My next adventure with an astronaut is slated to occur in
October. I am supposed to drive a race
car with Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden.
We are going to do this at the Richard Petty
Driving Experience in Orlando,
Walt Disney World.
At Gerald-Fest, Al told Mary that he was going to kick my
butt when we raced. We were under the
impression that he has driven the Richard Petty cars before and the
I’' ever raced in have been go-karts. So
that seemed like a challenge. There was
only about a month and a half for me to
get some experience so
that I can at least put on a respectable show against Al.
I signed up for a rookie driving session with the Richard
Petty Driving Experience (RDPE) at Texas Motor Speedway on August 10,
2008. To say that I was apprehensive
about this as the date approached is an understatement.
A couple of years ago, I did a ride along experience with
the Andretti Driving Experience at TMS. We
only did 3 laps, but the driver took us up to 185
mph. The walls of the race track fly by
fast at 185 mph. At that time I was glad
that I was a passenger and not a driving participant.
There just seemed like too much room where
you could screw up while driving an expensive and high powered race car.
The day before my rookie driving experience with RDPE, I was
asked if I was excited. Excitement is
not the emotion I would use to describe my feelings.
I would think stressed would have been more
appropriate to describe my feelings. I
just dreaded the possibility of screwing up. Would
I know when to get off the track, would I miss
the pit entrance,
would I misread a signal, would I kill the car leaving the pits?
Sunday morning arrived and it was time to fill out the
waivers for the driving school. Reading
those waivers and signing them added to my apprehension.
Racing is serious business and would I be up
for the challenge.
Mary and I picked up the grandkids, Lexie and Wayland. Wayland was convinced that I was going to
crash and was somewhat preoccupied with death.
The day before in church he told me that if I was
going to die, I should
have a shirt on. Then he added, “And
pants too. That would be a good idea if
you die.’ Of course when he told me this
we were in church and he was looking at a statue of Jesus hanging on
We drove to the track that we have been at many times before
as a spectator. This time was different;
I was going to be a participant. The
driving school gave good instructions on how to find your way to the
at the track. That was the headquarters
for the driving experience.
The location of the media center is on the inside of the
track, so you have to drive through a tunnel underneath the race track. It is kind of exciting just to be able to do
that. We got to the media center and
parked. We arrived at 10:30 AM. My experience was to start at 11:00, but the
instructions said to arrive 30 minutes early.
I got in line to
check in for the driving experience. Mary,
Lexie, and Wayland went to get a seat in the
media room. The Petty Experience staff
member said, so
you must be Gerald. Wow, that was pretty
good I thought. He then said that he had
a 50% chance of getting it right as there were only two people in my
group who had not checked in yet.
My waivers were all filled out properly and after checking
my driver’s license, I was given a memory stick that would record my
experience. Filling out the waivers was
a sobering experience. It’s not for the
feint of heart and not for someone who doesn't really want to drive a
car. RDPE has a good lawyer.
The Petty Experience staff member picked out a racing suit
for me. He told me to put it on and join
my family in the media room. I
my Nomex racing suit. It was getting
serious now; this really was going to happen.
Those two cups of coffee that I had that morning had started
to take their toll. I looked for a
restroom but couldn't find one. It was
going to be a long morning, if there were no restrooms around. I figured I’d wait until we went through the
orientation session before I looked into the restroom situation further.
I’m sure I must have looked pretty hot in the Nomex suit and
by that I don’t mean a chick magnet. This
in the summer after all and full coveralls were not a great way to
dress. As I walked over to where my family
seated, they all had big smiles on their faces. I
think they were chuckling at my expense with the
sight of me wearing a
I sat down, still full of apprehension.
Was I excited? You bet,
probably the same excitement you
have when running in front of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain.
11:00 o’clock finally rolled around and a staff member came
to the front of the room to begin the driver orientation.
One of the first things we did was to watch a
short video. I don’t remember a lot
about the video, since my mind was racing forward even if I wasn't on
yet. I remember telling Wayland to hush
so that I could concentrate on the instructions.
One thing that the staff member recommended was that drivers
should do the ride along experience before they drove.
He said that most people enjoyed the driving
experience a lot more if they had a ride around the track in the cars
I debated in my mind whether or not I
should do that. It did cost some extra money, but in the
grand scheme sounded like a bargain. I
looked to Mary and she confirmed that I should do the ride along
I was glad that she agreed; this seemed like
a good way for me to relieve some stress.
They called out all of the names of the drivers. The drivers then responded whether they
wanted to take a ride along or not. I
was surprised in that nearly half of the drivers declined the ride
along. My name was called and the staff
trouble saying my last name. I
responded with an assertive yes to the question about the ride along.
