NASCAR beat writer gets the ride of his life

May, 12, 2010

CONCORD, N.C. -- I think I had a few Charlotte Motor Speedway officials nervous on Tuesday when I dipped the Toyota Camry Hybrid pace car toward the infield grass coming off Turn 4 as though I was going to do a doughnut.

I think I had Andrea Cleveland, my co-pilot and a member of the speedway's public relations department, nervous the entire half hour I sped around the 1.5-mile track.

I don't blame any of them.

I am not a professional driver. I'm not a very good driver, period, according to most passengers.

But I do have a better appreciation of what the 43 Sprint Cup drivers will experience when they line up for the Coca-Cola 600 later this month. I was exhausted after a half hour at speeds between 100 and 120 mph.

I can't imagine what it would be like to do that for four hours -- about what it takes to drive 600 miles -- at speeds of up to 204 mph. I definitely can't imagine the 188.475 mph lap that Ryan Newman put down in qualifying a year ago.

Not without going through the wall, that is.

Cleveland was holding on to anything that wasn't moving when I went into Turn 3 at 120 mph. That the rear end of the front-wheel-drive car was sliding around ever so slightly might have had something to do with it.

"You're the only driver who scared me," she said afterward.

So I pushed it a little. OK, a lot at times.

"You can't go into the turns this fast," Cleveland said repeatedly.

She also told me I couldn't pass, but when fellow beat writer Tom Jensen gave me the hand signal to pass going down the back straightaway, I couldn't back off.

"You're going to get me in trouble," Cleveland said, her face turning as red as that in the logo at the speedway.

Trouble was written all over this from the moment Adrian Parker, the speedway's communications director, called about a promotion for reporters to drive the Camry 600 miles. The initial plan was to do it on a full tank of gas, but understanding that the hybrid gets about 580 miles per gallon and some of us aren't as good as getting an extra mile or two out of the tank as the professionals, they went to Plan B.

My threat of doughnuts and burnouts might have played a factor in that.

The first few laps were a bit nerve-racking for me as well as Cleveland. When she said to floor it between Turns 1 and 2, my foot didn't want to respond, understanding there was no roll cage to protect us from the wall.

But if you want to get around the track fast, that's what you have to do. I finally got the knack but still couldn't get it past 120 mph. As Denny Hamlin said a few months ago in his USA Today column, my Toyota engine needed more power.

Seriously, the car had plenty of power, particularly for a hybrid. It easily got from 0 to 100 mph between Turns 1 and 2, which was NASCAR's lone requirement for the Camry hybrid to become a pace car.

Cleveland probably wishes it had less power. Had David Reutimann, last year's 600 winner, spoken before my ride, I might have wished the same.

"This is a tough racetrack,'' he said. "It's a track you have to stay on top of.''

I did that. At least without wrecking.

But like Reutimann, who won this event on pit road as rain shortened it to 227 laps, I didn't get to do my burnout.

Hey, maybe they'll let me in the burnout competition before next weekend's All-Star Race.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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