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STS-126

A Need For Speed

Richard Petty Driving Experience Rookie Session
Photographs from my rookie session with the Richard Petty Driving Experience.   Photo Credits: Mary
Pre Drive Photo Opportunity
A natural born race driver at Texas Motor Speedway
My adoring fans
Another view from the photo op
My adoring fans Lexie and Wayland
Fantasies do come true.
Wayland by his favorite M&Ms car
Wayland posing by his favorite M&M sponsored car.
Listening to pre-drive instructions on the car
The drivers receive pre-drive instructions on the features of the car.
The gladiators are off to do battle.
The gladiators are off to do battle.
Lexie and Wayland get their ride around the track
Lexie and Wayland get their ride around the track in an RPDE van.
Being outfitted with the hans device before my ride.
The RPDE photographer assists me with  donning  the HANS device for neck support before my ride.
Entering the passenger side of the race car.
Entering the passenger side of Wayland's favorite race car.
Off we go accelerating out of the pit.
Off we go accelerating out of the pit.
Whizzing around the track at 165 mph.
Whizzing around the track at 165 mph, what a thrill, what a thrill!
Pulling back into the pits after my ride.
Pulling back into the pits after my ride.
Egressing the race car after the ride.
Getting out of the car after the ride was quite an acrobatic feat.
The moment of truth is at hand.
Being outfitted with the hans device before my drive.
Approaching the moment of truth. Outfitted again with the HANS device.
Another view of the hans device neck support.
A better view of the HANS device neck support.
aaa
Getting strapped into the car.
aaa
The photographer chuckles after the instructor gives me the wrong instructions.
I'm receiving final instructions.
I'm receiving final instructions.
The engine is fired and I'm waiting for the signal to go.
The engine is fired and I'm waiting for the signal to go.
Following my instroctur out of the pits.
Following my instructor out of the pits.
Exiting turn four of my first lap.
Exiting turn four of my first lap.
Crossing the start finish line.
Crossing the start finish line.
Trying to stay within 3 to 5 car lengths of the instructor proved rather difficult.
Trying to stay within 3 to 5 car lengths of the instructor proved rather difficult.
Picking up speed near 111 mph now.
Picking up speed near 111 mph now.
Costing to a stop in the pits after completing 8 laps.
Coasting to a stop in the pits after completing 8 laps.
Needing the moves of a contortionist I begin my egress of the vehicle.
Needing the moves of a contortionist I begin my egress of the vehicle.
Just a little more bending and I'll be out of number 33.
Just a little more bending and I'll be out of number 33.
The high termperature would hit 106 this day, the sooner I doff the helmet and Nomex suit, the better.
The high temperature would hit 106 this day, the sooner I doff the helmet and Nomex suit, the better.
A bad case of helmet hair.
A bad case of helmet hair.

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, Florida at 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 only things 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 pretty 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 the cross.

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 media center 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 racing 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 driving 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 race 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 donned 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 was Texas in the summer after all and full coveralls were not a great way to dress.  As I walked over to where my family was seated, they all had big smiles on their faces.  I think they were chuckling at my expense with the sight of me wearing a driving suit.

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 the track 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 before driving.

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 first.  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 member had 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, then 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 RPM. Our 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 pulled.

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 need to 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 track it 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 rpm.

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 the bottom of the track. We were to remain inside of the car until our instructor 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 then next 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 pee himself.”

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 pictures.

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 new found appreciation for the real drivers and the hot conditions that they must 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 the previous rider got out.  While I was waiting for the rider to clear the window, the RDPE photographer came over and 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 your head.

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 my photo.

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 with 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 my rib cage.

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 unstrapped 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 scorching Texas 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 from the straining engine.

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 would soon 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 line 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 think so.

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 doing all right.

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 the car.

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 car.

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 instructions.

He squatted down beside the car and apologized for the mix up.  I told him that it really didn't matter 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 meant that 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 waited for 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 on the race track.

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 followed the instructor in the car in front of me, trying to match his racing line.

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 is on.

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 away from 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 this setup.

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 members waited.

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 was 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 off and 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 importantly a sheet that had your lap times, average lap speed, and calculated top speed.

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.


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UPDATED : August 19, 2008
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