By Greg Smith
Special to The Washington Post
A single bead of sweat can kill you. It appeared on my eyebrow in a moist clump until the vibration freed it; over the eyelid and into my eye.
I react to the salty sting by closing my eye. But I can’t wipe it away. Both hands are busy gripping the wheel. And now, at 140 miles per hour, I negotiate the 24-degree banked curve with only one eye open, like a crazed pirate in a full fire suit and helmet.
I discovered the thrill of NASCAR by accident. A few years back I was hired to record the sound for an IMAX film about the sport and walked into the Daytona Speedway. At that point, the loudest sound I had ever recorded was a space shuttle launch. At a distance of three miles, the shuttle shakes your chest in rolling waves. But the sustained roar of tens of thousands of NASCAR fans mixed with 43 screaming Chevy, Ford and Dodge engines was nothing I’d heard before. It envelops you. I was hooked.
On the eve of my 50th birthday, not wanting to be relegated to spectator as life raced by, I returned to the oval palace.
Trackside at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., I swelter in my jumpsuit, waiting to take my turn behind the wheel of a modified Chevy Monte Carlo. It’s 91 degrees today. But that’s up in the grandstands.
Trackside, where the ambient temperature is magnified by the expanse of asphalt, it’s closer to 105. I’m wearing a Nomex firesuit, gloves, shoes (I bought these really cool pair of Simpson racing high-tops) and a helmet.
Sheldon Holman, chief instructor for the Fast Track Driving School, is our “Drive Master.” A 40-something veteran of the track, he has the easy manner of a Southern gentleman with a touch of disciplinarian. The Speedway is an “unforgiving goddess,” he tells us as he walks our group around the 1-1/2 mile track.
We appear to be a homogeneous bunch of mostly middle-aged white guys.
The most common answer to why we are here is “speed.”
There’s a group within the group, several of the guys have been coming here for a dozen years. There’s John, a retired New Jersey policeman; Leroy, a neuroradiologist from North Carolina; “Moondog,”, the group cheerleader, who has brought along his special “racing” shoes: brown heavy leather low tops with orange and red flames licking at his toes; and Lenny, a trial lawyer from New Orleans, who calls the experience “controlled chaos.”
Driving a race car is counterintuitive. Most of the things I recently taught my older son about driving go out the window.
Tailgating, passing on the inside and nudging the car in front of you out of the way are all part of the deal; as well as the speed.
We’re all taking laps now. Each of the cars is painted in the familiar colors of the most famous race teams, including Dale Earnhardt’s number 8 and a stunt car from the new Will Farrell movie “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” I climb into Jeff Gordon’s number 24 and belt up. The smell of gas, grease and sweat is thick like humidity. The seat belt is a Marquis de Sade corset that holds me in five points: one on each side of my waist, one up through my legs and one each from your shoulders. I pull each one tight and an instructor reaches through the window gives each a final tug. If you can’t take a deep breath then you’ve done it right.
I pull the detachable driver’s wheel off the dash and lock it into place. The instructor rattles it to make double-sure it’s locked in place, then attaches a piece of webbing over the glassless window. I’m then given a thumbs-up to “start your engines.” A flick of an oversize switch on the dash brings the car to life. I feel a wonderful deep-throated rumble reminiscent of the V-8 muscle cars of the ’50s and ’60s. All is opportunity and open lanes. But first I wait some more. It’s stiflingly hot. Ten minutes go by.
Finally, Holman steps in front of my car and gives a casual thumb pointing over his shoulder. I shift into first gear, then second, then third and into the fourth and final gear as I enter turn number two at 90 miles an hour. The wind starts to circulate in the car and the heat abates somewhat.
The instructors have pointed out exactly where on the track you’re supposed to be at any given moment. It’s called “hitting your marks” and “finding your line”. This helps maximize your speed and keep you from flying off the banked curves and into the wall. With each successive lap I increase my speed and feel the force pushing me sideways into the car door and deeper into the seat as the car pushes deeper into the track. I become one with the machine and the noise and the pressure against my chest.
It’s then that I notice the bead of sweat on my eyebrow. Even if I could reach up and wipe it away it wouldn’t matter, since my hands are glued to 10 and 2 o’clock on the wheel. I’m a heartbeat away from hitting the wall. Hard.
It’s a “Star Wars” moment: “Do, or do not; there is no try.” “Feeling the force” only really ever meant letting yourself go in the moment and trusting that your hands will guide you. The more you think about it, the less precise you become. And when you put everything else aside there’s only you and your marks and your line around the track. And so I careen into Turn Three with only one eye open as I dive down into my mark to enter Turn Four. A few weeks earlier, NASCAR drivers were skidding across this most treacherous stretch of newly-resurfaced track, crashing into the wall.
Bryan Howland is the youngest member of our team. At 18, he’s had more racing experience than any of us. He’s a champion in the Sprint Car dirt-track racing circuit in New York and his father has brought him down here for some “big league” experience. We’re paired together when it comes time to learn the art of “drafting”; a racing version of tailgating. What you’re hoping for is that the person in front of you doesn’t “check up”, that is, slow down suddenly. At such high speeds, even with the best of reactions, you’ll plow into him and send you both spinning. He doesn’t and we don’t.
“Aside from the driving part of the racing course,” Holman says, “it teaches people to reach inside and get the most out of their abilities and learn how to trust each other and work as a team. And someone that may not have as much confidence in themselves will develop that over the course of the experience.”
The tear melts away as I slingshot out of Turn Four and barrel down the straightaway. Hitting my marks. Finding my line.
Afterward, friends will ask what it was like; more specifically, “How fast?” There are numbers to represent what I experienced. But there are no figures that tally what I learned about myself, my expectations, fears and limits, my need to feel alive. What I brought back has very little to do with speed and everything to do with concentration. To stay ahead of yourself by looking down the road a half mile instead of only ten feet in front of you. The lesson stays with me as I change lanes on the Beltway or negotiate the curves of Military Road or MacArthur Boulevard or perform an evasive maneuver in heavy traffic. At one behind the wheel.