Pretty Petty – My Days of NASCAR Thunder

Car: Dodge Charger (NASCAR Xfinity Series)

Circuit: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nevada USA (2.4km)


In terms of asphalt speedways, they say Daytona and Talladega are for the purist; Las Vegas and Florida’s Walt Disney World, the tourist.

I’m minus the Hawaiian shirt, but with trusty Canon SLR around neck and Hertz courtesy map on lap, I look the part. Kinda. 

Some 10 miles (16km) out from the Strip along the Boulevard towards Nellis Air Force base, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) appears, an imposing avenue of transplanted palms and huge concrete saucer towering out of the desert into a cloudless sky. 

Set on 1000 acres (405ha), LVMS contains eight racing circuits and a dragstrip. Jewel in the crown is the 1.5-mile (2.4km), tri-oval superspeedway, design inspiration for which came from some of NASCAR’s finest. 

It’s 2015, and I’m at LVMS to do the Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE).

Richard Petty, for the benefit of anyone still using Clearasil, is The Man of stock car racing.

In an unparalleled 34-year career, he won 200 races from 1185 starts, nearly double that of the next best, David Pearson, along with seven series titles and Daytona 500s apiece.

I have a feeling of déjà vu. It’s because I was here at this very track 16 years earlier to similarly put pedal to the firewall.

This time around, I am booked in to drive a trio of contemporary American muscle cars on the infield track: Shelby Mustang GT 500, Chev Camaro ZL1 and Dodge Challenger SRT-8 392. 

Alas, a week or so before leaving for the US, RPDE contacted me to say the challenge was a no-goer, but that they had ‘upgraded’ me to their popular stockcar Rookie Experience.      

As it turned out, there are a few differences to the then and now.

First, the track. In the interests of better side-by-side racing, the tri-oval was reconfigured in 2006 by increasing the banking from 12 to 20-degrees. 

Second, the cars, now a generation on from the Chevrolet Monte Carlo I drove in 1999.

The current (2015) cars are Xfinity series chassis powered by 358-cubic inch, pushrod V8s making 600+ horsepower (447kW+), mated with a four-speed, Muncie-type gearbox and using a solid axle with 9.0-inch rear end and 3.50 final drive.

Xfinity is, of course, the feeder series to the main game. 

Third, the method of operation. Previously, you got to drive solo about five car lengths behind an instructor in another stockcar. He was in radio communication and, if you looked like you had a handle on things, the pace picked up accordingly. 

These days, an instructor rides along inside. Behave yourself and show some competence and he might give you more revs to play with by tweaking the on-board limiter from 4500 to 5000 – maybe more. 

The Experience starts with a driver’s briefing where the dos and don’ts are spelled out in colourful American drawl.

Then it’s time to pull on a flameproof driving suit, which helps everyone look the part and no doubt stops the corporate lawyers from stressing out too much.

I’ve been allocated a Dodge Charger in Petty signature blue, white and red and bearing his famous #43.

It was the living legend himself who once said, “You don’t climb into a stock car. You really sort of put it on.” Ain’t that the truth.

With no doors that open, putting it on involves placing one leg inside the window opening, then, supporting your weight with fingertips on the roof lip, ease the other leg in and slide into the rib-wrapping race seat.

The steering wheel has to come off to accomplish this. Once in, the wheel is replaced on to its spline and locked into place.

A five-point harness tightens to raise your voice several octaves and, once the window net is clipped up, I follow the explained procedure of throwing a trio of toggle switches on the left of the dash and press the starter.

The big, brawny 5.9-litre V8 fires up instantly, quaking the concrete pit apron. 

An amber idiot light reassures me I’m in 1st gear, then it’s gingerly out with the clutch at 2000 rpm, hoping like hell not to stall. I don’t.

Having been ambushed before by some heavy-duty, competition transmissions, it’s a relief to find the change from 1st to 2nd ‘smooth as’. 

We rumble along the pit road, then I glide the shifter up and across into 3rd and call up 4000 rpm. On to the straight, it’s time to slot 4th and roll the throttle on.

The response is shove-in-the-back immediate, the noise epic.

After a mandatory acclimatisation lap, we get ready to boogity, boogity, boogity.

Those four turns come up pretty damn quick, but there’s no need to brake, just lift off the power and the nose drops, helping the car settle and turn in.

Elsewhere, you just hold steady throttle as close to the rev limiter without banging on it. 

The fat 28 x 12.15 front and rear slicks, purpose-built asymmetric chassis and staggered set-up Araldite the car to the track.

Yet such grip fails to deaden the steering. Power-assisted, it’s surprisingly light but oozing feel and response. 

Lap 2 we turn 119 mph (192km/h), lap three 122 (196). I must be behaving myself, because the ride-along instructor keeps feeding me more revs to play with.

125 mph (210km/h) comes up . . . 130 (209) . . . 138 (222) and heading north.

Damn, just as we get a real flow going, he signals time to back off, run a cool down lap and return to the pits.

So, does the RPDE pretty much deliver on its promise of a rewarding, hands-on insight to that quintessential, all-American motorsport called stock car racing.

Oh, yeah. And just like the real thing, you want to go quicker – and convinced you could.

43 Dodge
Dodge Charger in Petty signature blue.


The Fast Way Around

Running 138+mph (222km/h) around a 1.5-mile tri-oval is only sipping the heady brew of NASCAR performance, but race pace (160 mph, or 258km/h) is serious imbibing.

Back in 1999, I got to see how it’s really done, hot lapping with Tom Franco, an up-and-comer contesting the NASCAR Featherlite South-West circuit, a feeder series to the Winston Cup main game.

Seated alongside him in a race replica of Jeff Gordon’s Rainbow Warrior #24 Chevy, we played nip-and-tuck with two-times Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock in a #3 Dale Earnhardt look-alike Monte Carlo.

Circulating side-by-side, only a metre from the wall, I could have reached out and touched the concrete – it supercharged my pulse and heartbeat. 

What it must be like among a pack of 40 similar desperadoes, bumper-to-bumper, three-wide, in sight of the chequered flag being unfurled, I continue to wonder in awe.

Rubbin’s racin’, remember.


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