Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Climbing In and Strapping Up: My Ride around Pocono Raceway (Part 1)

CropRebeccaStockcar Me and StockCar Racing Experience instructor Chris Marcho
before our ride-along at Pocono Raceway last week.

Every summer, NASCAR comes to Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. For the past three years, I've been attending NASCAR events in June and August at what I call my home track. I've seen Sprint Cup races, practices and ARCA races. I've spent hours roaming the pits and the infield. I've sat in the stands with the sun beating down on me - with the sunburns to prove it - or the rain soaking me through.

But last week, I got to experience Pocono from an entirely new perspective - the inside of a racecar going 160 mph!

The StockCar Racing Experience at Pocono gives individuals an opportunity to drive or ride as a passenger in a Sprint Cup-style stock car at the 2.5-mile tri-oval speedway. With the Pocono race weekend just around the corner (June 4-6), I decided to find out what it's like on the other side: to be in the racecar instead of watching it from the stands.

I've never driven a manual transmission, so I couldn't drive the car myself. But I did the next best thing: I went for a ride-along with an SRE instructor around the track nicknamed the "Tricky Triangle." The first part of this blog is my account of that experience.

After my ride-along, I accompanied a class of students taking the driving course and went through the preparation process with them. This will make up the second part of the blog (to be posted Thursday).

So what was it like? Keep on reading as I take you with me on my ride-along at Pocono. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

DSC01473 SRE’s stock cars


What is SRE?
From April to October, StockCar Racing Experience conducts ride-along and driving programs at Pocono Raceway, one of the most unique tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Instructors are on the track about 50 days out of the year, said SRE President Jesse Roverana. The school can see around 100 clients on a weekday, but the number jumps up during the weekends.

Since its inception in 1998, SRE has assembled its own racecars, which have clocked a total of 1.6 million miles around Pocono, according to the school's website. In 2008 the school began the transition to the Car of Tomorrow design, which Roverana said accounts for nine of its 18 stock cars. Future cars will be manufactured as COTs. Roverana said the new cars are fairly similar in handling to the previous style.

The chassis, drivetrain and tires used with SRE-assembled cars are the same as those in Sprint Cup, Roverana said. But there are some differences. The school's cars utilize fiberglass bodies instead of steel. There's also a difference in motors. SRE's stock cars produce 600 horsepower, compared to 850 horsepower in Sprint Cup motors, Roverana said.

DSC01498 Jesse Roverana, StockCar Racing Experience president

Safety is important at SRE. The school boasts no injuries or accidents in its 12-year history.

"We realize it's a dangerous sport," Roverana said. The school continues to update its procedures and curriculum to provide customers with the highest level of safety.

While some racing schools operate out of multiple racetracks, SRE is solely based at Pocono. Located within two hours of New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey, the school has access to a customer base of nearly 50 million people in a 200-mile radius, Roverana said. Pocono's central location - and lack of nearby NASCAR-sanctioned tracks - gives SRE an exclusive hold on a highly populated metro region.

SRE's ride-along consists of a passenger-seat ride with an instructor in a two-seat racecar at around 160 mph. Clients have a choice of two options: a three-lap ride and a six-lap ride. I would be going on the three-lap ride-along.

The school recommends the ride-along to individuals in the driving program. The experience allows drivers to observe how the racecar handles on the track as well as how a professional operates the equipment. Thursday's blog will include more information about SRE's driving program, but those interested can also visit the school's website, www.877stockcar.com.

Time to strap in
I was standing on pit road at Pocono Raceway on a sunny weekday morning. It was supposed to be near 90 degrees, but all I could feel was a nice breeze as I watched the cars whiz by on the track. And maybe a few butterflies ...

Before I could go on the ride-along, though, I needed to sign liability forms. The women who assisted me at the SRE trailer were very friendly. I told them how I would be writing about my experience for Skirts and Scuffs.

"Be sure to tell Chris to take you full-throttle," one of them said, smiling. "Chris" was Chris Marcho, an instructor with StockCar Racing Experience whom I had met on Twitter. He's the face behind SRE's Twitter account, @877stockcar, and would be taking me on the ride-along. I smiled and made a mental note: ask for "full-throttle."

