As I grew older, I began to look at all the things I had never done and gave serious consideration to a bucket list. It all started by “I’ve never been on a jet ski” and quickly grew to skydiving and driving fast cars on race tracks. When I bought a sports car, it came with a huge discount to learn to drive it at a high speed, performance driving school. Fast forward three years and I now have been to ten high performance schools.
Along the way, I drove a NASCAR at Charlotte Motor Speedway and suddenly found myself wanting to try to drive a NASCAR on all of the NASCAR tracks around the nation – all 24 of them. Various companies provide NASCAR’s at almost every track to anyone with a driver's license and a credit card. I had both – and now I have driven 17 tracks.
Recently, I got a special offer to spend a weekend in Charlotte with retired NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace. It included a private tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Great I thought – but it also included a day at a small NASCAR track driving practice laps all day followed by a race. Now I draw the line at racing. Driving fast on a track is one thing but doing that when battling other cars is a bit much for a 71 year old.
But in order to get the one experience, you have to participate in both. Well, I could always practice, go through qualifying, and then withdraw. So I went to Hickory Speedway where all the NASCAR drivers ‘cut their teeth’ and tried a few laps. This was the first time they had given me a NASCAR without an RPM limiter chip which was designed to keep speeds way down. Now I was flying around the track and really having fun. Until they yelled over the radio to “stop the car right now.” Wow, somebody must have wrecked I thought.
But then when I stopped, the next words I heard were, “unstrap and get out of the car – you’re on fire!” I surprised myself how fast I could remove the steering wheel, unstrap, put the window net down, and start to wiggle out the window. Of course, the car was filling with smoke so I definitely felt motivated. But then, I got stuck. The Hans device attached to my helmet to protect from whiplash got caught on the seat’s headrest and I was going nowhere. I began to worry just a bit when a pair of hands came through the window, grabbed me under the armpits, and ripped me out of the car so fast that I lost a shoe. It was the owner of the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience. Mark. Nice guy – and strong!
Great time to step aside maybe? No, I was hooked and the adrenaline was flowing so I got another car after they put the fire out. I was concerned that the six other drivers who signed up were all in their forties or much younger – plus most of them were race car drivers of some sort. But I seemed to pretty much keep up with them in practice. Besides, even they had their own challenges. The 23 year old spun and hit the wall and totaled his race car. He was fine though. And then another spun out but managed not to hit anything. I can drive better than most of these guys, I thought. Yeah, sure….
Finally, the owner, Mark, sat us all down and had a long talk with the group. He had promised us a race but said he was 100% sure that if we did, we would wreck at least one more car. We just weren’t that good for the high speeds we were driving. Not good drivers? Must be talking about the other guys - not me. So Mark finally asked the question – did anyone still want to race? Darn, my hand just shot up into the air. As did three others. The remaining three dropped out on the spot.
I soon found myself in another car running qualifying laps so we could determine who was on the pole and what the lineup would be. They placed me in second which was a surprise, told us to close it up, and then yelled “Green Flag…!” The pole sitter, who was negotiating a contract to go semi-pro in one of the NASCAR series, took off and it was all playing catch up from there. But I knew that my racing line was better than his and I managed to stay close to his bumper after 5 laps. I stayed there for a couple of laps wondering how to pass – and if I should even try. And then he went a little wide. I didn’t even think about it. I just dove inside him going into the next turn and got up to just past his front door. He darn near hit me but lifted and suddenly, I was leading. Not for long, I thought. So I just kept my foot in it expecting him to catch up and pass. And I went faster and faster. My spotter wouldn’t tell me where the competition was. I was on my own.
Next thing I saw were a couple of cars out my windshield. I was about to lap the rest of the field. Geez, I thought. Now I’ll have to pass them too. Once was enough. And owner Mark must have thought so too so he threw the checkered flag! I had just won my first “NASCAR race.” Everyone was just a little stunned that the senior citizen had come in first. I finally told them I had been to ten professional driving schools and had earned a racing license along the way. Who says that old guys can’t learn a thing or two while working on their bucket list. Life begins at 70….