Having watched NASCAR racing my entire life and covering the sport for several years, I have always had respect for the drivers, as athletes, and what they do. After riding around the track in Wayne Goss’ car, I have a little bit more.
It’s a hot, sunny day at Southern National Motorsports Park and the track’s defending Charger division champion has just finished teaching kids from the Kinder Care Day Care (located in Elm City, North Carolina) about racing – everything from the elementary basics to safety to his own experiences. As he was loading up, he took me around the track a few times.
So, I climb in to his car … where there is no passenger seat. It’s a matter of just getting in and getting somewhat secure on the “shelf” in between a few roll cage bars on the right side of the shelf. After that, I did what any millennial would do – pulled out my smartphone and hit record video on the camera app. Or was I supposed to use the Periscope app?
It’s fun going around the track at some 80mph but it’s also an even more eye opening experience. The first thing that hit me, aside from the roll cage bar as we raced off into the 17 degree corners, was the heat. Keep in mind, these drivers have to wear protective firesuits as well as a helmet and head-and-neck restraint. As I was sitting down on the right side of the car, I felt every bit of how hot that car can get.
For racecar drivers who often get looked down upon by other elite athletes, such as Donovan McNabb, who spent most of his final years in the National Football League (NFL) sitting on the bench, this becomes a physically demanding and enduring task after 50, 100, 150 laps … or, in the case of NASCAR’s elite, 400-500 miles.
How hot was it, exactly? As we know, it gets well over 120 degrees inside the cockpit of a racecar. How hot does it feel like? I will put it this way, if someone says something about lighting a fire under my ass, I have a little more insight as to the literal meaning of that metaphor.
The heat is not the only thing. When my ribs hit the roll cage, I thought for a second about some of the crashes many of the racers have experienced. While racing, as a whole, has become safer since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, there is still risk of injury. Take for instance Austin Dillon’s crash in Monday morning’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
Goss reflected upon some of the accidents he’s had through his 20 year racing career when speaking to the youths from the Elm City, North Carolina day care center. He talked about rollovers and other violent collisions, even joked that he has hit everything but the pace car at Southern National Motorsports Park… something Lee Pulliam took care of for him last summer. While drivers walk away from almost every wreck in racing, it doesn’t change that, like any athlete, drivers often feel their wrecks the following day.
Despite the risk of injury, those wrecks often look worse than they actually are thanks in part to safety improvements both implemented by teams and mandated by NASCAR, racetracks and other leagues.
Overall, it’s a fun experience, one every fan should try at least once. It also gives you just a little bit, only a little bit, of insight into what the drivers experience on race day.