probably a smart idea to limit a bunch of amateurs to 400 horses, not that that’s to be taken lightly – your car most likely doesn’t even approach 200 horsepower.
The lesson was mostly about safety. Assuming none of us have ever driven a car criminally fast on public roads, this was likely to be the first time any of us would get the chance to drive a vehicle at speeds approaching and exceeding 100 mph. Safety was rightfully stressed.
For instance, we were told that if we did get the chance to pass a car, or be passed, to do so at a very safe distance and speed. They didn’t want us trying to block a faster driver from passing. They didn’t want any paint-swapping. I didn’t want any of that, either – the part on the waiver where I agreed not to have my family sue anybody in case I got myself killed kept popping into my head.
These cars were all of the manual transmission variety, which was no big deal for me since my own car is also a manual. Unlike driving on the road, though, with these race cars, you don’t have to touch the shifter again once you get into fourth gear, the highest gear these cars have. That would eliminate the stress of having to execute perfect gear changes while diving into corners at 80 mph.
Once the training session was over, it was time to put on the gear. First was a full-body jumpsuit – mine was a bit snug, I have to say. Then there’s a headsock, which is basically a ski mask without the face part. On top of that goes the race helmet with flip-down visor. This is not the most comfortable get-up, especially when it’s about 85 degrees and sunny, as it was on this particular day, but it’s all part of the experience.
The first order of business was a test ride as a passenger while one of the track’s drivers was behind the wheel, gunning it. This was a very intense experience. My driver really knew what he was doing, and we easily went over 100 mph on the straightaways, dive-bombing into the corners at nearly impossible speeds. I could really feel the G-force every time he dove into a corner. I had to hold tight onto the vertical roll bar inside the bare-bones cabin of the car to keep from being pinned against the door. This was a lot more nerve-wracking – and much, much louder and hotter – than I imagined it would be.
After a couple laps as a passenger, it was time for me to be the driver. All of us would drive alone, with no professional in the passenger seat for any guidance. The only assistance would come from a spotter up in the tower, connected to me via a headset worn underneath my helmet.
I would drive before doing the tire change, so my heart was pumping when it was my turn to get in. Entering the car, whose doors don’t open, requires climbing in through the window. It’s a tight squeeze, and I needed help from one of the staffers to get my helmet through the window. Once I was in the seat, I had to attach the steering wheel – this triggered flashbacks of the instructor of the training session telling us what to do in case the wheel came off in our hands. I was already very sweaty by this point, by the way. Once the wheel was on, we went over the emergency procedures one more time – if anything seems to be going wrong, just stop the car as soon as possible.
Finally, it was time for me to burn rubber. I gave it some gas, let the clutch out and started to roll forward, out onto the track. Out of fear of blowing up the engine, I kind of short-shifted into second as I got closer to the track, then again into third. Once I was in third I let it rev up to the redline before shifting into fourth, where it would stay the rest of the time.
I took it a little easy at first, trying to get familiar with the throttle. By the time I got to the second straightaway, I was ready to gun it. I opened it up and went full throttle down the straight, letting off the gas and searching for the brake as I leaned down into the turn. Without a speedometer there was no way to tell exactly how fast I was going, but I’d say I was probably doing 65 or so around the corners, which felt impossibly fast. I kept expecting the back end of the car to kick out and send me spinning, but it stayed remarkably planted the whole time (thankfully).
After a few more laps I got more confident and dove into the corners a little harder, knowing the tires would stay firmly glued to the track. Sweat was pouring down my face and all I could hear was the roar of the massive engine coming through the practically hollow body of the car. Ultimately, I got about seven or eight laps in before my spotter told me to bring ‘er in.
After climbing out, soaked in sweat, adrenaline still pumping, it was time to head over to the tire change station – piece of cake, I thought.
I was wrong.
I had changed tires before, but always manually, using a tire iron or wrench as opposed to a pneumatic gun, as was to be used here.
I got the lug nuts off easily on the removal part, but when it was time to put them back on I somehow struggled. The first two went on with ease, but then I couldn’t tell whether a nut was all the way in or not, pulling the gun away before the nut was secure, taking the nut with it. This happened not once but twice – so humiliating. The problem was that the top five fastest tire changers would get a whopping 10 seconds taken off their best lap time, so my tire change performance assured that I wouldn’t be one of those top five.
I ended up having the second-worst tire change time and the seventh-best lap time (out of a field of 16), netting out to ninth place overall. Middle of the pack by definition, but no doubt disappointing. My best lap time was 43.58 seconds for an average speed of 87.40 mph. My tire change time was a pathetic 1 minute, 22 seconds – the fastest was 33 seconds, by comparison.
Not my best performance and certainly nothing to brag about, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve had and can’t wait to (hopefully) get out there next year and try to restore some honor to my name.
See more photos online.