Another thing that I felt reassuring was that as part of our
orientation, drivers would be given a ride around the track in a van. That way we could see what the track was like
before driving around it ourselves.
The Petty Driving Experience is also pretty good with
children. They offered a free ride
around the track in the vans for Children less than 14 years old. I thought that was a nice gesture. I knew Wayland would be really excited to be
driving around the race track.
Drivers were then instructed to form into groups and head
outside for the vans. The family’s
stayed behind in the media center for the time being.
So this was it, I was off to battle with my fellow but
gladiators whom I didn't know from Adam. We
got into the van and I wound up in the back seat. I
would have liked to have been closer to the
front, that you can’t have everything. One
of the gentlemen in our driving group only spoke
Spanish, so he had
a translator along with him. I figured
if he can follow the instructions without even speaking the language,
maybe there was some hope for me.
As we headed down pit road in the van, we were told how to
start out. We were told not to do a
burnout when leaving the pits. We were
to do a nice and easy start with the tack reading about 2000 to 2500
instructors would be driving a car directly in front of us. We were to follow their line all the way
around the race track.
If we got out of line, then we would be shown a blue flag
with a yellow diagonal stripe. If we
were continually out of line with our instructor then our ride would be
We were supposed to follow the instructor about 3 to 5 car
lengths back. If we got too close, they
would wave their hand at us in the rear window, to indicate that we
back off. If we were too far behind then
the man on the flag stand would have a furled green flag at us.
Another flag that they had was a red flag with the number
4. That was to indicate that we needed
to shift up to 4th gear. Apparently
enough students forget to do that, so
they came up with a
special flag. That was all of the
signals. It doesn't seem like much now,
but when you are about to drive a 635 horsepower car around a race
seemed like a lot.
We went through the first turn in the van and stopped. An orange traffic cone was pointed out that
was next to the wall. This was the marker
for where we were supposed to decelerate through the corner. We drove forward and the instructor pointed
out two traffic cones side by side on the inside of the track. This was the acceleration marker, the point
from which we were to accelerate out of the corner.
When we decelerated, we were supposed to do
it just by letting off on the gas pedal to the tune of about 200 to 300
If the oil light on the dash should be illuminated for more
than 10 seconds were supposed to shut down the engine and pull over to
bottom of the track. We were to remain inside of the car until our
came back around. We were told to do the
same thing if we should have a tire go flat.
The van continued around the track and between turns 3 and 4
another set of deceleration and acceleration cones was set up. We came to the entrance of the pits and
pulled off into the pits. Coming down
pit lane there was sign that read “Brake Check.” We
were supposed to tap on the brake pedal
and make sure the nose of the car went down indicating good brakes.
A little farther down pit road a sign read “Shift to
Neutral”. From this point on we were
supposed to coast in the pits and stop at the designated point where
drivers would take over. It all seems
simple now, too bad it didn't seem that way before the drive.
I got out of the van and mercifully they told us where the
restrooms were. Anxiety and a nearly
full bladder is not a good thing. While
I was in the restroom another driver came up. He
joked that it probably wouldn't be a good idea if
we wet ourselves in
the car. I told him, especially not
since they are recording the inside of the car for DVD.
I can hear the announcer on the DVD now, “And
here as our driver hits top speed down the backstretch, we can see him
So now at least I was feeling better. I
paid for my ride along experience and
headed over to the tent where drivers were outfitted with helmets. I was about 8 our 10 people down the list for
the ride along. At about this time Lexie
and Wayland were getting their ride around the track in the vans. It was nice to have Lexie along because she
could look after her younger brother Wayland. That
way I could concentrate on driving and Mary
could focus on taking
As much as I feared driving the car, I really looked forward
to riding in one with a professional driver. I
remembered what a thrill it was going around the
track in the open
wheel car a few years ago. The line of
riders diminished in front of me as one by one their ride along was
fulfilled. RDPE had two cars that were
servicing the ride along customers.
One of those cars had the M&M candy sponsor colors. That
particular car has always been Wayland’s favorite.
Can you guess why? I
looked at the two people in front of me in line
and looked at the car sequence. I would
be in luck. I would get to ride in
Wayland’s favorite car. I’m sure that
was a thrill for him to watch. I must
have waited for about 15 minutes with my helmet and Nomex racing suit
on. It was a scorcher of a day in Texas and I had
found appreciation for the real drivers and the hot conditions that
put up with on a routine basis.
It was now my turn. I
was instructed to go over to the passenger side of the car and wait as
previous rider got out. While I was
waiting for the rider to clear the window, the RDPE photographer came
attached the HANS device to my helmet.
