BUSCH: Media track time at Michigan International Speedway

Imagine one's surprise when they received a special invitation to drive a specially prepared stockcar around a superspeedway. Motorsport.com was invited to Michigan International Speedway to partake in a special Media Day.

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Photo by Jennifer Densteadt.
The reason? Pure and simple, to understand what a NASCAR or ARCA driver goes through preparing for a race. The G-forces alone would give one the feel of what a driver endures, considering doing that for 500 miles! These were not simply hop in a car and drive around on the apron for a few laps, these were race cars and one could get as close to the wall as one dared.

This was a challenge that three staff members accepted, as did other media in the local Midwest area. The media rose to the challenge causing MIS to add an afternoon session and for Track Time (the driver school that put the event on) to add an autocross to create even more of a challenge.

MIS will host two NASCAR Winston Cup races in 2003, one in June where the ARCA cars will join them and in August with the Busch series cars.

So how does it feel to drive a stockcar on a superspeedway? In the words of Motorsport.com's writer/photographer who will be covering the June event at MIS, Phil Schilke.....

Driving through the tunnel into the infield of Michigan International Speedway (MIS), I could feel the anticipation building inside me. Having been Team engineer for a short stint with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck a few years ago, I was eager to experience the forces on the body that a driver usually describes during a debriefing of how the car was handling. Chris Economaki is famous for the words "What's it like out there?" and I was about to find out first hand thanks to MIS and Track Time Inc. Driving Schools

The Motorsport.com crew, David Schilke, Jen Densteadt and I signed in with Trenda Eversole, Track Time Vice President. Jen was the photographer and David and I were the drivers. Trenda explained briefly how the day would unfold and handed us a packet of information on the schools available through Track Time. We met MIS Public Relations/News Manager Bill Janitz who also warmly greeted us and wished us an enjoyable day.

The classroom session started promptly at 1 pm with Sean Christie welcoming the afternoon session media members to the special driving school at MIS. This classroom session lasted about 1 ? hours and covered all the necessary information we would need to drive safely and fast. Covered were basics of shifting the manual transmission, the meaning of the flags, the line around the superspeedway, how to enter and exit pit road and how to pass and be passed on the oval. Sean also described what we would feel in the car, which made me more anxious to get on with the program.

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Photo by Jennifer Densteadt.
After the classroom session ended, we were sent to pit road, where a line of street cars were waiting for us so we could practice the racing line around the oval, how to pass and be passed, and familiarize ourselves with the high banked track. This was done at exactly 70 mph. Michigan is banked at 18 degrees in the turns, so the 70 mph speed felt quite slow on the banking. The session was quite brief and the checkered flag flew after a couple laps. After this session was complete we were sent to the locker room where we were each issued a nomex driver suit, helmet and driving gloves. Then we returned to pit road for a meeting with the head instructor. While David and I were in the cars, Jen hopped into the BMW roadster for a ride with Sean. "Riding in the BMW was great. The track was fun and less scary than I anticipated. On the oval with Sean in the BMW was a rush because he got right up against the wall, which I would not do. So it was good for me to experience what a professional can do."

As there were 22 of us media types (soon to be 23, but that is another story), the group was divided into two with half of us sent to the Sports Club of America autocross, a low speed event through cones against the clock. This tune up event would give us some car control skills and occupy our time while the other group started in the stockcars. David and I are experienced autocrossers and we each expected to do well in this short course laid out in the transporter parking area of the MIS infield. We would be in identical BMW roadsters with full roll cages and competition five-point harness. There were six cars, so our group was divided in half.

David and I watched the first group and decided on our lines around the course by observing the drivers. Finally it was our turn. Our instructor buckled us in and lined us up for the start for the first of four runs we would be allowed. When it was my turn to go. I launched the car at about 2500 rpm as instructed and was quickly in 2nd gear, which we were told would be the top gear required for this low speed event. I tossed the car through the slalom, a series of single cones of which you must weave in and out. Following the slalom was a sharp left hand turn, which started the snaking around the small parking lot. There is a straight section and I floored the car and entered a 180-degree hairpin. Hard on the brakes, the antilock brakes kicked in and I skidded off course, much to my embarrassment. I nailed a cone square and center and it went for a ride with me the rest of the lap. My instructor was not amused and when I finished the run, he gave me the "you know better with your experience" pep talk. Then send me back in line for my second run.

