By Hank Nuwer
My wife Gosia’s dream to ride at top speed in a stockcar will come true next month. That’s her birthday gift from me.
10 years ago, I seized my own stockcar opportunity on the Lucas track in Clermont, Ind.
“Dear Hank. Congratulations. Drivetech Racing School is the most realistic racing experience in the country. Passing is encouraged, and speeds can exceed 150 mph!!!”
On my big day, I went to the media room.
Three 30-something men greeted me.
“Are you a racer?” one asked.
“I’m just a newbie doing something on my bucket list.”
“You’re not dying, are you?”
I laughed. “Death is the last thing I need.”
Seven more wannabe stock-car drivers entered the media room door. Five were in their twenties and built like baseball players, lean and strong and athletic.
One was very grey and wore spectacles. One, about 40, was short and potbellied. I was pushing 66, the grandfather in the room by decades.
“Everyone ready for some racing?” shouted the instructor. “Let’s check your experience level.”
10 out of 11 had driven a dragster at 200+ speeds.
All looked at me.
“I’ve watched a few races on TV,” I joked.
He went over the basics. How the shifters were two sticks with first, neutral and reverse on one, and second and third on the other.
I made a note where reverse was. Dropping a transmission at 120 mph wasn’t on my bucket list.
He went over the yellow and orange tapes on the track. “If you color outside the lines and whip the car into a wall, it will cost you $15,000 for the car.” he said.
“Most important, avoid locked wheels.” Locked wheels could send a car spinning like a top, he warned us. “Your car can be T-boned.”
He went over the yellow, green, red, and black flags. “Y’all know the checkered flag?”
“Don’t take an extra lap,” he said. “This year two jokers took a victory lap and crashed into each other.”
Now, if anyone has doubts, speak up, he said. “You can still sign up for a drive-a-long with a real pro driver.”
I wiggled my hand.
We took the long walk under a concrete tunnel to the tents where our cars sat. It was 97 degrees out.
A female attendant waited under one tent with our black-and-white fireproof uniforms. A male attendant came over to fit me with a helmet. “You’re the drive-a-long guy, right?” he said. “You got Car 29.”
A buddy of mine named “Stormin’ Norman Day” once told me how his stockcar caught fire. “I was down to the last layer of insulated protection when the crews sprayed the flames,” he said.
I squeezed through the narrow car window with the grace of a bear breaking into a cabin.
Once buckled into the seat, sweat streamed off my forehead, and blurred my vision. Worse, I seemed on the verge of heat collapse, having problems sucking in enough air.
The attendant whipped my helmet off and handed me a cold bottle of water.
The driver slipped through the window in one easy swing. He was in his 30s — about three-fifths my size and short with blonde hair. He gave my straps a last tug. “Name is Mark.”
Mark slipped the steering wheel into place.
He hit the switch. The 500-horsepower monster leaped.
The gravitational pull sucked me in. I kept my gaze on the track ahead. We passed the cars of my fellow students as if they were in neutral.
We hit the first turn at nearly top speed. I barely saw the green and orange marker cones, let alone the tape-lane-markers.
The billboard ads blurred by.
Mark kept the car in full throttle around every turn. The car exploded on the straightaway.
It was ground-pounding sheer speed.
Before I knew it, we entered the pits. “Did we go 150 mph?”
“162,” Mark answered as he exited.
I returned the uniform to the female attendant. She had a large jewel protruding from her belly button.
“So did you just finish driving?” she asked.
“No, just the drive-along,” I said. “It’s part of my bucket list at 65.”
“My Dad is 60,” she said. “He’d never do something this crazy.”
All at once, staffers waving red flags stopped the cars of students.
An ambulance drove onto the track. Attendants uploaded one driver onto a gurney. He had passed out in the heat.
That might have been me.
The other nine cars waited for the all-clear signal.
One of my classmates spotted me and flashed a thumbs-up through his window.
Now it’s Gosia’s turn for thrills.
I’m afraid to ask what’s next on her bucket list.
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.