The name HANS stands for Head And Neck Support.
This was an innovation to increase the safety
of drivers during crashes. It felt
comforting to having this safety feature available.
It does however make it difficult to turn
The previous driver exited the car and I moved up to climb
in. Raising my leg up over the door took
a little more effort than I thought it would. I
guess I should have been taking yoga classes. I
grasped on to the roof
with one hand and onto the roll bar inside of the car with the other. I squirmed my way into the seat.
The first thing that struck me was how narrow the seat
was. It puts new meaning in the term
bucket seat. It comes all the way up
along your rib cage. How on earth
drivers bigger than I squeezed into this seat was a mystery to me. Perhaps they didn't really fit in but only
had one butt cheek overhanging either side of the arm rest.
The driver was very friendly. He
reached over and introduced himself to
me. I was strapped into the car. There were shoulder straps, waist straps and
of course a crotch strap. The straps
were snugged and I wasn't going anywhere. The
driver told me to look over to the right. The
photographer was standing there to take
True to their word, inside of the car was a video
camera. The memory stick that I wore
around my wrist was now taken and plugged into the video unit. This was going to be fun.
We blasted out of the pits. I
guess professional drivers have a little more
lee-way than us
rookies. Before you knew it, we were on
the track and in 4th gear. Each
lap the driver built up speed faster and faster. I
took special note of the flag stand at the
start finish line. I wanted to make sure
that at speed I would be able to tell what flag I was being shown. That turned out to not be an issue. I also noted the orange traffic cones
marked the deceleration and acceleration points.
I didn't really have anything to do with my hands being a
passenger so I just held them out in front of me.
It probably looked kind of goofy, but I
really couldn't fit them down beside me with that seat all the way up
Wow is it fun going fast. The
165 mph that we did in the RDPE car was a lot
tamer than the 185 mph
that I did with a driver in the Andretti car. However
165 mph in a stock car is still a blast. We
came through turn 3 on the last lap, and
the driver down shifted, the tires screeched. Jeez
if I had done that, I probably would have put
it in the wall.
I was looking for stress relief and that ride was it. I'm really glad that I did it before I
drove. I shook hands with the driver and
thanked him for his efforts. I was
from the seat and the HANS device was removed from my helmet. I then had to reverse the squirming process
to get my way out of the passenger window. Race
drivers are amazing. They
make it look so easy.
I headed back to the drivers tent to get out of the
Sun. Off with the helmet and down with
the zipper on the driving suit. I
welcomed any air that I could get. Mary
was nearby and I asked her to get me a cup of water.
Staying hydrated under these hot conditions
was important. As hot as it was outside,
it was a lot hotter inside of the race car with the heat radiating off
I sat down in the bleachers to wait for my turn to
drive. Lexie and Wayland came over to
sit by me. Mary as photographer stayed
standing. Even though I had stress
relief from being a passenger, stress was building again because it
be time for me to drive.
After several minutes I was called to come down to the
helmet stand. I was fitted with another
helmet. The RDPE worker told me that I
would be driving the number 33 VFW car. That
allowed me to tell my family which car to watch
for. I was now standing in the driver's
wearing my helmet. The driver in front
of me must have been nervous too. He
turned around and asked me if I was ready for this.
I shook my head and told him that I didn't
I tried to watch the other drivers out on the track to see
if I could pick up any pointers. Some of
them where obviously doing better than others, but all seemed to be
Here we go, the VFW car, number 33, pulled into the
pits. It was escorted over to the back
of the car. I was told not to get in the
car if I did not have a HANS device installed on my helmet. I waited by the rear wheel and another RDPE
staff member came up to me to install the HANS device.
The previous driver extricated himself from
It was now my turn to squirm my way into the drivers
seat. One would think it would have
gotten easier to assume the driving position after the ride, but it was
still tough. That HANS device which
immobilized my helmet
really didn't help for squirming into the car. I
hit my head on the top of the door, but since I
had a helmet on, it
really didn't matter.
I sat down in the seat and looked for the straps to the
safety harness. A staff member helped me
with the straps and once again I was strapped in as I was for the ride. This time though, I would be the only one in
The staff member asked if I was ready to go fast. I lied through my teeth and told him, “You
bet I am.” The steering wheel was
attached to the steering column. I
tugged on it to make sure that it was secure. The
last thing that I wanted to happen was to have
the steering wheel
come off as I was driving down the back stretch.
The staff member then told me to put my right hand on the
wheel and my left hand on the gear shift for the official RDPE photo. Unless he was trying to get me to play the
game “Twister” inside of the car this was exactly backwards. I smiled, ignored his instructions, and used
the proper hands. The photographer took
the picture and burst out laughing at the instructor.
