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Richard Petty Driving Experience Gets NASCAR Right

At Charlotte Motor Speedway, Net10 proved that anyone doubting the ability of NASCAR athletes needs to shut up and give the Richard Petty Driving Experience a try.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

A couple of years ago, former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb made an abundant fool out of himself by degrading NASCAR drivers and declaring that they were not athletes because all they do is drive a car in a circle all day.

I wouldn’t want to single out the talking head on his own, since there are always plenty of dullards who make those claims. How hard can it be to drive a race car fast and simply turn left four times per lap?

That makes perfect sense. How hard can it really be two maintain speeds north of 190 mph, while maneuvering through bank turns, while pulling upward to 5 Gs, with standard brakes, on top of slick tires, in summer heat, in a vehicle without any creature comforts beyond a seat and a water bottle and with 30 other drivers around you on every lap looking to do the same thing you are. That’s what a NASCAR driver does. That’s why he or she is a professional athlete and a supremely talented one at that.

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Net10 Shows Off Its Favorite Sport

Net10 Wireless – the popular pay-as-you-go and pre-paid cellular company — sponsors Germán Quiroga on the NASCAR Truck Series. To demonstrate the skill of their driver and to highlight the demands of the sport the cellphone company supports, Net10 invited journalist to a recent NASCAR-themed media immersion at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Sure, the idea was to draw some attention to the Net10 services. But, the NASCAR operation stepped forward to unveil the challenges of the sport.

Related: Unveil the NASCAR Experience

The Richard Petty Driving Experience offers fans a chance to sample NASCAR driving at racetracks around the country. The schools use the equivalent of NASCAR trainers — stock cars built to racing specs with less powerful engines. The interiors are identical, the technology similar, the handling much the same.

The only distinct difference between the school’s cars and the Nationwide or Sprint Cup machines seen on TV every summer weekend is overall horsepower. Even with the engines ratcheted down some, these cars will still creep north of 175 mph with a long enough straightaway.

Not as Easy as It Looks?

After climbing over the doors and into the driver’s seat, the student meets the instructor in the passenger side. All the racing coaches are experienced NASCAR drivers. Some are more patient than others, but it’s their job to bring you up to speed quickly and to get you around in one piece.

Besides the obvious straight-line speed, the first feature of a NASCAR ride that hits you is the rudimentary steering and stiff brakes. There’s no subtle, nimble drive-by-wire delicacy here. Keeping the car in control at speed demands a blend of strength and dexterity.

Forget the Oval

While most people see an oval and see two straightaways and four turns, most ovals are truly two very long, sweeping left turns. In the case of Charlotte Motor Speedway, you must break a NASCAR lap into more than that. While it looks like an oval, the straightaway leads into a set of two mild doglegs, requiring the driver to reposition his or her line high and low before decelerating in the wide bank turns.

Once you have all of that mastered, it gets interesting when other cars join you on the lap. The coaches keep distance between the on track students, but different speed levels — and pit lane entrances and exits — mean you must eventually maintain racing speed with a car or two around you.

That’s when you get a little extra buttock clinch and must force yourself to relax and refocus. Amidst all of this, I managed a top lap speed of 135 mph. That was a good 5 mph+ off any sort of amateur track record, but I was satisfied.

After the laps end and you bring the car back to put row, it’s time to consider what a professional manages on the same track. He or she doesn’t have to worry about just maintaining speed and line, monitoring car feel and performance and watching other racers. The pro NASCAR driver has as many as 30+ other racers pushing, bumping and drafting throughout the laps. The overall image is a feat of mental juggling beyond the management of most mere humans.

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Try the “Ease” of NASCAR

Finally, to all those uninformed folks who still can’t grasp the true challenges of NASCAR – those delicate elitists and video game nerds who think G Force is only a Japanese anime series – I would urge them to get behind the wheel of a NASCAR trainer before they bury the sport as mere redneck weekend fare.

Try to get one of these cars around for 10 laps full out, with your toe down. If you can pull that off without lifting that foot or spinning out, then you can speak with some authority.

I doubt you’ll find Donovan McNabb anywhere out there.