Archive for Thursday, July 16, 2009

NASCAR driver puts racing novice at ease in ride-along

July 16, 2009

I know very little when it comes to auto racing, or cars for that matter.

I used to run around with a kid whose father raced every weekend at I-70 Speedway, caught the Indy 500 on television every Memorial Day weekend while flipping channels, saw pictures in Sports Illustrated of crashed stock cars and got Jeff Gordon’s autograph when I was in my early 20s.

Let’s just say my exposure has been minimal.

However, since my formative years, auto racing has exploded in popularity — especially in Wyandotte County because of the economic effect the Kansas Speedway has had on the area.

Last summer I did a feature about local racer Tim Karrick and had an eye-opening experience. He was addicted to the rush of racing and the thrill of competition — it was truly his passion. You could see it in his eyes, the look on his face.

I saw that look once again this past week at the Kansas Speedway, on the face of Missouri native and Sprint Cup racer Carl Edwards.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Speedway by its media relations department to ride along on the track with Edwards himself in a brand spanking-new Mustang GT provided by Bonner Springs Ford. At first I was skeptical. I don’t ride roller-coasters, I don’t like flying, keep my car to 5 mph over the speed limit on the highway (really 10 over) and definitely don’t go around racetracks at break-neck speeds with professional race car drivers. It’s one of my rules. However, since my colleague was going to be out of town the day of the event, I decided to give it a shot.

I am really happy I did.

The ride was fascinating, no question, but what I learned about Edwards was the best part of the day. The guy is awesome at his job.

As we pulled out of the pit area in the “Grabber Blue” Mustang, I had been preparing for the sheer panic that was surely to ensue. As we approached 65 miles an hour, Edwards eased us on to the track, which is banked like the inside of a salad bowl. All the while, he was explaining some basics and rules of the track. As we throttled up over 100 miles an hour, I lost most abilities to think about anything but the concrete wall perilously close on at our right.

At this point Edwards looks at me and says, “OK, that was a 105 right there; we’d be going 195 usually.”

This is when I started to feel OK. I was with a top professional who was topping out at a speed half of his normal rate — I can do this.

I ask, “This is probably a piece of cake today, huh?” He says, “Well, it’s probably more dangerous in a street car because if something goes wrong, you don’t have all the protections (that stock cars have).”

What do you mean, “If something goes wrong?”

The scariest part was when Carl looked at me and asked, “So where are you from?” Did I mention we were hurtling toward a wall when he asked this? This was like a pleasant Sunday afternoon drive for this guy.

Edwards hopes to win in October at Kansas Speedway — helping his chances in the Sprint Cup points championship as well as winning on his “home” track.

He understands NASCAR is driven by fans and sponsors, and in this down economy, it is up to the drivers to be there for the people who come to the races.

It has been reported apparel sales, television ratings and ticket sales are down in NASCAR. Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., failed to sellout the 400 last weekend.

“(NASCAR) has always been the most accessible sport from what I have seen,” said Edwards. “The most fan-friendly in my eyes, and now it (needs to be) even more so.”

Edwards, along with the Kansas Speedway, is trying to drum up support for the Oct. 4 race that saw Edwards finish second last year.

“I want to win this one more than any other race,” said Edwards. “Winning here because it’s a ‘Chase’ race with all of those points, that’s huge. The bigger thing than that for me is that this is a hometown crowd for me … that’s cool. That’d be huge.”


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