June 19, 2012

The Need for Speed (Updated for 2023)

[Last updated 3/15/23 1:01 PM PT—Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where I drove this stock car, hosted its final NASCAR race on its current 2-mile track in February 2023. There are plans to reopen the facility with a shorter track, perhaps a half-mile long.]

"I just came from stock car racing," I told Maria's dad on Sunday over the phone, when I'd called him to wish him a happy Father's Day.

"Oh yeah? Do you have...interest cars?" he asked, chuckling.

"Well, yeah."

I'd only actually raced another car once before, six months ago when I spun out and stalled a Formula 1 racer at Willow Springs - twice.

But, as a child of the late 70s and early 80s, I grew up voraciously consuming high speed chases in film and on television - from Thunder Road to Smokey & the Bandit to Knight Rider to getting up early Saturday mornings just to watch Dukes of Hazzard, I always dreamed of driving a car, and driving it fast.

Last summer, I decided I'd found my lost calling: demolition derby driver. Only problem is, you have to go pretty slow.

It's one thing to dream something, and another to actually do it - to sit in the cockpit (as it were) with all of the switches and gauges, to sink into the seat, pop the steering wheel into place, depress the clutch to the floor, flip on the fan and ignition, and go.

Surrounded by mid-life crisis men celebrating Father's Day, I was one of two women in my pre-race driving class, which did more to frighten me then teach me how to operate a stock car. I must've looked troubled because all of the track hands were asking me how I was doing, if I was OK.

As I sat behind the wheel with my helmet on, strapped in tightly, I waited, sweating. I couldn't breathe very well. I squinted without my sunglasses, which I couldn't cram onto my face through my helmet (and with no one with me to spectate, had to give them to one of the crew members to hold).

I worried.

I was afraid of crashing, bursting into flames, burning my face off. I was afraid of someone else crashing into me, resulting in all the rest.

But most of all, I worried that my fear would take hold of me and make me a timid, trepidatious driver who couldn't surpass commonplace freeway speed.

When it was time to go, though, I went. I probably didn't go the fastest I could've gone - at no point did I feel remotely out of complete control of the vehicle - but I shifted into high gear and I stayed there. I accelerated. (After all, race cars are built to like gas.) I steered with one hand, the other on the gear shift. I banked. I passed. I smiled at the roar of the engine, feeling it rise up through my feet and up into my throat, forgetting my propensity for motion sickness.

I didn't look at the dashboard. (There was no speedometer and the RPM meter was broken anyway.) I didn't look behind me, relying on the voice on the radio to be the eyes in the back of my head.

Instead, I kept my eyes fixed as far down the track as I could, so I would know as far in advance as possible where I was supposed to be going.

I don't know how fast I went. I know I wasn't the fastest. I know I wasn't the slowest. But at whatever speed it was, it felt right for me.

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