ROUND IN CIRCLES...
At the United Kingdom’s biggest oval, Jack Benyon gets
oonshine. An interesting thought. I’m about to step into a real NASCAR, and something to steady the nerves would be a nice, if not ironic, tonic.
NASCAR originated from Moonshine. In the prohibition era, bootleggers would reinforce the suspension and tune their Ford’s and Chevy’s in order to outdo the law.
Of course, it wasn’t long before they were racing each other around dirtracks and the beginnings of the sport were enshrined.
The car I’m about to step (more like climb) into has come along way since the 1930s though, and from America. I’m at Rockingham to try out a real NASCAR.
The American Race Car Experience (ARCX) is an almost totally authentic one. Any sound-of-mind person would understand that a complete novice shouldn’t be strapped into a car of this nature for a type of racing they’ve never competed in.
For cost purposes, American Race Car Experience use a small block Chevy engine, which doesn’t need to be rebuilt every 10 minutes. It also doesn’t cost millions per year in a lease deal, which is how the Sprint Cup teams buy engines.
So, yes, the car’s got a limiter. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter. Clutch down, clutch up. We’re off. The first thing about the experience which pleases an enthusiast like me is the radio system. Each driver has an allocated spotter, just like in the real thing. He’s there to help with racing lines, and telling you whereabouts on the race track the other drivers are.
That’s important, as one of my first observations about the car is the lack of visibility. When I say lack of, I mean there is virtually none! You can’t see out of the rear quarter panels, so the spotter’s importance is actually vital.
And this is a proper trackday experience, so there’s other cars to (potentially) crash into out on the circuit. That’s no good for the pre-match nerves.
So we’ve gone through the gears, the power is awesome. It’s a combination of the noise and the force. The roar of the V8 is beautiful and the car is eating the asphalt we’re running on. There’s no way that noise is created by fuel.
Fuel. That’s also important. The beast isn’t running on Tesco Unleaded, or even Shell V Power. It’s on proper American ethanol race fuel used by the NASCAR teams.
There’s a common theme here, the experience doing pretty much everything like the authentic Sprint Cup teams. There’s a reason for that. Blair Dupree, the owner of the company, has a fair bit of experience with the sport.
“I had 20 years in NASCAR with Petty Enterprises working on the #43 and #45 race cars,” he says. “I started out on the race team and worked my way up into corporate sales.”
The real thrill of driving the car is wrestling it through the corners. The weight of the steering is equivalent to a good workout in the gym. How the pros do it at places like Bristol for three hours in a racing environment and at a considerably higher speed is bewildering.
It’s not just the steering, it’s the weight of the car itself. When you come off a straight into the banked corners, it is a gravity-defying.
When you nail it, it’s very satisfying. You can feel the car reaching the limit of grip and power, and you can dance the car over the metaphorical line between. At this point I should probably point out that at 160mph, the car would be lot more unstable. What you get doing the driving at this reduced speed is a sense of just how talented NASCAR drivers are. Wrestling the car about using the steering wheel like a bus driver is tough enough at 100mph. With 60mph more the car must be undriveable to the novice like me.
The tyres take some trusting to unlock that ability to take the car to the edge. In a more nimble car built for circuits, trust isn’t an issue as, in general, they’re easy to recover if you get things wrong. A worst case scenario is that the driver would bump over bit of grass, dump the clutch and bring it back to the pits. In these NASCARS, it’s a different story. If they start to twitch, you’re in real trouble. Unless your name is Earnhardt.
This is owing to the NASCAR suspension and chassis set-up. While we did admit earlier that the engine has been limited, nothing else has. I’m in a Chevy Impala Nationwide Series car which was driven by Brendan Gaughan. He’s a multiple winner in the series and this is a car he’s actually driven. Aside from the engine, everything is the same as when Brendan was doing his thing.
Knowing that, trust comes quickly. As the tyres warm up you can throw the car to the apex more aggressively and get back on the power earlier. At least until your spotter tells you off for being too flamboyant: “Car 62, back off, follow the cones.”
The cones – or blobs of pant in most places – tell you where to accelerate, brake and where the car should be positioned on track. While this may sound like nannying, it’s actually incredibly helpful. You might watch on TV and expect to be able to jump in the car and drive it around in circles, but it just isn’t that simple. The cars are so highly strung that knowing where to enter the corner and get back on the power is the difference between a massive grin on your face and putting a car that cost £10,000 just to be shipped over to the UK head on into a wall…
“Car 62, fast car approaching. Left and lift. Left and lift....”
That’s my spotter warning me that the ‘full fat’ car is on track and on its way past.
ARCX also has an unrestricted, #22 Joey Logano car which also has a small block Chevy engine. But without the restrictor it’s troubling 170mph on the straights.
The Logano car being on track only adds to the authenticity of the drive. Picture my car as stricken and just blown an engine, pulling down to the pits to retire.
The chasing pack is going to close hard and fast. You’ve got to be aware of your surroundings and how do you do that? By looking around. But we can’t do that in here as we can’t see anything. So your trust is 100 per cent in your spotter.
That makes NASCAR more similar to rallying than circuit racing; you’re trusting a spotter with your performance and safety in a race.
Much like a co-driver does for a rally driver, except spotters are clearly cleverer than co-drivers as they don’t sit in the car and risk annihilation.
The speed is coming now, as confidence is building.
The tyres are sticky and I’m embracing the weight of the car and using it to cram the car down onto the bottom of the race track.
“Car 62, you’re eight laps are over. Left and lift and bring her into pitlane.”
With the moan of a teenager having his Playstation taken away, I head for the pits. What an experience.
At this speed you can really engage in what the alien car is doing, it feels strange only turning left and driving this quick in something so heavy.
But at this speed its really manageable, and enjoyable. You can unlock the relative performance of the car and also appreciate how good the pros are in the process.
I’ve now driven a NASCAR and realised a dream.
Why haven’t you yet? ■