Sitting in the No. 85 stock car on a cold, windy day at Atlanta Motor Speedway, my senses are popping like the pistons and valves in the 358-cubic inch engine.

I can smell carbon, like at my dad’s machine shop. I smell dirt. It smells aggressive.

Because my adrenaline is flowing, my tongue tastes like metal. It’s anticipation. I want to go.

I can see the dashboard. It doesn’t have a miles-per-hour gauge. Probably a good thing.

I can feel the vibrations from the chassis coming through the bucket seat, up my back, through my elbows and into my fingers. The steering wheel is smaller and softer. It feels safe.

I can hear the engine caught between the purr of an idle and the scream of fourth gear. It, too, wants to move.

And then I hear Happy Chappy, my spotter who is sitting in the grandstand and my guide around the 1.54-mile track, say, “let out the clutch and let her roll.”

Oh yeah, I can do that.

Go fast. Go hard. You will wreck

But let’s put it in reverse.

I was at Atlanta Motor Speedway as a media-day guest for the NASCAR Racing Experience.

Before being allowed on the track, we sat through a 20-minute video detailing all the safety measures.

Four stood out:

» Don’t turn right.

» Try to stay five feet from the white line at the bottom of the track.

» Do not try to straddle part of the car on the apron and part on the 28-degree bank of the track. You will wreck. Not you could wreck. You will wreck.

» Lastly, listen to your spotter.


I need to say that I’m not a NASCAR guy. I haven’t been since moving back to Atlanta in 2007. I lost my way with the sport when it began to leave behind the old tracks, such as Rockingham.

I’m nothing if not nostalgic.

I’ve never been to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In fact, the last speedway I went to in which I covered an event was at Hickory Motor Speedway, in 1993, I think. I did live within hearing distance of Martinsville Speedway in the mid-’90s, but that doesn’t count.

I do understand the appeal of the sport.

Go fast.

Go hard.



So when my boss asked me if I wanted to participate in this experience, I said sure.

I drive a Prius.

That’s not fun.

Who wouldn’t be nervous?

We finish the safety session and walk out to pit road. There are several cars of various colors. The car you are given is based upon your body size and weight, we were told.

My car is sponsored by a pig company. I let that insult go.

I’m nervous.

Who wouldn’t be?

I’m about to drive a 3,000-pound car more than 130 mph.

Because of an issue in my personal life, I’ve been dabbling in low-grade meditation. Trying to fight my nerves and anxiety, I attempt breathing exercises.

Instead of numbers, which would be fitting, considering the stock cars, songs about driving are popping into my head. “The Distance” by Cake. “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys. “Greased Lightnin’” from Grease. “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen. When I’m happy, I listen to music. Because I’m thinking about songs, I reason I’m happy, not nervous.

Anything to relax, you know?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Doug Roberson took part in the NASCAR Racing Experience at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday.

Credit: Atlanta Motor Speedway

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Credit: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Comfortably uncomfortable

Finally, my turn comes.

They find a helmet big enough for giant head.

The HANS device is attached.

I put my glasses back on because not wearing them would have turned me into Ricky Bobby.

I climb, or rather kind of fall, into the car. I’m not graceful.

The five-point harness is attached. I’m comfortably uncomfortable.

The radio is tested. Watson, I need you.

The ignition switch is flipped.

The senses pop.

Happy Chappy tells me to let out the clutch.

The car starts to move.

I’m elated.

But then ... I can’t tell which voice is Chappy’s and which is the other spotter coming through my headset.

I’m getting conflicting commands.

Get above the white line.

Tap the brake at the Sonoco sign.

I’m driving around the apron trying to figure out who to listen to.

Finally, I decide it’s dangerous and continue driving around the apron and back to the pits.

I feel like an idiot.

One of the handlers asks me what happened.

I tell him I could hear the spotters but couldn’t understand them.

I don’t want to risk hurting someone, me, or the car.

He says I did the right thing. Most people wouldn’t have done that.

They change a wire, and suddenly I can hear Chappy, clear as a bell.

The car is pushed up to the line.

The command is given to let out the clutch.

Two thousand RPMs means second gear on the H-design stick stick.

Two thousand RPMs means third gear. I’m rolling.

The target is to reach fourth gear before the first turn.

Trust the car

I hit fourth gear.

Chappy tells me to get the RPMs up to 4,000.

I gently push the accelerator.

The power is addictive. The sheer energy I haven’t felt since I met my wife on our first date.

After staying low on the apron on turns 1 and 2, which was our command, Chappy tells me to go up onto the track.

Oh, man.

Deep breath.

Relax your shoulders, trust the car, Chappy said.

Up I go.

Give it gas, Chappy says.

Hammer down, y’all.

I’m off.

It is hypnotic.

The new asphalt on the track makes for a smooth ride.

Turning the wheel gently results in the car gracefully finding a groove.

Trust the white marks on the track, he said. Stay between them coming out and into the turns.

I do.

I feel like a driver.

I feel alive.

“You’re a natural,” Chappy said. I choose to believe that I’m the only he’s ever said this to.

I have no idea how professional drivers do this with cars inches away on all sides of them.

Eight minutes, and I think six laps, later Chappy tells me to drop down on the apron on the backstretch.

It’s time to head to the pits.

I get out of the car, change out of my track suit and go to get the one piece of information that everyone who does these experiences at tracks around the country wants to know.

How fast did I go?

My top speed: 141.64 mph.

Oh yeah, that’ll do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Doug Roberson took part in the NASCAR Racing Experience at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday.

Credit: Atlanta Motor Speedway

icon to expand image

Credit: Atlanta Motor Speedway