Now, as part of my “discover alabama” mission, i found the existence of Talladega Speedway a little drive away from where i lived. This speedway is in use only 3-4 times a year and the rest of the time , it is used by various other organizations. one such organization is Dale Jarett Racing Adventurehttp://www.racingadventure.com/.
I chanced into this once in a lifetime opportunity and was not going to let go of it at all. I quickly jumped onto their website and booked up a 6-lap drive (i could afford only that). now this was mighty exciting coz of all the top speeds these cars can do. I’d been watching nascar for quite a while but never got this close to one.
After booking for the drive, I was instructed to be to at the venue at 8.30 am. Since I was a little new to the area, I left at around 6.45 am. Took the I-20 E for 30 miles to reach Talladega superspeedway at around 7.20 am and guess what, there were 30 cars already lined up!!
Not all were there to drive though. Some came in as spectators too. Quickly registered my entry and drove into the driveway leading to the central parking/camping area in my rental Corolla Altis. The access to the central pit area is from under the racetrack. The same racetrack on which I’d be driving at 170 mph a little later!!
Talladega Superspeedway has the record for the fastest recorded time by a NASCAR stock car in a closed oval course, with the record of 216.309 mph set by Rusty Wallace on June 9, 2004. Buddy Baker was the first driver to qualify at a speed over 200 mph, with a 200.447 mph lap during testing on March 24, 1970. Baker’s record was set while driving the #88 Chrysler Engineering Charger Daytona.
In May 1987 Bobby Allison experienced a tire failure while going through the tri-oval portion of the track, which sent his car airborne. His car tore out a portion of the frontstretch catch fence, nearly entering the crowd. NASCAR imposed rule changes to slow the cars after the incident, with a 1988 rule requiring cars running there and at Daytona to use restrictor plates. The most often cited reason is a fear that the increasing speeds were exceeding the capabilities of the tires available at the time, as high-speed tire failure had led to some gruesome crashes at slightly lower speeds. The plates limit the amount of air and fuel entering the intake manifolds of the engine, greatly reducing the power of the cars and hence their speed. This has led to the style of racing held at Talladega and Daytona to be somewhat different from that at other superspeedways and to be referred to by NASCAR fans as “restrictor-plate racing”.
The Talladega Jinx
The high numbers of crashes over the years, along with other factors, have led to rumors of Talladega Superspeedway being cursed. Stories of the origin of the curse vary. Some claim that a local Native American tribe held horse races in the valley where the track currently resides and a chief was killed when he was thrown from his horse. Others say that the site of the superspeedway was once an Indian burial ground. Still another version says that after the local tribe was driven out by the Creek nation for their collaborating with the forces of Andrew Jackson, a shaman put a curse on the valley.
Since the construction of the track, many strange happenings and untimely deaths have fueled the rumors of a curse. In 1973, Bobby Isaac left his car during the race on lap 90 because of voices he claimed to have heard which told him to park his car and get out. Earlier on lap 14 in the same race, young driver Larry Smith died in a seemingly minor wreck.
To some, Bobby Allison’s 1987 wreck described above was yet another reminder of the curse. In 1993, Bobby’s son, Davey Allison, died in a helicopter crash in the infield of Talladega.
Source : Wikipedia.
None of the “jinx” was going to affect my drive though!!
I drove along with the convoy into the designated parking area. From where, we were taken to a training hall. Had the typical American favorite of coffee and donuts. Thereafter we were all given our ID’s. Only with these ID’s could they identify the number of laps I was entitled to drive. Then came the briefing. Now the team takes training very seriously coz these are not detuned cars and are capable of reaching 200mph in capable hands. Surprised to know that most of the drivers/trainers are farmers from the area!! Talk about local employment!! All the do’s and don’ts how’s and how not’s are all explained in this classroom session which will be displayed on a demo drive. I initially thought the demo drive will be in the racecars itself coz I’d just then seen the cars pull into the pit lane. My excitement was muted when we were guided to full size pickup trucks. I hopped in to a Ford F550 super duty. Now all that we were instructed in the classroom was going to be demonstrated on the racetrack while being driven in a truck!! I seriously started to think about body Roll and eventual rollover but these trucks were stable. Very stable even at 90mph on the bankings!! Shocked.
