Remembering Gary Terry: 'He was one of the best'

Yes, the Petty Experience driving instructor could drive -- but more important, he knew how to treat people.

What I remember about Gary Terry wasn’t his driving chops – though he definitely had some – it was the way he treated his customers at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway in Florida.

Terry was, as you likely know, killed Sunday when, as an instructor in the passenger seat, the white Lamborghini Gallardo a customer was driving spun three times and hit a guardrail. The driver was released from the hospital that day. Terry died at the scene. He was 36. “He was one of the best employees I ever had there,” said a former manager of the facility. Especially confounding is that the Gallardo is one of the easiest supercars to drive -- it is essentially an all-wheel-drive Audi under the skin.

At first glance, the job seems pretty glamorous for a racing fan, which Gary definitely was: Driving replicas of NASCAR Sprint Cup cars on the Disney oval track, and starting in 2012, driving exotics like Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, like the one he died in on Sunday afternoon.

But driving was a tiny part of the job, and frankly, one of the least important. People came from all over the world to the Petty Experience at Disney – the weather meant it was open year round, and the fact that no one has raced at the 20-year-old track in years meant round-the-clock access. Petty built a garage where the cars could be serviced, important since most of the tracks the Petty Experience goes to – at least 16 at last count – the cars are essentially trucked in for periodic events: You want to do the Petty Experience at Motordrome Speedway, for instance, you have only eight dates to choose from in the next three months. 

That was the appeal of the Disney location – they could accommodate last-minute reservations, especially from tourists who didn’t know the Experience existed until they picked up one of those little cards from the rack in the hotel lobby.

Ride along got them started

So guys like Gary Terry had to deal with kids barely old enough to fit in the seat (age 6 is the minimum), to a surprising number of elderly customers doing the Experience on a dare. Terry and crew had to make the ride-alongs so appealing and effortless that the customer might want to move from the ride-along ($59 for kids, $99 for adults), to the 8-lap rookie experience as a driver ($449), or even the 50-lap “Racing Experience” ($2,599).

Gary Terry, always grinning, acting as though every question he was asked was the most important one he’d heard all day, knew how to have a good time, and how to make sure his customers had a good time. All driving schools and “experiences” like Petty have taken massive hits since the 2008 recession – most have cut staff, some have cut salaries, some have ceased operating. Let’s face it: House payment or $849 “King’s Experience?” Not a tough decision if you value a roof over your head.

This is why Petty management decided it was time to add to its mix: They had seen the success of businesses like Exotics Racing, built in 2009 on the edge of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which has become the premiere such facility, now advertising that they have 30 exotic cars, all with automatic transmissions so anyone can drive them, starting at $199 for a Porsche, $399 for a McLaren.

I broke the story in November, 2011 that the Petty at Disney was ramping up to add exotics to the mix. “We looked at extensions of what we do in the stock car arena to help build our business, and what we’re good at is putting people in cars, safely,'” said Mike Bartelli, chief marketing officer. “We’ve got the track, we’re here year-round, and we know there are people who would love to drive these cars on a race track, given the opportunity.”

Exotic ideas

They’d start out with two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris, and Audi R8 and a Porsche 911. They’d buy the cars, instead of lease them back from current owners, as a lot of the various driving experiences do. It might be more expensive, but they’d at least know the cars were properly maintained.

The problem was, they had a good, if aging, oval track, but they really didn’t have an ideal course in the infield. So they improvised, turning this way in the infield, that way on the oval, essentially opposite what the stock cars do. They’ve improved the track since then, but given the fact that everyone – Petty and Disney – knew that the track was on borrowed time, just sitting there until Disney World needed the acreage for something else, there was no motivation to build anything major. They added some switchbacks in the infield, and used the back stretch for acceleration.

Launching in January, 2012, the Petty Experience made do, and the exotic driving experience did well.

Or so it seemed. Now, it is tough to find any mention of the exotics driving on DrivePetty.com, and the original web site for the exotic cars, Exoticdriving.com, lists five tracks for the Exotic Driving Experience, none of them Disney World.

One reason might be that Disney told the track last February to starting packing; the time has come to raze the track, which apparently will be a parking lot. Target date is June 28. Bill Scott, executive vice-president of the Petty Experience, told a newspaper that they’d like to find a road course for the exotic car attraction. “Frankly, that’s become much more popular,” he told the newspaper.

A dedicated road course would be great. But all of this, of course, came too late for Gary Terry, whom I had seen race oval tracks in Michigan when we both lived there – he raced, I was an occasional announcer at some of the tracks he and his racing family frequented. He went on to run 36 events in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite divisions as recently as 2002, as well as an ASA race, but he seemed to have found a home at Petty, living with his wife and young daughter in nearby Kissimmee for the past 11 years.

Gary Terry will be remembered by the literally thousands of customers he introduced to performance driving, and in the photographs they took of him, clad in his Petty blue driving suit. Always smiling. That was Gary.

 A fund has been set up to raise money for expenses for wife Kathy and daughter Taylor. The address is here: http://www.gofundme.com/garyterrymemorial.

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About this article
Series NASCAR
Drivers Richard Petty
Article type Commentary
Tags driving experience, gary terry, richard petty, walt disney world