"So, I had outrun my fears without rear view mirrors. I had hung my number on destiny, and it had stuck."
Speed Kills . . . the Fear of Speed
My pastor has buried the needle on his sport bike at 175mph. I've got a buddy who took his WRX to 165 and a dad who's blown a light at that speed. So, I've felt a bit down the totem pole with my humble exploits.
I pulled into the infield at Lowes Motor Speedway Wednesday to the raspy roar of retired NASCAR rides blistering past our pit row seats. One of my fellow Andretti Racing School students asked me, "So, how fast do you think they're going right there [into the straightaway]?"
"Don't know. I'm not a good judge of speed," I revealed. That will be me, I thought. I'm going to wreck this thing.
Twice in our classroom preparation for our pending laps, the instructor asked us, "Who's going to go the fastest?" A bunch of middle-age guys in the back row shouted out their self assuredness. Not me. I was prepared to play it safe.
We rode two van laps around the track to show us optimal lines and the white guide squares painted on the new asphalt. Our van driver stopped on turn three. From my shotgun seat, I looked through the driver-side windows to see nothing but asphalt and ground.
It was that steep.
"Don't worry: the van won't flip," he reassured. "These corners are banked 24º." He explained that we needed to trust the bank to hold us at our high speeds.
I was in the first group of drivers called to pit row to be inserted into our cockpits. My jitters made me pace and stretch and shake my head and pace some more. I looked toward the track and the Indy cars being pushed into our starting blocks from the fulcrum where nervousness and fear teeter.
My heart raced faster as I got closer to the launch. I had to wait, clutch engaged, for the surprise bump from my push vehicle—when it would accelerate me toward the clutch pop that would start my engine and my first race.
Then I was off.
My first set of laps illustrated my timidity, as the instructor car grew farther and farther in front of me. The flag man waved his "go faster" flag, and the lead car slowed for me to catch him. I really never did, until we pulled into the pits.
I changed cars and launched again into seven more laps. My confidence grew, and so did my speed. I pitted again, not knowing how much faster I'd gone. Our cars had neither tachs or speedos on the dash; the school wanted us to focus on our respective instructor cars. Actually, they wanted us to tail gate them, staying within four to six car lengths. If we fell back from that, our lead driver would slow for us and assume we were uncomfortable with anything faster.
On the third and final trip out, the pit crew chief let me rip it for 15 laps. I yelled at myself in the curves and lifted my focus from my (now memorized) pavement marks to the butt of that maroon rocket in front of me.
I knew I was going faster, and I rode his tail like a shadow. But he wouldn't go faster. I figured he was remembering our previous lap sessions and was playing it safe with me. When my laps were done, I slowed into the pits with a bit of disappointment hidden behind my sunglasses. I had wanted to go faster, and they hadn't let me. I had anticipated in the classroom that I would have to tell my friends why I had played it so conservative—so safe. But now, having grown accustomed to the feel, I felt robbed of the freedom to skip those excuses back home.
I shimmied out of the cockpit and swung over the pit wall. "I'll take your helmet," said the pit crew chief, "You can get your printouts over at the trailer."
I walked slowly to the school's mobile unit and slowly started reading from the bottom of the plasma screen showing the top students' top speeds. About half way up the list, I was almost sure I had flunked out of the top 15.
But there it was, second from the top, Ryan George: 185.58. "Sweet!" I wanted to jump and hoot but kept it to, "Sweet!" With six laps hitting above 180, I had sped past my expectations and even my dreams.
"Which one are you," asked a bystander, waiting for his passenger seat laps in a stock car.
"Ryan George, second by .8 miles per hour."
It then hit me that the instructor hadn't driven any faster because he probably wasn't allowed to. The school web site had promised "up to 165mph." One of the school reps told me that she'd never heard of a student breaking the 180mph barrier.
So, I had outrun my fears without rear view mirrors. I had hung my number on destiny, and it had stuck.