LOUDON, N.H. — “It’s like riding a bike, just without the baseball card in the spokes.”
I appreciated the sentiment from New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager David McGrath, but I knew he was lying.
A few weeks ago, my boss at NESN informed me I would be going to NHMS to, among other things, race other media members in NASCAR stock cars. A great opportunity, as well as a tremendous excuse to leave the office for a day.
There was just one problem: I didn’t know how to drive a stick.
This has become a point of mockery, as growing up in central New Hampshire apparently means I should’ve exited the womb with my foot on a clutch. Alas, I only had experience driving Toyota Corollas with automatic transmissions, so I had a lot to learn before taking my talents to the “Magic Mile.”
I tried, I really tried. I picked the brain of my friend, a gearhead who knows more about racing than I know about anything, for advice. I even spent part of the Fourth of July with my brother, who trained me in his wife’s manual Volkswagen Jetta. It went OK, except for the part where I stalled the thing a million times only to watch my 12-year-old nephew — a motocross racer — drive it with no issue.
After a week of hyping this thing up to my friends and family, Friday finally arrived.
Everything was fine at first. I aggregated a Danica Patrick Instagram, ate a granola bar and mingled with other media members. I then sat through a 20-minute presentation from a member of the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, the organization tasked with getting all of us through this thing alive. He was great, passionate and funny. He even assured me I would be fine despite not knowing how to drive a stick — something about a “rolling start.”
They split us into two groups. Members of the first would learn how to change a tire (NASCAR style) before stuffing their faces with comfort food, while the second group would go for ride-alongs before driving the cars themselves. I was in the first group.
By now I should mention the non-casual nature of the third-annual “Media Racing Challenge.” There was a trophy on the line, and your tire-changing time could result in a deduction to your fastest lap time. Some people participated last year and were good at this stuff, while others, like myself, were total newbies.
So, I changed a tire in 1 minute, 19 seconds, the worst time in my group by a significant margin. Thankfully, a couple late arrivals showed up and made me look good. Regardless, I would get no 10-second deduction on my lap time.
After eating “Gladiator Fries,” “Granite State Poutine” and a bunch of other stuff, I went back on the track.
My ride along was ridiculous. If you’ve ever gone on Test Track at Disney World, it was like that, but way faster. I had the “holy crap” look on my face the whole time, and wasn’t faking it. I also stared at the driver’s feet and hands as much as possible, thinking I could absorb a ton of information that would translate during my own driving session.
I’m 6-foot-4, a size not exactly tailor-made for stock cars. It took me about three minutes to get inside the damn thing. Once inside, some guy told me I didn’t have to worry about shifting to fourth gear because the car already was in fourth, and a successful rolling start — lifting clutch and pressing gas when prompted, or something — would relieve me of any further clutch/shifting duties.
Well, I either lifted the clutch too early or didn’t press enough gas, because I stalled in the middle of pit road. The woman on my radio sounded annoyed, probably because no other drivers stalled at any point during their driving sessions. The second attempt was successful, however, and I was on my way.
I felt great through two laps. I was sweating up a storm, but I was going fast and the woman on the radio was silent, which was a good sign.
Then, on Turn 1 of my third lap, I spun out and wound up on the infield grass. The woman wasn’t happy and I was totally embarrassed. Of course I was the only one who couldn’t get through this thing without screwing up.
We soon realized my right-rear tire was completely destroyed, and I was told to enter the pits. Once there, someone told me my tire exploded, which is why I spun out. There remains debate over whether I spun out because my tire exploded or my tire exploded because I sucked and spun out. I’m sticking with the former, though I have serious doubts.
I got my tire replaced and went back out for a few more laps, but the trauma from my spin-out rendered me gun-shy. The bravery I had on my first two laps was replaced by a “let’s get this thing over with” mentality, and it showed on the score sheet.
I finished 14th out of 16 with a fastest lap time of 57.66 seconds, nearly four seconds slower than 13th-place Leroy Irvin. Timmy G, host of 105.7 WROR’s “Wicked Fast Podcast,” finished first with a lap time of 39.89 seconds. He also topped out at 95.48 mph, while I “reached” 66.06 mph. Overall, a brutal showing.
That’s not to say the entire day was a disaster. Spending a day at NHMS — any race track, for that matter — is a treat, even if there’s barely anyone around. The size of the tracks, the sport’s rich history and the dedication of everyone involved makes racing unique. The sounds and smells, if you’re into those things, make the experience even better, especially on race day.
Furthermore, I’d recommend the Rusty Wallace Driving experience to anyone. The people are great, you never feel unsafe and the experience really is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
Give it a shot. You can’t do much worse than I did.