Car and Driver

Saturday, April 06, 2013
Loudon, n.h. — I am far from a speed demon or a car buff. If I remember to get the tires changed over before June, and then again before January, I consider it a successful year on the track.

My dream car? Probably the 1988 Cadillac I drove when I was 21, and that had more to do with the time and place than the vehicle.

When my editor said something about Ferraris and gave me the phone number of a public relations firm with a Florida zip code, I can’t say I was instantly excited. The gig was to head down to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and participate in the Exotic Driving Experience, an Orlando, Fla.-based outfit that puts average folks behind the wheels of cars worth more than their houses.

Lamborghinis, Porches, Ferraris, they’re all in the mix. An outgrowth of the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which allows racing fans to drive NASCAR-style rigs on real racetracks, EDE began early last year at its headquarters next to Walt Disney World. In just 15 months, it has expanded to 11 tracks around the eastern U.S.

The reasons for the rapid expansion are simple, according to Exotic Driving Experience staff member Mike Bartelli.

“The vast majority of people would never be able to drive one of these cars,” Bartelli said. “You either have to own one or know someone who owns one, and that’s a fraction of a percentage of the population.

“The second reason is it puts you on a NASCAR racetrack. Unless you’re a pro driver, that’s not something you’re likely to be able to do elsewhere. Driving one of these machines is an aspiration, to get a sense of what it’s like to operate them, the speed and power they offer in a controlled environment where it’s safe.”

During a classroom instructional, EDE representative Dustin Carter tells us about the cars we’re about to meet: a Lambroghini Superleggera valued at $243,000 that travels from 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds and packs 570 horsepower; a slick Ferrari F430 Scuderia worth $230,000; an Audi R8 worth “only” $150,000 but still going 0-60 in 3.8 seconds and dubbed the “staff favorite” by Carter.

We’re also told the speedometers in the vehicles will be covered to avoid temptations for excessive speed. But isn’t excessive speed kind of the whole idea? Carter assures us it’s for our own safety and that our top speeds will be recorded and available after the session. We’re also told that we’ll be subjected to being remotely “dialed down” up to 50 percent less than the vehicles’ full speed capacities if we’re found to be driving erratically.

Gosh, I hope that’s not necessary with me. There are photographers and peers here, and I don’t want to be the only one relegated to 50 mph in a Ferrari.

Safety precautions aside, it’s time to go check out our rides in the NHMS pit garage. We’ll all be designated one car in which to drive five 1.5-mile laps with an instructor in the passenger seat.

The excitement builds as we walk out with Carter. I’m hoping for one of the Lambroghinis, if only because one of my favorite rock musicians, Roger Waters, drives one in his 1984 concept album, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.

It’s a chilly morning, but all the cars are smoking hot. The white Superleggera shines like the snow-capped peaks of Mount Washington. The dark-gray Audi sits like a handsome beach stone. The Porsche is black as a hornet, and probably stings just as fiercely.

It’s time to ride.

I’m assigned the Lambroghini Gallardo, a yellow spectacle named after a popular breed of Spanish fighting bull. The unit itself is thin as a highway token, so small that a radio colleague had to give up his seat when he couldn’t fit in. He switched with someone who’d been assigned the more spacious Porsche 997 S.

I was listed amid the third and final wave of drivers, and the waiting was the hardest part. It was a tease to watch others pull out from the pit in their slick, powerful cars before exploding down the straightaway. Still, I was glad to get a sense of what as I was in for.

When it was finally my turn, lowering down into the seat of this strange machine felt like climbing into a spaceship. I was issued a big helmet — equipped with a microphone system so I could communicate with instructor Barry Tarr — and felt like I was entering a flying battle scene from Star Wars.

While I’ve never been to a live race at NHMS, I’ve tuned in countless Saturdays to watch TV broadcasts of NASCAR races in what is New England’s largest sports and entertainment complex.

Now it was my turn to test out the track.

Tarr and I didn’t waste much time fulfilling the need for speed. “Give it some gas,” he said as we rounded the first corner onto the straightaway. “You got it, sir,” I said.

The brochure lists the Gallardo as capable of going from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds, but it felt like 0-1,000. Everything in my peripheral vision turned blurry as my stomach rose to my face, and Tarr and I both giggled like children.

The corner was fast approaching and it was time to refocus. “Brake! Brake!” Tarr urged. Ah yes, the brakes, of course. But what fun are they?

During the classroom session we were told to drive toward the cones. So I drifted toward them, trying to stay graceful while navigating this 560-horse power beast.

Instead of simply circling NHMS’ mile oval, the EDE course utilizes extra road space for a 1.5-mile course featuring tight corners and hilly sections. Carter had said to be careful on the hills, warning of 60-foot drops if we go off the course.

I think he was probably just hoping we’d slow down.

Not a chance. Faster and faster I went, growing more comfortable with each lap. My first lap clocked in at 2 minutes, 44.59 seconds; by the fourth, it was 1:57.91. For the fifth and final time around I intentionally went slower, savoring my first — and quite possibly only — time driving a super car.

Indeed, it’s back to my 2004 Toyota Echo and going 72 mph on Interstate 89. But next time I watch a NASCAR race or super car demo on TV, I’ll understand a little bit more about what drives them.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.