I once had a college roommate who was obsessed with NASCAR. She would park in front of the TV and watch cars race around in circles for hours. Round and round, lap after lap, she would sit entranced in the spectacle. I never understood why she found this entertaining to watch. If you want to watch cars drive recklessly, just park near the intersection of 35W and 494 at rush hour and you’re sure to see some live demo derby style action. To me, cars are just transportation vessels, and racing them against each other seemed illogical, but millions of Americans seem to have a different opinion. So when fellow adventurer Heather suggested we sign up to drive race cars against each other at Raceway Parks, I agreed with a mix of trepidation and excitement plus a touch of stupidity and ignorance thrown in for good measure.
Raceway Parks hosts a packed schedule of racing every Sunday evening. Several hundred spectators show up to watch the regional NASCAR races. Large bleachers line the main straightaway on the quarter mile track. The venue had a very small town feel. It reminded me of a county fair. There was nothing fancy about Raceway Parks, but it oozed a certain kind of southern charm you don’t often find here in Minnesota. Beer came in cans and the snack options were exclusively deep fried. Heather and I were noticeably out of place with our highlighted hair and full makeup.
Before our epic race was to occur, all the participants were required to attend a safety meeting. I anticipated a classroom setting complete with videos, handouts and extensive instruction. I hate that kind of crap, I was dreading the dumbed down third-grade-level tutorial on the risks. I’ve always been frustrated with how our legal-crazed culture has forced businesses to spell out obvious risks. I always feel somewhat insulted that McDonalds seems to think I’m so dumb that I need to be clearly warned that my coffee is going to be hot. A
huge CAUTION THIS BEVERAGE IS HOT is one big “duh” in my book. I wish McDonalds would trust my reasoning abilities and allow me to prepare for my warm beverage accordingly. But, alas the idiots prevail and the rest of us must suffer through needless obvious cautionary messages daily.
To my surprise, Raceway Park did trust my reasoning abilities and the meeting was extremely brief. It consisted of signing a liability waiver followed by a very high level overview of what we could expect. I appreciated the fact that we were being treated like adults and could avoid all the cover-your-ass BS. They expected we knew what we were getting ourselves into and also expected we knew the basics of racing. One problem: I didn’t know a damn thing about racing a car. I have never watched a race, not even on TV. I didn’t even have a cursory understanding of how we were supposed to get lined up or what the flags meant. Thankfully, the racing coordinator Kim could detect that Heather and I were in over our heads and very respectfully went over the essentials. If I was Kim, I would probably be fairly annoyed that two giggly suburban soccer mom types had butted our way into an activity that is very clearly marketed towards serious racing fans, but instead he was very supportive and patient and quite possibly amused at our antics.
After the meeting it was time to get into our cars. As fate would have it, I was given car 40! These were real race cars. Mine had several large dents and a hole in the bottom large enough for me to use my feet to Fred Flinstone my way to the finish if I needed a little extra power, but still – this was a real flipping race car that had been used in dozens of races.
I was instantly overwhelmed. My heart was racing out of my chest. What have I gotten myself into? I shimmied myself into the car through the door – a surprisingly challenging task, then stared blankly at the interior. I was instantly plunged into the stark reality of the situation. In a few short minutes I would responsible for driving a very large piece or machinery as fast as I could though several tight corners while attempting to avoid other cars, potholes, flying saucers, stray animals – this was some serious pressure. What’s worse; where am I supposed to put my purse? I didn’t account for the lack of seats or trunk space. I called Kim over and politely asked if there was a hidden compartment somewhere I could stow my handbag. He released a hearty belly laugh before he volunteered to place my purse safely in the pace car. “This is definitely the first time I’ve ever heard that question,” Kim said. I was briefly comforted by the fact that at least my wallet, cell phone, keys and variety of other arbitrary purse belongs would be safe regardless of my fate.
Heather was in the car right next to me. We giggled while trying desperately not to vomit from nerves. I took a few deep breathes and fought away my natural reaction to flea. Heather and I were sandwiched between two cars whose
drivers meant business. They were getting hyped up to dominate. My intention was to simply survive the race; these two guys were in it for blood. Why was there not a powder puff division or better yet, why can’t we just race PowerWheels?
I needed quite a bit of help getting the complicated seat strap system set. I was silently amused at how uncomfortable the guy helping me was feeling. He was trying urgently to strap me in tight without unintentionally sparking a sexual harassment case. I strapped on my helmet and before I knew it, it was time to race. I managed to kill the ignition at least three times before we made our way to the track. We took a few warm up laps behind the pace car and then it was go time. I could taste bile in my mouth as I white knuckled the steering wheel. The race was eight laps. We made it a few laps before I saw the yellow flag drop. Yellow means go slow – right? I slowed down and quickly saw why we were under yellow flag – Heather’s car had spun out and now appeared to be situated backwards on the course Oh crap – Did Heather have a mental break down and decide she was going to make a break for it and drive back to Woodbury? Thankfully she quickly got turned back around. We took several more laps under the yellow flag. I thought we were clear to start racing again and quickly passed the guy in front or me. Sweet! I’m in second place, I might actually win this sucker! Not so fast, apparently we were still under caution and I was in big trouble! I’m fairly certain that if Kim thought I had any idea what the heck I was doing, I would have been black flagged and forced off the course but thankfully my ignorance prevailed. Due to my gaff, we were all forced to line up again and essentially start the race again.
The last few laps I really poured on the speed but never managed to get close enough to pass the racers in front of me. I crossed the finish line high on adrenaline and excitement and happy to be alive. I had a blast, regardless of my embarrassing mistake. I came in third place. Heather finished right behind me. We snapped a few photos then drove our cars back to staging area.
In celebration, Heather and I enjoyed a can of the silver bullet (aka college beer, aka Coors Lite) and some surprisingly tasty corn dogs and retired to the grand stand to watch some real racing. Raceway Park really has the logistics figured out. Races were stacked back to back with only a minute or two between each race. There was an array or races ranging from races featuring beat up older cars like we drove, to races featuring much newer models. The drivers were having a blast and the fans were enthusiastically supportive despite the cold weather. Spider man even made an appearance.
The races, people watching and food made for a very entertaining evening. You could talk, eat crappy food and watch some live entertainment for only a few bucks. We stayed until intermission and likely would have stayed even longer if the weather was warmer.
While I certainly have no desire to become the next Danica Patrick, it was an exhilarating experience and a lifelong memory that I will be talking about for years. I’m so proud to have taken the risk and tried something so far out of my comfort zone I’m also very proud to have kicked Heather’s ass.