Good thing the helmet we were issued hid my red glow of embarrassment. David and I clicked off our next three runs, sometimes clipping a cone, which caused an addition of two-seconds of time penalty. When the dust settled, I was fastest of the group, another person was second and David was third. David's raw time was faster, but he had the dreaded cone count factored into his best time. Chip off the old block? The instructor then gave rides to those that wanted to experience a fast lap, and Jen buckled in for a good run. She came back grinning ear-to-ear. The MIS and Track Time staff stressed having fun - mission accomplished! We were then sent off to the stockcars.

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Photo by Jennifer Densteadt.

Sean Christie lined up the 11 of us up to gage our size. The five stock cars that were on pit road have different seat placements based on how tall or short we were. As luck would have it, David and I were assigned the same car, the "Rusty Wallace" stockcar. Chip off the old block, eh? Each car had an instructor, and we walked over to a big smile and hearty handshake from, Steve, who would be our instructor. Steve took us through a tour of the inside of a stockcar, how to get in and out of the car and how to shift the car. David and I decided that I would go first so I climbed through the window and nestled into the tight fitting seat. Steve helped me buckle in as I had my helmet on and my view of my lap was quite restricted. He then placed the steering wheel on the steering shaft and I gave it a good tug to ensure the quick disconnect mechanism was in its locked position as Steve had requested, this was to ensure that the wheel would not come off during my driving stint. Sitting snuggly in the racing seat, I surveyed the large expanse of the interior of the car through the crisscross of tubes that make up the roll cage.

This car is huge, like an Ford Excursion SUV behemoth is relative to a Ford Focus. Steve clicked the starter button and the car rumbled to life. I refocused on the large tachometer in front of me, mindful that to pull away in this car you needed to hit the gas pedal when letting out the clutch or you will stall the car. There is quite a bit of noise and vibration from the engine at its lumpy idle, but that is typical of race cars. Engaging first gear, feeding in throttle and letting out the clutch the car started to lumber out of the pit box. I was thinking to myself "Man, these cars are big".

I pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and the engine revs climbed in a hurry, shift to 2nd and off like a rocket again, then 3rd and finally 4th by the time I was on the apron. I estimated my speed was around 90 mph on the apron. I held it tight on the apron around turns 1 and 2 and merged into the first lane up on the back straight. The car was still gaining speed in a hurry and I glanced in the huge rear view mirror to check for other race traffic. None visible I angled across the back straight to the outside lane, lane 5 of the five distinct lanes of paving around the oval. Turn 3 was approaching rapidly as well as the turn-in mark for arcing around the corner. A perfect turn-in is at the large steel crossover gates that is used to let the transporters and infield traffic into the infield on race day. Two transporters can pass through these gates at the same time.

Only at the speed I was going these huge gates looked like a single person garden gate! Going pretty fast! I slowly fed in left steering and at first nothing happened as the steering slack was taken up, but the car slowly started responded and I arced down to the 2nd lane on the racing line. My right foot was flat on the floor and the car scrubbed off some speed in the turn, not much but noticeable. The car is set up to turn left, so holding it down in the 2nd lane entering turn 4 was not difficult and the natural banking helps hold the car but it was starting to slide up the track toward the wall on exit of turn 4, which is what it is supposed to do. I kept my foot to the floor.

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Photo by Jennifer Densteadt.
I was up against the wall in what I call lane 4 ?. The wall was just too darn intimidating to get fully in the 5th lane, so I gave myself a bit of room and comfort. With right foot still firmly planted on the floor, I turned into turn 1 at the proper mark, the caution/green light high on the wall in turn one. This turn is approached differently than turn 3 and the arc to lane 2 is much later, almost when you are in turn 2. The car responded in a slow and deliberate manor to steering input and I was slightly off the mark more like lane 2 ?, but not bad and still had not lifted my right foot off the floor. The line was good enough I rocketed down the back straight into turn three for the second time and carrying even more speed than the out lap from pit road. I hit the turn point again and arced the car down to lane 2 with smooth easy turn of the quite large steering wheel. This is were the speed really hit me as the G-forces on my body were beyond what I had ever before experienced! My head and helmet were being pulled to the right due to cornering forces and due to the banking I was being pushed down in to the seat by what drivers call the big thumb. What a feeling! Back toward the wall out of 4, I felt even more speed down the front straight of this tri-oval.

