I am on my flight to San Jose for my first dirt car experience. There are a lot of things going through my mind right now. I am thinking about the experience of 900 horsepower in the dirt with massive wings, sliding sideways on a quarter mile track and in a completely foreign seating position. Overall I am pretty excited. It feels almost like when I got on my flight from Europe to Las Vegas for my first test in an IndyCar in 2001.
I have spoken to a lot of my friends, some of them drivers, and they all have had the same reaction: you are crazy. My only response for them is: you knew that a long time ago. Some people think I am an adrenaline junky and will do anything that is risky. This is not true. I am definitely aware of the risks I take and make sure I know all the details before moving forward. Sky diving is not for me, jumping out of a plane with a canvas on your back is risky but I also think it’s crazy. Sitting behind the wheel of something that is completely new to me and that I might have control of for at least 50 percent of the lap, or so I hope, is something that I consider exciting and not risky (well, less risky).
Don’t worry I am not making a career move just yet, I love indycars and have a lot of things going on in that aspect, but after I went to Eldora to watch a dirt car race, I could not help myself. Soon after I called around to see how I could get into a car. It amazed me to see these drivers sideways, inches away from from the wall on the high side, and I needed to have a go. I called my good friend, PJ Chesson, about the only driver who is as insane as me, and asked him how I could get in a car. He has numerous wins in the World of Outlaws and thought this would be a good place to start. PJ then put me in touch with Bud Kaeding and we set a date for my first test. The Kaedings have a rich racing heritage and I am very fortunate to have been put in touch with them and have access to first class equipment. I am not going to kid myself and go into this thinking I am going to break track records my first time out. As much as I would love to, it is going to be an entirely different world. One thing I have learned over the years is that the key to success is managing ones expectations. I also realize the danger involved with driving this machine. In unexperienced hands, sprint cars can be deadly.. From what I hear, if a driver hits the “cush” in the wrong way it can send the car over the fence and into the hot dog stands (as my old spotter Pancho Carter used to say). Does it make me me nervous? Of course! But this feeling is what makes me feel alive. I am looking forward to finishing the rest of this blog on Sunday evening on my way back to Indy. If this is as far as it goes then you guys will know I am probably in the hot dog stand.
I am now on my flight back to Indianapolis. I stop in Atlanta and will arrive Monday at 10am. Right now I’m pretty exhausted but I can’t refrain from writing the last part of this blog about my first experience on dirt.
Saturday night I went to watch Brent Kaeding race. It was incredible. Brent was able to win his heat and dash but lost to his son Tim in the final. It was an unbelievable racing experience; a group of about 20 cars with around 900 horsepower running sideways. As I watched from the grand stand, the cars roaring off of 2 was an unbelievable experience, and if you have never been to a World of Outlaws event then I highly recommend it. It’s a different crowd (maybe some people I would not socialize with in normal situations) but we all have one thing in common: the love of pure racing. This bond is what tied me to the crowd and people around the track. After the race we had to go to a promotion of the KWS series test track, based off the Antioch track. It was very similar to what I saw the night before but by the time I got to the motel in this tiny town, I had been up for 14 hours. I was pretty beat but still struggled to sleep knowing that I was going to be in one of these beasts the next day. Bud Kaeding, National Sprint Car Champion and the other son of Brent, picked me up from the hotel, we got a quick bite to eat, and were off to the track. We made some modifications to the seat to make sure I fit in properly. Bud was very helpful in making sure I fit comfortably and safely. They watered the track for the last time to pack the dirt.
The first problem for me was getting into the car. I did not know the standard process of legs first, arms first, body first and it was an awkward experience. After getting in everything felt good. There is a fuel line that runs past your legs that you have to turn on as they push you off. I thought to myself- “this is a car that takes me at least 30 seconds to get in and out and I have a fuel line running over my knee… forget about it dirt racing.” This is a pure raving machine made from Molly chrome bars, a 900 hp engine, and a huge wing that weighs about 1400 pounds. You are pretty much strapped to a rocket ship. The first couple of laps were for me to pack the track some more and get the engine temps into the optimal range. As most of you know, I get bored quickly and was so anxious to see what this beast had. I started to get on it in a couple corners and then brought it in. As a result I was told off because the engine temps were not right.
