Uh-oh. I have forgotten everything from the briefing. Complete blank. As the mechanic tightens my belts and hooks up the window net, sealing me inside a 500hp NASCAR racing car, I am madly trying to remember what they said to do in case of a fire.
In the event of an emergency, my nearest exit may be right alongside me, but it is not exactly a speedy process to get to it. I would have to disentangle five seat belts, remove the steering wheel, unhook the window net and wiggle out of the window (there are no doors on a NASCAR, so entry and exit are done Dukes of Hazzard-style, except with a massive roll cage to negotiate). I do remember the instructor saying that it had only happened once in 18 years, and that the driver got out just fine.
Fortunately, all that is quickly banished as the engine is fired up. It sounds like a volcano has just erupted under the bonnet. It sounds epic. Any concerns have completely disappeared as the big V8 engine rumbles away in front of me. Now I just want to get out on track.
The radio crackles into life in my ears, and after a quick comms check, it’s time to pull out of the pit box and head out onto the big Rockingham oval.
There’s a NASCAR oval in the UK?
Rockingham Motor Speedway is the UK’s only proper banked oval racetrack, and one of only two in Europe. It’s also the fastest racetrack in the UK, although the oval hasn’t been used for racing in nearly a decade. British crowds have never really warmed to Indycar and NASCAR racing, which is a great shame. The cars are loud and fast, and the racing is incredibly close. The Daytona 500 is the most famous NASCAR event of all (and definitely near the top of my motorsport bucket list), but shorter ovals like Rockingham can provide some of the best racing you will ever see.
The reason I am currently strapped into a NASCAR and accelerating out onto a racetrack is thanks to a media day invitation from American Race Car Experience. ARCX runs NASCAR driving experiences at Rockingham during summer months (well, March to October). And when someone asks you if you would like to drive a NASCAR on an oval circuit, you say yes. Quickly, before they change their mind.
ARCX is run by Blair Dupree, who has long mastery of building NASCAR racers. He also built the cars used in the movies Days of Thunder and Talledega Nights, and the car I’m going to drive is decked out in the #46 City Chevrolet colours of Cole Trickle, as played by Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. Apparently it was one of eight cars built for the film, although it is now wearing a shiny new set of body panels.
Riding shotgun at 170mph
First up, though, is a high-speed passenger ride alongside professional driver and stunt school instructor, Sam Maher Loughnan. Sam is at the wheel of what is officially a Ford Fusion (sort of like a Mondeo). Except there is absolutely nothing in this red-and-yellow NASCAR which comes from a Ford Fusion. Even the ‘headlights’ are just stickers. It’s basically a giant roll cage with a huge engine up front and covered in some very smooth bodywork. The nose is shaped so that it looks a bit like a Fusion, if you squint and have a good imagination. Just quietly, this particular Ford actually runs a Chevrolet engine, because ARCX builds all its own engines (the race teams don’t supply those with the car) and ARCX owner Dupree prefers a Chevy engine.
This car was raced last year by NASCAR hotshot Joey Logano, then shipped over to the UK once its race duties were done. Top NASCAR teams build several cars per season, so each car’s shelf life is very short. Now it has an easier life, as a high-speed taxi around Rockingham speedway. Sam is brief on the chit-chat, then launches straight into it. First lap is a warm-up, so he’s a bit gentle. Then he lets rip, and we are thundering around Rockingham at up to 170mph for half a dozen laps, mere inches from the unforgiving concrete walls. Sam is working hard to keep the car under control. This car is unrestricted and runs about 750hp, so it’s quite a bit quicker than the cars we will be driving, which are limited to ‘only’ 500hp.
All too quickly, the passenger ride is over and we are trundling back down the pitlane – although my heart rate is still running at about 170mph. But there’s no time to be disappointed, as it’s time to get behind the wheel for myself.
Driving a NASCAR is exactly as awesome as you would expect
Belted in tight to Tom Cruise’s Chevy, there’s no wiggle room at all. The racing seat wraps around the back and side of my head as well, so I can’t really turn my head left or right either. There are no rear view mirrors at all, so I have no idea what’s going on anywhere except directly in front of me. Not really an environment for claustrophobes. I am totally reliant on the voice in my ear coming from a spotter, named Rob, up in the grandstand. He is my guide, telling me when to pass or let other cars through (the passenger-ride rocketship is still going round) as well as advising on when to accelerate, brake and turn.
As I pull out of the pits and join the racetrack, the rumbling from under the bonnet becomes a thundering roar. But I can barely hear it, concentrating as hard as I can on finding the coloured lane markers we have to stay within. Rob the spotter is feeding me a stream of instructions, and after a lap or two I am starting to build a rhythm and am feeling more comfortable in the car.
There is absolutely no time to admire the scenery, as each corner comes up quickly at around 140mph. But I am getting more confident in building more and more speed each lap, and it’s becoming less terrifying and more thrilling.
After five or six laps, I am in a nice groove and able to put together sequences of several corners in a row in a consistent flow. The last few laps whiz by and then Rob is telling me its all over and time to bring the car back in. I am sorely tempted to pretend I can’t hear him and just keep going until I run out of fuel, but figure that would make me quite unpopular with Blair – and he’s a lot bigger than me. So I dutifully ease back onto pit road and roll along until I reach the garage.
It has been, without any doubt, the best fun I have ever had behind the wheel of a car. A thundering NASCAR on a giant banked oval circuit is quite unlike any other driving experience, and I strongly recommend you give it a go.
Stuart drove Tom Cruise’s NASCAR thanks to American Race Car Experience at Rockingham Motor Speedway.