She too realized that had messed up the
He squatted down beside the car and apologized for the mix
up. I told him that it really didn't
because sometimes common sense has to take over from instructions. He asked me if I had any last minute
questions. My mind was racing, but I
told him no questions.
He had me put the car into first gear. There
was a green indicator light on the dash
to let you know when it was in first. It
would be really embarrassing to stall the car leaving the pits in third
gear. The instructor told me to pump the
accelerator a couple of times as he fired the engine.
I did and the engine roared to life.
It was starting to be fun. I
was now in control of a 635 horsepower car. I
revved the engine. How
sweet that sound was. I waited for the
signal from my instructor
that it was time to pull out from the pits. The
instructor in the number 9 red and white care
pulled out in front of
me. I slowly let out the clutch and off
I went following the instructors car.
They said that you should shift at between 3500 and 4000
RPM. That was a great plan, but I
couldn't see the tachometer. The
positioning of the steering wheel coupled with my height in the seat
the tach was covered by the steering wheel. Well,
screw that, I would be driving by the seat of
my pants. So I mashed the accelerator and
the engine to whine a little before I shifted up to second. We were now on the apron of turn 1. The engine started to whine again and I
shifted up to third. Before long I was
able to shift up to fourth and we were no longer on the apron but now
Sitting in a race car and going fast, 3 to 5 car lengths
looks a lot shorter than it really is. Ten car lengths seemed more like
5. We went down the backstretch and I
the instructor in the car in front of me, trying to match his racing
We got to the deceleration cone and I let off and the
accelerator. I let off way too much
since I couldn't see the tach and I didn't want to overdrive the corner. Seconds later we were at the acceleration
cone. I mashed the accelerator and let
that engine do its thing. We went under
the start finish stand. I was being
shown the green flag. Okay now, the race
We flew into turn one and again
instinctively I slowed down
way too much. I was never going to reach
140 mph driving this way. I struggled to
try and get back within the 3 to 5 car lengths of the instructor. Even though I wasn't driving as smoothly as I
would have liked, I was having the time of my life.
The laps went on and I felt was getting faster and
faster. I had hoped that I had achieved
120 mph but I found out later that my max speed was 111 mph. I had a lot of room for improvement. Still
driving a race car around an oval track at 111 mph only a foot or two
the wall is a real power trip.
We started to come up on some slower traffic.
I knew that would end my speed run.
The instructor slowed down going though turns
one and two. I finally caught up with
him and was ready for more. He was
waving his arm though and that signaled that my 8 laps were over.
Hey wait a minute the flag man never gave me the checkered
flag. I felt cheated.
We slowed down going around the back
stretch. When we got to the pit entrance
we turned in. I was really
relieved. One of my big fears was that I
would not recognize when it was time end the session and I would miss
the pits. That was an irrational fear in
We came to the brake test sign and I tapped the brakes to
let the instructor in front of me know that my brakes worked. Actually I had tested them out on the
backstretch as we slowed and they worked fine. We
came up to the shift to neutral sign. I
shifted to neutral and coasted to the pit position
where the staff
As I approached the staff member he indicated that I should
stop. Wheel stop and my drive was
over. I was feeling really great. That was awesome fun. I
wished I could have done it again. Now
that I knew that my fear was irrational I
was ready for more. Those 8 laps would
be it for me that day though.
I was unstrapped from the safety harness and the HANS
device was removed from my helmet. The
steering wheel was removed. Now it
time to extricate myself from the car. I
had to bend way forward to get my head started outside of the window. Then grasping the roll cage pulled myself
back up. A few more contortions and I
was outside of the car.
The staff member asked me how the drive was.
I told him that it was fantastic and I shook
his hand. I was beaming ear to ear. It was more fun than I ever realized it would
be. I was escorted back behind pit wall.
Now it was time to doff the helmet and the driving
suit. Thank goodness, I felt like a
roasted bird. I struggled to get my
helmet strap to release. Finally and
mercifully it loosened and I was able to free myself from its confines. I was drenched in sweat.
Whose idea was it to race in Texas in August
anyway? The driving suit came
I was glad.
I got a cup of water and we headed over to the trailer to
purchase by driving DVD and a photo. Once
that purchase was complete we went back inside
of the media center to
wait for the “awards” program. There
weren't any awards, just certificates of participation and more
sheet that had your lap times, average lap speed, and calculated top
As I said above, I was disappointed in my top speed. I realize however that knowing what I now
know and that with more practice the speed will come.
Al will still kick my butt, but at least now
I won't look like a deer in the headlights.