ROUND IN CIR­CLES...

At the United King­dom’s big­gest oval, Jack Benyon gets

Motor Sport News - - Nascar Feature -

M

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? ■

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