Our Scottsdale trip was shaping up to be memorable. Our first full day had been amazing, living up to the mancation moniker. Shooting (each other and paper targets), flying in gliders, and drinking…oh, my. We still hadn’t seen Charles Barkley, but we held out hope.
The second full day was starting, and we woke up ready for racing. There is a Bondurant racing school in the Phoenix area that offers an open cockpit, open wheel driving experience at the Phoenix International Raceway. Only two of us were driving, but the entire crew came along for moral support.
I was super excited as we pulled up to the track. My buddy, Dan, was also driving. We had a bit of friendly banter as we walked in. We got checked in, filled out our “don’t be stupid” waivers, and went into an orientation room with the rest of the drivers. It was a fairly small room, with rows of chairs facing a TV.
One of the instructors came in to brief us. The briefing was typical safety stuff, with a bit of driving technique thrown in toward the end. When that was done, we were filed out to a 15-person white van to get a tour of the track. It was a full-size van, just like you’d imagine (but it had windows).
The van driver was a younger guy, obviously a race car guy. He pulled onto the track and started explaining the basics of driving the track and taking the corners. It was an oval track, so all left turns. They were wide banking turns, too, so not a super technical track. That said, you still had to know how to enter and exit the turns if you wanted to carry your speed.
What everybody thought was going to be a mosey around the track turned out to be much, much different. As we approached the first corner, the van was not slowing down at all. The driver explained that you entered the corner, waited to feel the suspension settle down, and then start accelerating because the car was stable (that’s the nutshell version).
Oh, dear mother of mercy.
Our driver started accelerating partway through the corner. He was going over 100 MPH now.
Did I mention we were in a full-size passenger van; the type you ran from when you were a kid.
Everybody in the van was holding their breath. The only thing holding me in my seat was the guy next to me and the seat suction I had created puckering my butt. We exited the corner at speed, and the van kept accelerating.
I thought, “ok, great lesson, let’s head back so we can drive the race cars.”
Heading into the next corner, he slowed a bit on the entry. The springs settled on the van, and he pressed the accelerator. We hit 100 plus heading into the straight, where he told us, “be careful here, if you take the corner too wide, or break loose, you’ll hit the wall and your day will be done.” The wall was marred with tire marks and car paint from previous drivers. That certainly reinforced his message.
He was talking the entire time, explaining how to approach the corner, feel the suspension, and when to accelerate. Imagine a tour guide, then mix that image with a wild ride around a race track in an elephant sized vehicle. I could hardly process what was happening, and he was casually talking like we were having drinks at a bar.
We did two laps of this. I’m pretty sure the second lap was just to see if any of us would make a diamond with our butts, or at the very least, throw up. We parked and hopped out of the van. This small group of strangers was now cracking up together like friends, all of us talking about what had just happened.
Time to drive. We suited up in our racing coveralls and helmets. Each of us was assigned a car according to our height and weight. I got number 25, as I’m assuming my fat, skinny guy body (or is it skinny, fat guy) meant I got a higher number. The smaller guys were in single digit cars.
I buttered myself up and slid into the cockpit. It was snug, but comfortable. We all got settled in and started our cars. One by one, people started pulling out on the track. The car was a manual transmission (not paddle shifters). There was an unsettling feeling that I might stall out, which I would never live down.
My turn to go. I got about 25 feet and the damn car stalled. Crap. I went through the startup sequence, again, but it would not turn over.
A bunch of the staff guys came running over and started trying to get the car back on. It was not happening. The car just didn’t want to run.
They told me to hop out and get into car number 26, right behind me. I slid out and ran back to the other car, strapping in, and firing it up.
This time, the car ran like a champ, and I was off to the races (literally). I was determined to make up the lost time. The open cockpit and low stance of the car made everything feel faster. What an awesome feeling.
I got the car up to full speed, quickly catching the first car in front of me. He pulled into the pit to let me pass, which allowed me to carry my speed to the next car.
It’s worth mentioning that there was no passing (insurance, blah, insurance, no passing). The guy in front of me was stuck behind another slow poke, so we weren’t going anywhere.
They told us to pull through the pit if you got stuck behind somebody and wanted some room to go fast. I did just that, pulling quickly into the pit, and then getting waived through to enter the track, again.
Surprisingly, there were a lot of cars going slow. It didn’t make sense to me; we were at a performance driving school on a race track.
Despite the slow drivers, I could go two or three laps before getting stuck behind someone if I pitted and entered the track at the right time. I kept pulling off in an attempt to chase down my buddy, Dan. He was doing the same with me. Neither of us could catch each other, though, he swears he caught me once (that wasn’t my number).
Each lap, you’d look to drive the perfect line, never taking your foot off the accelerator. Exhilarating. I wanted more, and kept thinking about what the Formula One and Indy cars must be like.
The checkered flag came up signaling us it was time to be done. We all made our way to the pits, parked, and got out of our cars. Smiles everywhere. All my friends were standing on the side, excited to hear how the experience was. Dan and I obliged and described the entire experience.
We headed back to the hotel to prepare for the rest of the day. With no need to be sharp the next day, we could drink a little more that night. There were no lunch or dinner plans, so we found a few restaurants and clubs we wanted to check out.
It was a long night of running about. Restaurant, club, club, club, pizza. A few of us started fading, which is where the late-night pizza came in. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the place, but it was crazy good pizza. Somewhere in downtown Phoenix is all I recall. The place was packed. They did New York style pizza, reheating whatever you ordered in the pizza oven.
After killing off a few slices, we headed back to the hotel. This trip wasn’t about the drinking and club scene, but they always seem to play a part in our getaways.
Another successful trip in the books. We never did have a Charles Barkley sighting on our trip. There was no golfing, which was likely our best chance of spotting him. Who knows, it’s possible he was out of town doing famous people stuff. Maybe next time. Either way, we had a blast on this trip. I’d go back for any one of the things we did, much less all of it.