Driving Experience Is No Petty Thrill for the Racing Fan

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According to the people who run the Richard Petty Driving Experience, if I let them strap me into the passenger seat of a Winston Cup replicar for three laps on California Speedway’s two-mile oval at 165 mph, I would come away thinking I was King Richard.

The faxed invitation said this in so many words, and the phone number confirmed it: 1-800-BE-PETTY.

I have always appreciated high-speed travel, which can be easily confirmed by the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.


But I had no illusion that three hot laps would turn me into Richard Petty, just as I don’t believe spending a small fortune to wear a Dodger uniform for a week at Vero Beach will make me Sandy Koufax.

Heck, I don’t even believe that spending $1,199.99 for the 30-lap “Experience of a Lifetime” would turn me into Richard Petty.

Brad Mark, director of national corporate sales for Petty, offered a different perspective.

“You can’t go throw a football around at Soldier Field, or bat balls at Fenway Park, but you can go out to California Speedway and drive on the same track that the NASCAR drivers [drove on],” Mark said. “Our motto is, ‘Watch us on Sunday, drive like us on Monday.’ ”

Evidently, this marketing strategy works, or there are a lot of people who want to legally drive fast, because California Speedway is the 18th NASCAR track to join Petty’s operation.

When we arrived at the track--I was accompanied by a friend, Katie Hoover, who has tried skydiving and a few other things I haven’t--I immediately started asking questions.


Tom Franco, an instructor, explained they had just finished setting up the cars, using information provided by Kyle Petty as a starting point.

Rick Fedrizzi, executive vice president and chief operating officer, then briefed us on the history of the Petty Driving Experience, which was originally intended as a driver search geared toward short-track racers who wanted to move up to the super-speedways and marketed under the name NAS-TRACK.

The cars, which cost approximately $85,000 each, are built in the Petty Driving Experience shop at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

The chassis are built to the same specifications as the Petty Enterprises Winston Cup cars, with the exception of the passenger seats. The engines put out 600 horsepower, 150 horsepower more than a NASCAR Busch Series engine but 150 horsepower less than an actual Winston Cup engine.

“These cars are capable of 45-second laps, but we run 49 or 50 seconds,” Fedrizzi said. He explained that not using the extra horsepower helped provide a safety margin for guests, and Mark said it also helped extend engine life to 7,500 miles.

Then it was time to ride.

Katie climbed into a blue and red No. 43 Pontiac Grand Prix driven by Trent Owens, who races in the NASCAR Slim-Jim All-Pro Series when he is not working as an instructor.


The smile on her face as she climbed out of the car told me all I needed to know about life at 165.

Then it was my turn. My car was a black No. 3 replica of Dale Earnhardt’s Chevy Monte Carlo, driven by Fedrizzi.

Lano Mann, marketing manager for Petty’s permanent operation at Las Vegas Speedway, strapped me into the seat.

“Are you scared?” Mann asked.

“No!” I shot back.

“Well, you ought to be.” Mann replied.

Fedrizzi fired the engine, let out the clutch, and motored down pit road at 35 mph behind Owens.

Fedrizzi hit the throttle hard at the the end of pit road, and the next thing I knew we were on the 18-degree banking in turn two, with my helmeted head firmly against the roll cage. We passed Owens heading into turn three, and he passed us heading down the front straightaway.

Although I could feel the G-force in the corners, there was no high-speed sensation in the straightaways.


Somewhere on the backstretch during the second lap, reality hit me. I wasn’t afraid, however.

The scariest driving of the day was fighting the traffic while driving back to the San Fernando Valley on Interstate 10.

I came away with an even greater appreciation for race car drivers, and I seem to have more respect for posted speed limits.

Three laps were just a tease, and it was all I could do to resist going to Petty’s permanent operation at Las Vegas Speedway and maxing out my credit card to drive the eight-lap “Rookie Experience.”

The Petty Driving Experience will return to California Speedway Monday through Aug. 20, and I intend to return and get behind the wheel.

My three laps at 165 mph did not turn me into Richard Petty, or Dale Earnhardt, but they were fun.