As I sat listening to my instructor before the race, I thought to myself: I am not designed to come second or third. I am designed to win. Or that might have been Ayrton Senna, one of the best race car drivers of all time, and I might have actually been thinking: “Oh sh*t, this thing is a manual?”. Okay, so maybe I should have done more research before I decided to jump into this one, but hey, one lesson in driving stick shift around the block a year ago that mainly consisted of repetitive stalling ought to hold me over, right? I’ll admit, it was a little unnerving to hear the instructor give us what sounded like a crash course (or really a don’t crash “because these fire-resistant suits aren’t meant to be a primary part of the experience” course) right before we were about to get behind the wheel. Yet, it was too late for second guesses and it looked like too much fun to pass up, so we grabbed our winsome onesies and headed to the track.
Before we were given the go-ahead to hop in the driver’s seat, we got the opportunity to enjoy a ride-along experience with a professional driver. The ride-along would give us a better feel for the track and what it would be like to drive a race car ourselves. I figured that in the event my max speed was 40mph the whole 8 laps I was given, it would be nice to come home at least being able to truthfully say that I know what it’s like to go 155mph, or the average speed for a pro on this circuit. As the first round of ride-alongs went underway, I hung back, examining the current batch of drivers so I could make sure to single out the fastest car. Soon it became apparent that I should pick the driver reppin’ the Mountain Dew who was making it his business to pass every other driver on the track. When I clambered into the passenger’s seat, he asked me how fast I’d driven before. I reflected on my highway experience, which rarely exceeded the cautious margin of 5mph over the posted speed limit, and decided an answer of “Average highway speed” would suffice. But when he asked me how fast I’d like to go, the answer was a no-brainer. “Fast.” I said. “You might scare the crap out of me, but go fast.” With the instructions to hit him if he was going too fast (as if I would be able to let go of the conveniently located Oh Sh*t handles long enough to hit him if that were the case), we took off. As we zoomed along at what I can only assume was hovering around 155mph, I considered asking if 255mph would be an option. Fast felt good; faster would feel even better. Once I thanked him and got out of the car, I had officially caught the need for speed bug. Soon, it would be my turn to press that pedal.
I was delighted to discover that the car I would be driving was number 36, a bright blue baby with M&Ms bedazzling the hood. The only way it could be any better is if it was number 33 and literally dispensed M&Ms out of the steering wheel. While I was disappointed this wasn’t the case, I decided I could worry about my chocolate fix after I handled the more pressing matters in front of me. After climbing into the car, which literally consists of sliding through the window, an activity that I find altogether too fun and have been known to do surreptitiously in my own car, I turned to the daunting task of starting up a manual on my own. As one might guess, my first attempt was a bust, and I stalled within all of three seconds, holding up the rest of the cars behind me. Two more attempts found me almost at the brink of the race track and equally stalled, sweating in my fire resistant suit in the 90 degree heat. (Fun fact: Fire resistant suits are meant to prevent harm coming to the driver in case of a fire in the car, but they are equally capable of trapping enough heat inside of themselves to cause a fire of their own…Conveniently, any fires that do start are quickly put out but your own sweat). Race cars are less friendly creatures than your average stick shift, and combined with 4 different frustrated men yelling 4 different sets of frustrated instructions at me, I began to doubt whether I was actually going to be able to race at all.
Sitting so close to the track, I realized I had signed up for the most embarrassing moment of my life, and I felt horrible for all the guys that were trying to help me and all the people I was holding up. I was considering giving up to save myself and the employees who were trying so hard to be helpful, but I knew the only thing more embarrassing than sitting in the car would be giving up and getting out. It was then that I discovered the ultimate walk of shame. It consists not of yesterday’s clothes and muddled hair, but of 3 men pushing my car all the way back down pit road. As my car rolled slowly backwards I was swallowed with guilt. I desperately wanted to get out of the car and at least help them push; I knew the last thing they wanted to be doing on a day as hot as this one is work their asses off helping some girl who had never even been to a NASCAR race learn to shift gears. Despite their unintentional workout, they were encouraging as they arranged for my car to be pushed by a truck in order to make only one shift into fourth gear necessary. In a moment of truth, I managed to wrangle my car from third to fourth gear as I fell in line behind the pace car going 25mph.
Finally, the race was on. And race, we did. It felt so good to press the pedal down and zoom around the curves like a speed demon. I have no idea if there was even a speedometer in the car–I couldn’t seem to find one–but even if I had I’m not sure I would have been able to read it. At the pace the car was going, the slightest tilt of the head and shift of the wheel sent the tires in an entirely new direction. As they say, “The car goes where the eyes go”. With that advice in mind, I kept my eyes ahead of me as I embraced the glory of what speed really feels like.
Once the race was over I had time to reflect on the metaphorical car that is one’s life. Despite the fact that I probably should have crossed off “#5: Learn How To Drive a Manual” on my Bucket List before I crossed off “#79: Drive a Race Car”, it helps to realize that life isn’t always about having things work out perfectly the first time. In fact, if you’re doing things right, you’ll probably fall on your face a few more times than you’d like when you step out of your comfort zone. But if you keep your eyes up, you’ll make it to your destination. As one of my favorite historical figures, Winston Churchill once said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” So, continue I shall.