Kevin Orr arrived at Kansas Speedway early Thursday evening on April 23 prepared to wait for an hour or so while his wife took photographs of the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
Orr, a NASCAR fan, had no idea that an hour later he would be roaring around the the Kansas Speedway at about 160 miles an hour.
Throughout the year, the Richard Petty Driving Experience allows people to ride or drive an actual 600-horsepower NASCAR race car around a professional speedway at speeds from 145 miles per hour to as high as 165.
“We have been doing this for 20 years throughout the country for multi millions of miles,” said Chris Kirby, marketing director for Richard Petty Driving Experience. “Right now we are at over 15 tracks around the nation with Kansas Speedway being one of our most popular venues.”
On some occasions, the Richard Petty Driving Experience invites members of the print and electronic media to participant for first-hand experience. Usually first-person stories come from it.
Orr, though, is the type of person the Richard Petty Driving Experience really wants to attract. He enjoys NASCAR but has never driven a race car around a super speedway.
At the spur of the moment, he agreed to take a three-lap ride-along and recount what it was like for this story.
“It will be a very interesting experience,” Orr said before getting into the car.
All of the details of the Richard Petty Driving Experience are explained at drivepetty.com, including the cost. Paying $149 will get you a three lap ride-along with a professional driver. For $449, you’ll get the rookie experience and drive the car for eight laps with an instructor next to you. The ultimate is the racing experience, which for $2,599 will get you 50 laps and everything except trading paint with another car.
“It is up to them in what they want to get out of it,” Kirby said. “Some people are thrill seekers. (For) some people, it is a bucket list item. We want them to go out and have fun and experience what some of their idols experience every Sunday in the big leagues.
“You can’t take batting practice at Yankee Stadium, but what we are allowing you to do is run laps at Kansas Speedway. In May, you will see 43 of the stars driving in unison around the track.”
Tonight, the best stock car racers in the world will compete in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway. On Sunday, there will be people like Orr at Kansas Speedway participating in the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
“It allows us to immerse fans in the sport,” Kirby said. “Experience first-hand what their favorite drivers experience on a weekly basis. It allows them to connect.
“Trust me, you will experience it. You will have a newfound respect for people in the big leagues on our circuit.”
The minute you walk into the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Kansas Speedway, you become immersed in the world of NASCAR. You are put in a driving uniform like the professionals wear. You quickly see how safe it will be. Several firefighters from the track are visible just in case.
“We provide fire and rescue for all the participants, not only for those riding in the car, but for visitors,” said Gene Bradley, who is on the firefighters and paramedics team at Kansas Speedway.
He sees the joy.
“All smiles, exhilaration,” Bradley said. “We have had participants we had to help in the car because of special needs. They grin after they get out of the car.”
Once in the driving uniform, participants are taken into a room where they spend the next 45 minutes watching a video on car operations, safety and other tips. When the video is over, a crew chief talks and asks if there are questions.
One person asked what happens if there is an accident and a car hits the wall. Max Grogan, the crew chief and instructor at Kansas Speedway, assured that there will not be any accidents. One reason is that there is an instructor in the car at all times who has a control panel that ensures the driver will not be able to lose control.
The emphasis for the Richard Petty Driving Experience is safety and fun.
“I get people on rides who come out as white as a ghost and some people laughing hysterically because they have had so much fun,” Grogan said.
“Anybody that is a NASCAR fan, if you come out and do a ride or a drive, you will have a totally new respect for NASCAR drivers at Kansas or any racetrack on how the car handles, the G-forces that are involved.”
When the instruction is completed, drivers and riders walk outside, get their helmets and wait their turn to get in the car. Orr did the ride-along, where the speed climbs to 165 mph. For those who drive, speeds usually range from 135 to 155.
“It was a crazy experience,” Orr said. “It is definitely something I will not forget anytime soon.”
With his new appreciation of NASCAR drivers, Orr tried to imagine going 30 to 40 miles hour faster than what he did with 40 more cars on the track.
“It is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” Orr said. “I love the acceleration of these cars. I highly recommend it. It is a fun experience.”
The Richard Petty Driving Experience is available for men and women. Ashley Thomas, who works for Kuhn & Wittenborn advertising, did a ride-along on April 23.
“I liked going fast,” she said. “That was my favorite part. It was more fun than I expected. I thought I was going to be uncomfortable and I was going to be freaked out. It was awesome.
“Heck yes, I would recommend it. Even if you are not a race fan or are the fence, this is definitely something to try because it will change your mind.”
The instructors and drivers want every participant to have a good time. They will often check with you with a thumbs-up to make sure everything is OK.
Mike Busby, of Smithville, drove the race car on the ride-along on April 23. He has been doing this for seven years at Kansas Speedway.
“I love it,” Busby said. “I look forward to every time we are on the track. It is fun to see the expressions on their faces and the joy they get when they get out of the car. That is what makes it fun.”
Nick Bromberg, who has been covering NASCAR for 12 years for The Kansas City Star and Yahoo Sports, got his first taste of driving on the speedway on April 23 and, like everyone else, enjoyed it.
“The sensation of speed was what I thought I was expecting,” Bromberg said. “It felt like I was flying around the track. The banking does push you down in the seat, and pushes you around more than I thought it would.
“If you have the time and the ability to do it, it is definitely worth it because then you have an idea what your favorite driver is doing every Sunday for 500 miles.”
After the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a certificate of your accomplishment, a video on a USB flash drive and a photo plaque with your picture are available.
“Nine out of 10 people will say that is awesome,” Kirby said. “One out of 10 will say that is amazing. It is a positive feeling, getting out of the car after experiencing that thrill rush, the speed and sport of NASCAR.”