I went back to packing the track down. After a few laps I was finally given the go-ahead to mash the throttle. The track was still too wet at the exit of 2 and the back straight was splashing. The car had zero tracking but 3 and 4 were coming in nicely and it blew my mind as to how much speed I could carry into the corners. I’d run in wide open, crack throttle a bit, swing the rear end out and jump back on the power. I don’t think I’ve ever corrected a car so much in 5-8 laps, except for maybe in video games. I got out of the car sweating as if I had just completed 500 miles. At this stage I was driving on pure instinct, pushing and trying different things to get a feel for the limit. The next run got better. Bud and I took the quad around and he showed me some different lines to try and use. They also changed the spacer on the right rear to give me some more rear end bite (yes you heard that right: rear end bite), as in traction, and it worked. We also then put on a new set of tires. We did two runs following another car. Bud wanted to give me a chance to get a feel for the car in traffic. Then I got back out on my own. Brent showed me how to use the electronic rear wing and I tried two settings. Once I got it on the forward setting things started to feel really good. I had smooth lines, no sawing on the steering wheel and was using the throttle slightly coming off corners just so the car would set and then I would gradually add more throttle. I felt very smooth and not out of control, more like a consistent slide carrying momentum through the corners. My times, from what Bud told me, were very competitive and I felt comfortable in the car. I still was not completely consistent but was putting some good laps together. I came in and the right rear was a couple laps away from exploding. The tire looked like a slick, it had zero tread remaining. The track was getting rubbered in and there seemed to be good grip. The combination of pure power, tons of downforce, and earth shaking sound is about as American as racing can get. Not to mention it was on dirt. It was clear the team knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what direction the track goes and what changes to make to make sure the car felt balanced at all times. This gave me a ton of confidence behind the wheel.
We finished up testing and Bud took the car out. He is an extremely talented driver with a personality to match. We packed the cars away and there was only one thought on my mind- how do I get back into a car. I had a brief conversation with Jimmy Vasser and he was proud I gave it a go but hesitated when I said I wanted to race. I know I still have a ton to learn but having a great team with great equipment and being able to cross over from Indy to dirt would be awesome for both sports. Maybe we would see more Indycar drivers, instead of playing tennis, golf, and sitting at their country clubs, getting out and mixing it up at their local dirt track. Yes it’s risky but so is walking across a busy street. I live for this kind of risk. Racing Sprint Cars is obviously risky. Take two minutes to look on YouTube and you’d see these guys flip right over the fence but it sure beats sitting at home playing with my with my xbox.
It was great to attend a race. The fans and the crowd gave me a lot of respect and it was a pleasure to be there. I doubt many of them understood my accent and they probably needed subtitles when I spoke but it was a friendly pit area. Different teams coming to lend or borrow stuff, Brent stayed till almost 1am signing autographs for kids and families and I stood back and watched. I realized this is an unbelievable sport where they care about one another and really look after their fans. At one point he started to throw out free t-shirts into crowds of kids. I can’t explain how happy some of these kids were. The series needs to get more exposure and Indycar drivers should not be scared to venture out and do new things. It would raise the respect of what we do and cross into new fan bases; a win-win for everyone. Let’s be honest, what driver does not want to be wheel to wheel sideways in the dirt? I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun! Well… other than the other weekend but that probably isn’t appropriate for here.
I can’t say it enough but I am so appreciative of the support from the Indycar fans and the Sprint Car fans for accepting me and allowing me to do this. I truly would love to put a program together to sync with my 2012 Indycar program. I love being in the car and I am now not only a huge fan of dirt sprint cars but also the people I met through this experience. I am looking forward to telling you more about my next couple Indycar races and my plans for 2012. I hope it consists of a lot of races and I don’t mind if I finish those dirty or clean…