On board the truck, we are shown all the various hand signals that the instructor doles out while on the actual drive. The hand signals are fairly simple. There are signals for moving right or left on the track throttle and brake. That’s it.
Now everybody who drives has to get into a racing suit. I got mine!! All decked up waiting for my ride.
Now for the car. Now these cars are nothing but fiberglass bodies covering a steel frame. All the mountings are made to the frame itself and the body is nothing but claddings. The frame on the sides are so high, you cannot have doors. That’s right no doors!! And how to get in? you sneak in through the windows. !!
The cars owned by Dale Jarett are not really alike. They all have different seating structures for different body sizes. Otherwise they are all the same. So, the cars you drive are chosen according to your body size.
Sneaked into the car (thru the window) I was seated in a sparco racing seat which is just right for my body profile(Indian size big, US style medium). It’s like this WRC style racing seats with the ‘wings’ next to your head. Somebody came and strapped me down real tight with the 4 point seat belts. In that position, I could barely move. The only freedom I had was to move the gear lever and obviously the pedals. That’s it.
Speaking of which, the gear lever is pretty ergonomically placed. The gearbox is a closed ratio 4 speed unit with a very tall 4th gear. The clutch. OMG its hard. Its very hard initially but then there is barely any time for acclimatization. The instructors, I come to understand, are all farmers from that region. Interesting. Now, while we are awaiting clearance, all the instructions were explained all over again. They do that over and over again to ensure it is registered deep in the head coz if we bungle up mid way, its race over paisa gone.
Then I hear the words “ shift up and hit the gas pedal !!” “ aye aye sirr” said I. the gearshift is rather crude and hard. I had to slam hard on the lever. Then its go !! one strong jerk and it moved out of the pitlane and into the inner track which is not banked. By that time, we had already shifted upto 4th gear. No high revving, no redlining. Its all about super high gearing which was to take me from 30 mph all the way till 220 mph. I did a 169.80mph but the car is capable of doing 22mph on that track. Stayed in the inner lane till we found an empty spot on the racetrack. That’s when I realized that these guys weren’t gonna let us all go together. They don’t want a race situation and the added safety issues. Damn it. That damped my spirits a lil. Nevertheless, drove on. 1st lap was all about familiarization. No gearshifts. Just throttling and the right position on the banking. The 1st time I hit the banking, I was zapped. That’s coz I tried to see the pitlane ( for reference) and then I realized that our car was inclined !! didn’t feel it thereafter coz I could not take my eyes off of the track. The instructor was judging if I was able to hold the car in a lane at higher speeds. Until then, he restricted my speed. Passed a few slower cars and into lap 2. He instructed me to speed up and I grinned all the way. At this point of time, let me tell you, the banking looks dangerously steep from the grandstand but once in the car and in speeds, you feel nothing. Its just another part of the track. The g-forces are there for sure. Then on it was faster and faster. Never realized when I reached lap 6 which is when I was doing the top whack speed that I could manage. The top speed was increasing gradually through the laps though and I had the pace set.
I then was instructed to move into the inner lane and before I realized, the instructor had shoved the gear into neutral. Only then had I got to brake and that pedal is hard as crazy. Non assisted I’m sure. Pulled into the pitlane and slowed to a halt. Phew. The 6 laps just flew away. As we stopped , I asked my instructor :
Me: “that was super cool. How do you think my drive was?”
Instructor: “ you drove fabulously and made the right passing moves. You had good pace too”
Me: “ rate my drive”
Instructor: “well, I’d give you 8/10 in the batch of drivers who’ve come here. The better ones are only coz they’ve chosen to drive for 20 laps”
Me: “wow!! Had I got more laps, what speed do you think I’d have done?”
Instructor :” I guess you could’ve reached a 200 mph too !! “
Me: “ any chance of a free drive for a few more laps?”
Instructor: “ fat chance!!”
Me: “I get it. Thanks for the drive!!”
And there ended my day at the track. Last I checked, I was the fastest that morning. It was easy for anybody who’d taken a 20 lap drive to beat my speed. Hung around there for a lil longer and then drove out.
Here is a Video of my drive..
Adjoining the racetrack was the motorsports hall of fame. Had to do a religious visit to the museum. But more on that in a different post..