Five years ago while at a conference in Orlando I booked an 8 lap session at the Richard Petty Driving Experience. They hold two classes daily – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Surprisingly the hardest thing about the class was keeping up with the instructor. You’d think that once inside a race care that you’d tend to drive fast. I found (along with most of the others that day) that I was overly cautious. That doesn’t mean I still wasn’t able to round the track at 125 mph. More photos, as well as some tips and tricks for those considering the Petty Experience follow.
I decided to stay on a couple days after the conference in Orlando. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to drive a Nascar race car – and now for $350 I’m going to get my chance to run one for 8 laps around the Walt Disney World oval track which is leased by Petty Driving for their classes.
The Petty track is located at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom. If you walk out the Ticket and Transportation Center through about 1/2 mile of parking lot you’ll run into it.
When the track first opened it offered Indy races. These lasted for a few years and eventually Disney couldn’t attract enough spectators – so the only thing that runs at the track now is the Petty Driving Experience.
They have two classes — one at 8am (highly recommended because if it rains in Florida it seems to be afternoons – especially during the time I was here).
I went on the Rookie experience (see for a full description of all the pricing and ride experiences) which allows you to drive 8 laps around the track.
You must be 18 years old and possess a valid drivers license to do this. If you prefer not to drive, you can get a ride for about $90 (when I was there they offered a $20 discount that day for any last minute takers) – if you ride then you go 3 laps in the passenger seat with a professional driver. Only a couple people took this ride — however it is available for walk-up visitors (all others must pre-register although they had next day spots open so if you vacation and want a spur-of-the moment adventure try calling 1-800-BE-PETTY).
There were 14 people driving in my class.
You all gather in a classroom. The instructors (there were three) come in and give a quick talk. It moves along very quickly. Each instructor is a racer from one of the local short tracks, as well as a Petty Instructor. These guys were really into their teaching, with one of them urging us to “Drive it like you stole it” and to “stick with me around the track meaning if I exit the track to go get a pepsi – you follow me”.
They have a short orientation film that is similar to a Nascar documentary. I thought it a little bit odd that they show videos of Nascar crashes while people are waiting to drive…
After the classroom (about 15 minutes) you all pile into a van and the instructor drives around the track. This is one of the more interesting parts of the day (because until you drive you’ll just wait). You’ll be told where to slow down, how to follow the instructor, what hand signals mean. It’s a bit overwhelming and luckily they go over it two or three times.
You’ll all pile out of the van and go to the pits to wait your turn to race. They called people three at a time while I was there. So while three cars our taking their turn you get to sweat in a full driver suit and helmet.
Finally they call your name to go get into the car.
The guy walking back in this picture is the pit boss. He runs the show. Tells you what order you’d drive. Ran the computer that clocked everyone’s speed
It started raining the instant they got me strapped into my vehicle. So I had to exit. Wait about 15 minutes then we went back out. The rains in Florida are highly unpredictable – some days you get a 15 minutes sprinkle – others a 1 hour downpour. When we went back out I drove — for 3 laps — until it started to rain again. Then we delayed about 40 minutes. The final 5 laps were rain-free.
The mechanical process of driving is a snap – the car performs like a big go-kart. As far as driving – here are your instructions:
Follow the instructor.
Stay 3 car lengths behind.
Do whatever the instructor does.
Don’t pass him. Don’t pass any other cars.
Don’t downshift at any time from 4th gear.
Once you are on the track the hardest part is getting close to the instructor – your natural tendency is to stay a safe distance so you don’t hit.
They had three instructors the day I was there (I think one was the ride along car).
Here I am in my driver suit. The temperature in Florida is sweltering so wearing the suit is no fun. When you aren’t on deck to get in the car, unzip your driving suit half way and wrap it around your waist.
Into the car through the window. Duck low because your head is now huge and you’ll hit the window if you don’t get down really low. Once inside someone buckles you into the seat. They’ll start the car by flipping the toggle switch. Then the fun really starts.
First on the agenda? Rev the engine!! I’ve been to enough short track racing to know that’s what all the pros do. None of the track crew seemed to mind.
Things get very busy on pit road. There are three students and three instructors driving at a time. The road crew will direct you when to leave the pit area. If you haven’t driven a stick shift in a while, this is going to be an eye opener. The first time off the clutch my car bucked like a spooked horse.
There’s a flag man that watches everyone. He starts your session with the green flag. if you’re going to slowly he’ll wave the clenched green – which means get up behind your instructor.
When everything is running as it should, you’ll see the instructor followed by a student about 3 car lengths behind. The average speeds seemed to be in the 120 to 140 mph range. At the end of your session you’re presented with a computerized sheet that shows your times for each lap.
If you are near where Petty Driving offers these courses and you’ve been curious about what it’s like to drive a racing car – be sure to attend a session. Remember that you must generally register ahead of time – so advanced planning is required. Call the 1-800-BEPETTY number to make reservations.
Link: Frequently Asked Questions from 1800BEPETTY.COM
Cost: Start at $399 for 8 lap experience – may vary by tracks and location
What I Liked:
Real racing experience
Authentic racing cars – NOT a simulation
They give you a sheet with your lap speeds at the end of the race
What Could Be Improved:
Wait time can be considerable – and uncomfortable in hotter climates
It takes longer than 8 laps to get the hang of this – I’d have bought the 16 lap package if I knew