Wow!!! This is quite something!!! Back into 1 and repeat the process. My right foot was still firmly on the floor. What a rush! I ended up turning in slightly late into 1 and the car clearly did not like this and started heading to the wall a bit early, and I had to lightly lift off the throttle to get the nose to point down the track. Breathe the motor as they say. Amazing how much loss of speed that slight bobble caused and I could tell I was noticeably slower on the back straight as the engine rpm was lower than the previous laps.

Being so precise lap after lap for 200 laps of the upcoming June 15th Sirius 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race gave me new respect for these oval drivers. It looks easy, but the mental concentration to place the car precisely every lap with other cars around you is simply amazing. On the fifth lap, I got the white flag and then the checkered flag on lap six. I kept the speed up through turns 1 and 2 again as instructed and then started to angle across the back straight, checking the vibrating mirror for cars exiting pit road, and entered turn 3 on the apron. I was probably around 70 mph on the apron but it seemed like 15 mph in a school zone. The instructor told us to drag the brakes to warm them up as these racing brakes have little stopping power when cold. Entering pit road, it seemed to be a blur of laps and speed that happened all too quickly before it was over. I entered the pit box were the instructor signaled me to stop and climbed out. The rush of adrenaline was still there and I was trembling slightly. The grin was ear-to-ear..way cool! Steve patted me on the back and said I did well.

150 mph is not the fastest I have driven, having wound up a Ferrari Testa Rosa to about 170 mph but that was just a short burst. However, 150 mphs sustained was much different. I stepped over pit wall and watched as my son, David, strap in for his run. Steve fired up the engine and David was off down pit road. When the checkered flag flew to end David's run, I waited for him to coast into the pit box and climb out. I asked him those famous Chris Econamaci words "What was it like out there?" David responded: "I expected the G-forces and that the car wanted to always turn left due to the suspension set up. Even the less than tight steering and unstable feel of the car were not surprising. What I learned from this experience was how far ahead the drivers look. Almost out of the driver's side window. What you see behind the wheel is different from what I expected. The turns look very tight over 100 mph and the wall is intimidating. Maybe after a few more laps I would have become comfortable with the car but until I learned to trust the handling I would not want to get close to the wall."

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Photo by Jennifer Densteadt.
However, Motorsport.com was going to have a third driver. Steve had persuaded Jen to put on a drivers suit and helmet and drive the stockcar. Jen does not drive a stick, but the school teaches those that do not know how, to shift from first to fourth. The motor has enough torque to pull in 4th gear once the car is rolling. Jen got the car underway and chugged along in 4th gear down pit road. On her first lap Jen was in the middle of the track in lane 3 and stayed there for the entire six laps, reaching over 100 mph. In Jen's words "Obviously I didn't go into this thinking that I would be driving, so I was really nervous and scared when the instructor convinced me to go out as well. As soon as I got in the car though, all of that disappeared. I was so relaxed and not nervous about it at all. I didn't go as fast as I could have, but that wasn't what I was out there for." That was a wrap for the day for the Motorsport.com crew. Quite a day!

What I liked is that MIS and Track Time stressed safety and fun. Comparisons with other students is avoided so you feel like you did your personal best. The only "competition" is on the autocross course, and I would call that safe low speed friendly competition. Cost is $100 for a full day of autocrossing in your personal car or you can rent one of the school's BMW roadsters at additional cost. The stockcar course is a value at $350 for the classroom session and six laps at speed. Controlled passing is allowed so you are not following someone nose to tail in the slow lane if you have more speed. They do not allow passing in the corners, but you are given six laps at the speed at which you are comfortable. Need more? They also offer a half day, one day, two day and advanced Stock Car packages. How about road race's needs. MIS and Track time offer Formula 3 open wheel instruction in various packages If you want to feel the speed and sensations of a NASCAR driver, Track Time at MIS may be the answer to your dreams. More details at www.tracktime.com

My next assignment is to cover the June 13-15 NASCAR Winston Cup and ARCA races at MIS. The Media day hosted by MIS and Track Time allowed me to experience the speed and sensations of a driver. I am sure this new perspective will help my coverage of these races for Motorsport.com, as I have a new perspective on the MIS track and drivers who negotiate the high banks of this track thanks to the first hand, behind the wheel exposure to stockcar racing.