Ride of a Lifetime: Fast Laps at Pocono Raceway

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IApril 24, 2009

Sometimes you just need to get out on the race track to really get to know it.  You need to experience the twists, turns, bumps and subtle nuances that make each race track so unique and challenging.

For example, in order to assist his racing prowess, young eighteen year old Joey Logano did just that.  He availed himself of the opportunity to get out on the track with one of the sport's masters, Cale Yarborough.

Yarborough took the up and comer out for a few laps at Darlington, showing him how it is done and the best ways to maneuver through the track that is too tough to tame.  Yarborough, a Nascar legend, piloted one of the Jeff Gordon racing school cars, with Logano strapped into the passenger seat.

This past week, I had a similar opportunity to get most familiar with my home track, Pocono Raceway.  Thanks to the generosity of the track and StockCar Racing Experience, just like Logano, I got to strap into the cockpit of a race car for some fast laps around the "Tricky Triangle."

SRE has been doing ride-a-longs, as well as offering the stock car driving experience at Pocono Raceway since 1998.  The venture started as a glimmer of an idea in the mind of Jesse Roverana, an 18 year veteran with Bertil Roos IndyStyle racing school.

Roverana also had a decade of experience with race car engineering and driver development with Falcon Racing.  His love for stock cars was the impetus for pitching the idea of a racing experience at Pocono to Ove Falck, now his business partner in the venture.

Roverana and Falck put together a business plan and set out raising money for the StockCar Racing Experience.  In the fall of 1998, after building a half dozen stock cars specifically for the Experience, they held their first track day at Pocono Raceway.

Since their opening day, SRE has logged over 1,600,000 miles around Pocono Raceway.  They have built over 24 stock cars and last year began the conversion of their cars to Nascar's "Car of Tomorrow" to replicate the most authentic race experience.

And now it would be my turn to log some laps around my home track, hopping into the No. 1 Chevy Impala SS that would take me through the most challenging three turns in the Nascar circuit.

There is much to do, however, before you hop into the race car.  Joining twenty others, who were either doing the ride-a-long experience or actually driving the car, we started our Pocono journey in the confines of a classroom for a briefing on safety and what to expect when out on the track.

The safety video showed everything from how to communicate with the driver, thumbs up to go faster and thumbs down or tapping on his leg to go slower, to the various signals the flag man might be giving on the track.

After a variety of questions, especially from the Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano "wannabes" that were planning to actually wheel the car, we were dismissed to go to pit lane to get into our fire suits and be fitted for our race helmets.

The excitement kept building as we stood in line to get into our race cars.  There were individuals in line, about equally split between men and women, and also several couples together for this unique experience.

There were also young and old awaiting their turn.  Our SRE pit road coordinator said that the oldest ride-a-long participant was 84 years.

Finally, it was my turn to jump (or more like carefully step over) the pit road wall to get out onto the race track and into my stock car.  My pit road coordinator briefed me about getting into the car and then made sure that the belts were loosened enough for me to wiggle in.

Now I have watched Nascar racing for most of my life.  And I have seen those drivers climb through the car window effortlessly and slide behind the wheel.

But I learned the hard way that it is not that easy getting into the race car.  You have to stand with your hands gripping the roof, swing one leg into the window, wrangle the next leg in and ever so carefully maneuver your body into this very small cavern that is your seat.

I refuse to share how many of the pit road assistants it took to get me into the car, but finally I made it in and began to get myself situated for the ride.

My first impression was how confined the cockpit in the stock car really is. Because of all the new safety devices, there is not much room to move around in the car.

That was just the start of the confinement, however, as the pit road staff put on the HANS (Head and Neck Restraint System) and started cinching up what felt like fifty-two different seat belts across and over my body. 

Once fastened in so securely that I could barely move a muscle, it was time to put on the helmet.  Again, this was not an easy task as we tried to situate the tight helmet over my glasses and wriggle it comfortably onto my head.

It was then time to greet the driver.  He asked if this was my first time in a race car, to which I replied "yes."  He shared that it was his first time in a race car as well, a fact that I did not find too terribly amusing as I was strapped in next to him, ready to race out onto the track.

He advised that we would start out slow and would increase speed based on my comfort, indicating that by the thumbs up or thumbs down signals.  I shared with him that I did sometimes prefer to scream instead and he said that would not bother him one bit.

Expecting a slow and gradual pulling out onto the track, my driver gunned it out of the pits, slammed the car through the gears and flew out into turn one.  While I could not see it, I am convinced there was a big smile on his face as he prepared to see just how loud I really would be screaming.

As he gained speed, we dove through the first turn at Pocono Raceway.  Even at that "get up to speed" pace, the force of the turn threw my head to the right and kept it there throughout the turn.

There was a brief respite to straighten up before hitting the tunnel turn head on, with the obligatory slide into the right side of the seat yet again.  But that was nothing compared to arcing into the wicked third turn in the track that is sometimes dubbed a "roval."

After making it around for the first hot lap, the driver glanced over to gauge my verdict, thumbs up for faster or down for slower.  I gave him a big thumbs up and, although unimagineable, we took off even faster.

The statuesque trees that line the race track flew by in a blur and before I knew it, we were back into those crazy turns.  The car rattled, shook, and rumbled yet stuck like glue to the race track, making it ever so quickly through each and every turn.

For our last lap, after my thumbs up yet again, the driver indicated we would be in for something special. Ahead in turn one was the pack of five cars participating in the driving school.

Thinking that this could either be a most interesting experience of feeling just how it was to pass other race cars or that the "big one" was impending, we quickly came up on the outside of the pack of cars.

Although this group was in their second lap and going along at quite a good pace, we literally zoomed past them as if they were standing still.  Since we were on the outside of the turn making the pass, however, coming out of the turn was slightly different than on the previous laps.

This time we drifted up the track and came ever so close, within inches in my estimation, although it surely was a few feet, of the outside retaining wall.  It was fairly comforting to get such a close view of those safer barriers I must admit.

After slamming through the final turn, the driver stood on the brakes hard and all too soon we were headed back to pit road.  As the driver ably stopped the car in the pit box, it was again time for the biggest challenge of the day, getting out of the race car.

The pit road staff were again outstanding, guiding me out albeit on my very wobbly legs.  After catching my breath and standing for just a moment to get my bearings on the terra firma, I went back to pit road to take off the gear and share my excitement with any and all who were waiting in line for their own experience with this most unique track.

This truly was the ride of a lifetime and for those who have never been in a stock car, an experience you will never forget.  The ride absolutely convinced me of the athleticism and stamina that Nascar drivers must have to compete in the sport.

So, move over Joey Logano.  I am ready for you, at least when you come to visit Pocono Raceway in just a few short weeks for the first race there in June.

For more information about the StockCar Racing Experience at Pocono Raceway, visit their website at www.877stockcar.com or check out the Pocono Raceway website at www.poconoraceway.com.