Kids get in the driver's seat at new Disney Junior Ride-Along Program

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I watched the yellow race car zoom noisily around the speedway, topping speeds of 100 miles per hour. When the stock car glided to a stop in front of the pit, a helmeted figure in black coveralls extracted himself from the passenger side window.

It was my 12-year-old son.

Now I can breathe again. 

My son, Ian, was one of a handful of kids invited to a media preview of the new Junior Ride-Along at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. Tucked into one corner of the Magic Kingdom parking lot, the oval speedway is typically paid scant attention as motorists drive by in haste to get to the theme park.

The Junior Ride-Along for kids ages 6 to 13 and at least 48 inches tall allows them to ride shotgun with a professional driving instructor for three laps in a specially equipped two-seat NASCAR race car. The ride is $59.

"You can imagine what Disney thought about that idea when we first proposed it," quipped Bill Scott, general manager of the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando, to the media group.

Safety is their first concern, Scott said. The company partnered with The Joie of Seating, a fabricator of custom-fitted aluminum racing seats owned by two-time NASCAR champion Randy LaJoie, to build kid-sized seats. The North Carolina-based company built custom racing seats specifically designed for smaller bodies. The full containment seats include built-in shoulder and head protection and a five-point safety harness that is the same design used by NASCAR drivers. 

"But the biggest safety feature is that our guys are driving," Scott said. "You’re safer going around our track than coming in on I-4 in the minivan."

The Richard Petty outfit has 20 tracks around the country and about 1,000 riders a day, he said.

Nevertheless, the thought of my son climbing to more than 100 miles per hour inside a concrete bowl made me a little nervous. For inside the walled oval of the Disney speedway is a real thrill seeker’s paradise: There are no rides on rails here. No computerized moving cars to take you on a joy ride. They are real cars on a real track, and that really imposing concrete wall.

After signing the waver forms, Ian was given a rubber stretchy bracelet to hold the flash drive that would record the video of his ride. He was led over to the racks of flameproof coveralls, in kids’ and adult sizes, all a version of the Nomex suits worn by NASCAR drivers.

Then we walked out to the pit, where a crew member fitted Ian with a black hood and then encased his head in a heavy helmet equipped with a microphone and earphones so Ian could communicate with the driver. We sat in some folding chairs to wait our turn.

Because Ian is taller than 5 feet, he was put into the adult-sized seat with a special neck brace to ensure a tight fit. When it was his turn, he was led to the racing car, where he stopped to pose for a professional photograph. Then he entered the car like a real NASCAR driver — through the window.

"I was really nervous because I had never done anything like that before," said Ian, a seventh-grader at Pioneer Middle School in Cooper City. "But when the driver started the engine, it was really loud, and it made me smile."

Ian said his nervousness faded as the speed increased. 

ìWhen he started going fast, it was exciting,î he said. ìI just started smiling. I wasn’t scared at all.î

That ear-to-ear grin was the first thing I saw when the car pulled over to a stop at ride’s end.

ìHe wins the award for the biggest smile of the day,î a crew member said in passing.

Ian said it was a memory he won’t soon forget.

"I think it was really cool, and I’m really glad I did it," he said. "It’s not my favorite ride at Disney, but it’s definitely at the top."

For more information, visit DrivePetty.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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