Sunday, April 08, 2001

165 mph

A need for speed

        At semi-legal speed, the trip from downtown Cincinnati to Kentucky Speedway takes 40 minutes. If your Shivolay happens to have a NASCAR gear, you can do it in less than 14 minutes.

        By the time you get there, you will probably have a police escort. But it's almost worth it. NASCAR speed isn't just fast. It's another dimension.

        Even moderate, test-drive, demo-NASCAR speed could get you to Florida in about the time it takes to drive to Cleveland.

        Going 165 mph on four wheels is like being a bug on the windshield of an F-16. The world comes at you too fast to take in anything but a loud blur. And if you're lucky, three laps around a 1 1/4-mile oval are over before you have time to ponder that your only contact with paved Earth is a few square inches of Goodyear rubber.

        They were handing out free samples of NASCAR speed on Thursday at the racetrack in Sparta: three laps at “qualifying speed,” to introduce a new attraction called the Richard Petty Driving Experience ( For about $90, they take you for a ride. For $349 and up, they let you drive. For those who peel off serious jack, they offer thrills like the Bristol Experience (“Defy the laws of gravity . . .”).

        I wriggled into a Monte Carlo feet first like climbing through the bathroom window, and settled into the aluminum racing seat, surrounded by roll-bar pipes and geometric steel like the inside of a two-man rocket ship.

        I noticed that Winston Cup cars have no cup holders, no climate control, no leather-wrapped steering wheels or CD players. They smell like the intoxicatingly sweet cologne of burning rubber, high-octane fuel and Chanel No. 630 horsepower.

        They sound like thunder in a cage that wants out right now. And they go like turbocharged lightning.

        Before we launched, there was a brief class to explain what type of lunatics pay $90 and up to go faster than any human body can go without falling out of an airplane.

        Ninety-four percent are men. Duh. And more than half have never been to a NASCAR race before (that's me again).

        “We've gone 11 years without an incident,” a spokesman said.

        That was very reassuring — until I began to picture an “incident,” which in my imagination looked something like a fireball tornado of tires and arms and legs, mostly mine.

        Before I started replaying those colorful imaginary “incidents” in my head, I attended a press conference by Kerry Earnhardt, who will be driving in the June 16 Busch Series Race at Kentucky Speedway.

        Mr. Earnhardt's father, Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash six weeks ago. “I miss him very much and know that he is proud of why we are here today,” said “Little E” in a written statement.

        But he didn't want to talk about it. “We'd like to keep away from the safety issues and his loss and just talk about racing today,” a spokeswoman said.

        That was OK by me. No crash questions. Please.

        Now, I realize some padded-room busybodies have actually suggested that NASCAR drivers should slow down — which is like asking the NFL to play touch football and telling NHL hockey players to try Nerf pucks.

        People who don't have a need for speed just don't get it. But the rest of us can understand perfectly why Kentucky Speedway is expected to draw 600,000 fans this year — more than the Bengals could pull with an entire season of sellouts.

        And after three laps at the speed of NASCAR life, I can understand why someone would live and die to drive fire-breathing Fords and Chevys.

        It makes the wildest ride at King's Island feel like the plastic pony on a pole in front of Kmart.

        Contact Enquirer Associate Editor Peter Bronson at 768-8301; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Bronson.


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