DSC01485

Me in my firesuit

After signing the forms, I was fitted for a firesuit and a helmet. The firesuit was red and blue, and was missing the sponsor names and logos I was accustomed to seeing on the suits of NASCAR drivers. The firesuit can be worn right over your clothes, but I found out it was easier to take off my sneakers, climb into the suit, zip up and then put my sneakers back on. I tried on the helmet to make sure it fit, but I didn't have to wear it until I was strapped in the racecar. Marcho was on the track conducting a ride-along, so I held the helmet under my arm as I waited for him to return to the pits.

As I waited, I observed my surroundings. There were linemen wearing headsets scattered along the pit wall. One let Marcho know I was waiting for him and was now helping others suit up for their ride-alongs. Another was waiting for the racecars as they pulled in, helping the passengers to climb out. In a fenced-off area, another was talking with individuals in the driver program as they waited to go out with an instructor and do laps. Just outside the fence was a tent where family members could sit and wait.

Just then, a car with a 24 on it and painted with flames - yup, just like Jeff Gordon's - pulled up. The lineman who had alerted Marcho earlier called me over. Another lineman walked with me to the car's passenger side. He held my helmet for me as he instructed me how to enter the racecar. The doors don't swing open like your typical car on the street - I'd have to climb in through the window.

"Put your left leg in first," he said, as I held onto the car above the window for support, "then your right." I slid into the seat and I was in. That was easier than I thought, relief sweeping through me. I can be rather clumsy, and I didn't know if my entry would be so smooth!

The lineman fastened me in using a five-point harness, which consisted of two shoulder belts, two belts at my waist and one through my legs. After I was strapped in, I was fitted with a HANS (head and neck support) device. These are the same safety procedures NASCAR drivers follow.

Then the lineman helped me put on my helmet and tied it taught.


"Are you nervous?" he asked.

I paused, remembering the butterflies I felt when I first got to the track. But they must have flown away, for now I felt calm, even relaxed. I felt safe.

"No," I said. "I was earlier, but not anymore."
DSC01472
Marcho’s car pulls up to pit road
I turned to the driver and met an extended hand. "Hi Rebecca, my name is Chris," he said.

I shook his hand. "Nice to meet you in person," I said with a smile.

I told Marcho how the women who had checked me in had told me to ask him to "full-throttle."

"We can do that," he said. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, let's go," I said eagerly.

And so we took off. (That's exactly how it felt).

As we picked up speed on the straightway and approached Turn 1, it reminded me of being on a plane when it takes off for flight - except we were going straight ahead, not up. I started feeling dizzy going into the corner, and that's when I realized I wasn't focusing on anything in particular. I decided to look far ahead in front of me. Once I found a focal point, I was no longer dizzy.

For three laps, Marcho and I rocketed around Pocono Raceway. True to his promise, he went full-throttle, pushing 160 mph. I took my eyes off the track to watch him work the pedals. I noticed when he started to slow down before entering a turn, he didn't use the brake; he simply lifted off the gas. Upon exit, he accelerated again.
My favorite part of the ride-along was the corners. Pocono has such long straightaways that it can be tricky to navigate the turns. But that's where you feel the g-force, the pressure that gravity exerts on an object when it is accelerating relative to freefall. It's what causes you to be tossed to the side, opposite the way you're going into the turn. For me, it was also the most exhilarating part of the experience. What a rush!
Too soon, the three laps were over and Marcho was pulling onto pit road.

"So what did you think?" he said.

Absolutely exhilarating. Can we go again?

What I actually said was, "It was awesome! Thanks for taking me."

A lineman came over to help me out of the car. Would it be as easy for me to exit as it had been to get in?

The lineman unfastened my seat belts, took my helmet and removed the HANS device. Afterward, he directed me to climb out through the window by sitting on the door. As I maneuvered myself out the window, I kept my body turned toward the car. I grabbed onto the roof - as I'd seen so many NASCAR drivers do after finishing a race - then swung out my left leg, then my right. I was out! Clumsiness averted, once again.

I returned my firesuit and met up with Marcho. He said I could still join a class of students taking the driving program and follow them through their preparation.

"Sounds good to me," I said, and we headed to class.

Check out Part 2 of my blog, "Climbing in and Strapping Up: Behind the Wheel at Pocono," on Wednesday. I follow the participants in SRE's driver program and talk with some of them about their expectations and their experience in the driver's seat, including a local radio personality. I also get to speak with the school's general manager, Steve Fox, who is entered in this weekend's ARCA race at Pocono.

DSC01511 The linemen assist with racecars on the track

(Photos taken by Rebecca Kivak)

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Any opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.























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