Southern Men, NASCAR & Fire-Proof Jammies

 (This story originally ran in the 2005 Summer issue of Coastal Homes & Lifestyles magazine)

Part 1 of a Real Southern Men Adventure

ATLANTA — Like a turtle peeking out from beneath its protective shell, my bed-head emerges from under the covers. I crane my neck slowly in the direction of the pulsating racket squawking at me from the alarm clock. My vision is blurred, but I can make out a red light blinking from the nightstand — numbers and letters alternating, gradually coming into focus … “4:45 a.m., 4:45: a.m., 4:45 a.m. …”

I reach for the sleep offender, fumbling momentarily before finding the “off” button. A blissful quite descends, but within seconds the circuitry of my brain flickers and my senses are awakened to the importance of this day.

All suited up in my Richard Petty racing uniform. I feel like I'm wearing kid pajamas.

In a few hours I’ll be behind the wheel of a racecar — not just any car, we’re talking NASCAR. I’m awake … well, almost. I’ve got about 20 minutes to shave, shower and do the other thing before my younger brother, Kurt, picks me up and we head off to the Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

My emotions are tangled in excitement and anxiety. Truth is, I’m a little nervous.

To make matters worse, I’m suffering from sleep deprivation. A late-evening photo shoot the day before delayed my departure from Florida to Atlanta. I didn’t arrive home until 2 a.m. and I’ve had less than two hours’ sleep. It’s not until I’m brushing my teeth that I realize my underwear is on backwards.

It’s an omen.

We arrive at the racetrack an hour early. Stepping onto the infield for the first time is a treat for any Southerner who grew up a NASCAR fan. I can’t help but think of legendary drivers such as David Pearson, the Allison Brothers, Cale Yarborough, and The King, of course.

My thoughts also rush back to a time when Kurt and I were standing at our father’s side watching our first NASCAR race. It was the mid-70s and we were in our early teens. Dad wasn’t really a big fan of the sport back then. We were vacationing in Daytona Beach and — on a whim, really — he took us to see the “Pepsi-Firecracker 400.” We were thrilled … and hooked.

The Petty Driving Experience is an early birthday gift from Kurt. It’s an opportunity to take a ride on the wild side, but more importantly, it’s a chance to pretend I’m a kid again.

This day isn’t all about me. My brother is driving, too, as is my brother-in-law, Rance Parker. Three middle-aged men are about to slip behind the wheel of a 600-horsepower, Sprint Cup-style stock car and take it for a spin at race speeds. Blood may be thicker than water, but no one ever said it was thicker than motor oil. When the green flag drops, it’ll be every man for himself.

The hour wait goes by quickly.

By 8 a.m. we’ve been outfitted in our racing uniforms — trademark “Petty blue” coveralls. Our group numbers about 20 or so, mostly balding, out-of-shape, middle-aged white guys — a mix of blue collar and corporate types. I feel silly. I think we look like grown men walking around in ill-fitting (but fire-proof) children’s pajamas.

I wonder if I look as out of place as the other guys.

Last-minute instructions before heading out on the course.

Our instructional/safety session gets under way. I struggle to stay focused. Adrenaline and caffeine can’t stave off the yawns. We sign waivers, releasing the Petty folks of any liability. It’s just a precaution.

Right. Of course it is.

I’ve watched many NASCAR races in my day, and witnessed one-too-many horrific crashes — cars tumbling toy-like in spectacular barrel rolls before slamming the asphalt in a jumbled six-car melee. A frightful highlight film runs through my mind.

I’m awake.

Maybe this explains my anxiety. Ordinarily, I have no great fear or aversion to speed. I’ve been an adrenaline junkie on more than one occasion. Bungee jumping didn’t scare me … okay, maybe a little. I also managed to hitch a ride once with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels back in 1990. And, I lived to write about the experience. NASCAR’s got nothing on the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet; trust me.

So I’ve got nothing to worry about, right? How hard can it be?

… to be continued.

 (Check back next week for Part Two. See how this story ends and find out whether Kris proves himself a Real Southern Man behind the wheel on a NASCAR super speedway.)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Be a Real Southerner: Read our Weekly Round-Up | Real Southern Men - June 25, 2011

    […] If fast cars and loose definitions of manliness are more your speed, check out Kris Wheeler’s adventure at the Richard Petty Driving Experience in “Southern Men, NASCAR & Fire-Proof Jammies.” […]

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