Talladega Mornings

May 22, 2016 Sports No Comments

If you’re Jewish there are some things you just don’t do. Not kosher as we say.

You don’t eat a pastrami sandwich on white bread.

You don’t sprinkle bacon crumbles in your matzah ball soup.

And it’s probably not a real good idea to invite the Rabbi and his family to your home for a Saturday night pig roast.

And if you’re a Jew, you’re probably not a big NASCAR fan either. The two go together like Easter dinner on Yom Kippur.

Except if you live in the south. Then you might take a peak at the Fox NASCAR broadcast on a Sunday afternoon, but make sure the remote is near-by because you don’t want to hover long enough for anyone to see what you’re watching.

In southern schools, the kids have to know two things: the Pledge of Allegiance and the NASCAR Cup standings. And not necessarily in that order. Some even combine the two:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of NASCAR united, and to the racetracks over which it flies, one redneck nation, under Dale Jr., indivisible, with Bud Light and checkered flags for all!

So this morning, while Torah’s were being read across the country, I represented the tribe at Talladega Superspeedway, about 45 miles east of Birmingham and 100 west of Atlanta, doing something I’ve wanted to do since we moved here 17 years ago: drive a NASCAR.

It’s one of those fantasy experiences, like my baseball over the past six years, that the various NASCAR tracks host on a rotating basis every six or eight weeks to let the weekend fan feel the heat. Though I did quickly figure the difference between driving a NASCAR and playing camp baseball is with baseball if you make an error, shake it off, there’s always another play. With the NASCAR experience, one error behind the wheel and it’s probably your final ball game.

As Saturday approached, so of course did my second-guessing. Someone asked me if I knew how to drive a stick-shift? Of course I don’t. Jews don’t chop wood, use power saws, change oil, don’t know how to spell carburetor without spell check or drive stick shifts. Oh maybe you’ll find an isolated one or two that can, but that’s like finding a Yankee fan who lives on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. You’ve gotta search hard.

The truth is I’ve never driven a stick. Maybe we had one in Driver’s Ed simulator class in 1968 but who remembers and more important, who paid attention? So I called Talladega to see if knowing how to drive a stick was a pre-req and they said, it’s preferred but if you don’t know how we’ll teach you. That really wasn’t too comforting as one shifting error could be my last; I almost wished it would have disqualified me but I went anyway.

I arrived about forty-five minutes early for my 10 am session and the clouds looked ominous; visions of a rain-out and deep relief danced in my head. I checked in, forking over my driver’s license and signing a waiver and was given a blue racing jump suit. The temp went from 70 to 90 with that thing zipped-up.

About two dozen of us were in the group, at $300 per, to defy death or serious injury for eight minutes. By sight it was pretty obvious I was the only one in the room missing services at synagogue. Like fantasy camp, some were back for their fifth or sixth experience. An hour classroom session included a ‘do and don’t’ video. I snuggled up next to the instructor who was sitting in the rear and told him I’ve never driven a standard vehicle. He said “no worry, we’ll give you a tutorial at the car but just remember you are going from first to second to third and will wind up in fourth gear for most of the ride.” Huh?

He also said to make sure I used the clutch. The what? The only thing I know about clutch is it’s something A-Rod wasn’t.

The instructor told us the mantra– ” the faster you go, the more comfortable it is.” Now my knees were knocking. The last time I was this nervous was in 2010 when I faced a major league pitcher for the first time. Zane Smith, formerly a Pirate, Brave and Red Sox, threw me a fastball that was probably 10-15 mph slower than in his prime and I still couldn’t see it.

Our group finished in the classroom, walked to the pit area and unfortunately the clouds had left, the sun was shining and the temperature inside the racing suit now felt like Phoenix in August. Everyone was given a pager and when it buzzed it was your time. When mine went off, I hoped it meant my table at Outback was ready, but instead it was time to be fitted for a helmet and get into the race queue.

Four cars on the track at a time, staggered start times. A fifth one circled high and fast and was driven by one of the track pros offering ‘ride alongs’ to those that didn’t want to drive but wanted the thrill.

When your car comes back into the pit, it’s time. I was hoping for one sponsored by Manischewitz or Hebrew National but no such luck. Even Valvoline would have made me feel manly. Instead I got a rather drab white Toyota, that said “NASCAR Racing Experience” on it.

The thing that struck me right away is these cars have no damn doors! Who knew? You gotta climb through the window. What? At sixty four years old, six foot three and two hundred pounds, with all the flexibility of a piece of plywood, there are things in life I shouldn’t be doing: pure barre, advanced hot yoga and climbing through a window into a race car.

But there I was right leg first, left leg next and then the crew pushing my head down like a perp being loaded into the back of a squad car. They strap you in; by the time you’re secured it feels like you are hoping for that last minute reprieve from the governor’s office.

Then the quickie lesson on the stick. It’s an ‘H’ – you have to go from first, to second to third and ultimately wind up in fourth gear. It had a lot of baseball similarity to me. I get the first to second to third but that clutch seemed to be in the way. The inside of the car had all the charm of the 1976 Chevy Vega. Saying it was stark would be kind. They show you where the fire extinguisher is. There’s as much chance of me using that as knowing how to open the exit door on an airplane. You hear it, nod accordingly, but don’t really listen.

You then find the ‘talk’ button and hear your spotter high above the track. You’re in his hands the whole eight minutes. He sees what’s in front and behind you and the man on the other end of the headset, not the brake, becomes your best friend.

There’s no speedometer in the car but there’s a tachometer, whatever that is. No Sirius-XM either. Not even faux-wood finishing. Or an ash tray. The Vega was nicer. Your speed is guided by something called RPM’s on that tachometer thing. Listen, I know what ERA, RBI and OBP’s are but RPM’s? Never heard of them, but we were told in no uncertain terms for your first time out, 5,000 is tops. Okay, whatever you say.

Then the fun starts. You are sent out, clutch, second gear, clutch third and one more time to get into fourth gear when you hit the main track, the longest in the sport at over two and a half miles. Literally, pedal to the hot metal and get those RPM’s up. In your ear, your spotter has your back (and your front.). Stay in the middle of the track if you can, the apron is too low and the outside lanes are for passing. It was incredible; it was exhilarating; it was also scary as shit when you see that wall to your right and realize it doesn’t move. And you get cottonmouth as you go through the turns banked at a very severe 33 degrees, the steepest of any track on the circuit. A combination of gravity, inertia and momentum seems to drive the car by itself as you are squeezing the non-power steering wheel with all you got on the verge of strangulation.

Six trips around in front of 80,000 empty seats and the eight minutes are over. You get word in the headset to pit . I looked for my left hand turn signal but couldn’t find one. You coast in, still in fourth gear, but the sign says to put it in neutral and roll back to your starting lane. Double whew.

If I thought getting into a car without a door was tough, the real kick was trying to get out. The pit boys told me it had to be head first. I laughed. They didn’t. I’m sure it was a sight to behold. I ain’t trying that one again. Even the shitty Vega had doors.

You catch your breath, take your helmet off and beads of sweat roll off. I was afraid to look down at my pants. They tell you your top speed was 158 mph. That’s pretty impressive until I realized it’s about the same pace of the slow lane on I-95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

But the high of the experience didn’t end there. You’re still riding it when you get back to your real car. And continue on the way home. Right up until the state trooper nails you for, what else, but speeding.

I knew I shoulda gone to temple.

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