I always like to receive emails asking if I'd like to experience something for the first time, especially when they involve driving a NASCAR!
The American Race Car Experience got in touch, asking if I would like to get behind the wheel of a fully fledged V8 NASCAR, the answer was of course a resounding yes! So last week I made the pilgrimage up to Rockingham Motor Speedway to meet with the ARCX team and get behind the wheel.
I have to admit, although the allure of a huge V8 has always been present, my opinion of NASCAR as a form of racing has always been fairly low. The thought of driving around an oval loop, lap after lap doesn't exactly excite me. That being said, the technical aspect has always been a source of fascination.
Much like the Touring Cars of the 90's, these machines somewhat resemble the road going cars on offer by the manufactures. That is until you get up close and you realise that where a Touring Car was just a highly tuned road car, NASCAR is so far from that. Despite being a Ford Fusion the car I drove has never been a Ford Fusion. The Fusion would not be as low or long as the NASCAR, neither would it ever have a super modern space frame construction, nor would it have stickers where the headlights should be!
The engineering that makes up these cars is nothing short of spectacular. As I mentioned, the chassis looks more like an Ariel Atom than a family saloon. In the back you have a huge fuel tank, which is of course pressurised and filled with E85 race fuel. In the front you have a whopping 5.8L V8 pumping out (a restricted) 500bhp through a 4 speed H pattern box. In between the two you have a driver, strapped into a five point harness, wearing a HANS device, with the fear of God in his eyes as he glances down at numerous dials and read outs.
So what's it like?
I've been fairly lucky in the past with the vehicles I've had the chance to drive. Nothing however, could have prepared me for the sensory onslaught that is NASCAR.
The noise is phenomenal, it permeates through you. From the second it turns over, all you can hear, feel and see is the noise. Your chest cavity vibrates, your eyes rattle and your ears fail to hear anything below 100Db.
The steering wheel is huge and planted in your chest. Uncomfortable at first but when wrestling a 1.5 tonne car around bends at 140mph with zero assistance, you rely on the strength in your arms and the advantage you get over the bigger wheel to avoid the wall.
The mechanical grip the car produces is nothing short of astounding. 292 section, completely slick tyres separate the car from the ground and using nothing but a clever geometry set up the car quickly fills you with confidence in it's grip producing capabilities. NASCARs don't have fancy aero pieces sprinkled over the car so this set up is key to keeping you in a straight line and away from the wall. Ironically though, a NASCAR isn't set up to go straight. In order to keep the car straight the driver must steer to the right, this is because the car is setup to naturally pull to the left, in the direction of the corners that come towards you very quickly!
The car doesn't have a speedometer, just a huge Rev meter inches below your eye line. The engine is capable of 200 mph but rev limited to 140 mph for the experience. I'm not sure how fast I went but seeing as I was on the Rev limiter down the home straight I'll just say that I was doing 140! What ever speed I was doing it felt like double that due to all my other senses being completely bombarded. I experienced complete tunnel vision whilst out of track, anything that wasn't in front of the car didn't matter. I don't think I've ever had to concentrate as hard as I did behind the wheel of a NASCAR.
Luckily some of the thinking is removed for you. Every car is designated a 'spotter' that watches you from above in race control, and tells you what's going on around you. Words of encouragement are infrequent but reassuring. They were briefly interrupted for a moment "CAR 99, DROP LEFT, DROP LEFT." With no wing mirrors on the car, and not daring take my eyes of the road to look in the rear view mirror, I blindly trusted a man I never met before. As I came down the banked corner by a cars width the Shell Ford Fusion (that's unrestricted, pushing 750bhp, giving passenger laps) came flying past at speed. "CAR 99, BACK IN LINE, BACK IN LINE" said the voice on the radio, so I obliged and got myself back on the wall for the home straight.
After your laps are done the spotter directs you down into the pit lane. Getting out of the car isn't as elegant as it could be. The doors are, well... there are no doors. Entry and exit is done by climbing through the void where a window should be. Some of the professional drivers there managed to make this look easy, I'm sure I did not!
I'd highly recommend this experience to anyone who has a passion for cars and motorsport. I walked into the paddock not really understanding the sport but I left wanting to know everything about it.
I'm currently sat on a painfully quiet train, in a painfully comfortable seat wishing I was back in a NASCAR having just found my need to be out there driving on the ragged edge.
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