The writer completes his session...
The writer completes his session at Andy Hillenburg's Fast Track High Performance Driving School.
Andy Hillenburg is a hardcore racer, pure and simple.
He's one of an elite group of drivers who have driven in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. In 1995, he captured the ARCA championship, and he's won two ARCA races at Daytona.
Hillenburg has also lent driving and consulting services to several film productions, including movies and commercials. He even appeared on screen in 3, ESPN's biopic on Dale Earnhardt. The guy who chases a young Earnhardt out of some short track waving a pistol? Yep, that's Hillenburg.
Oh, but that's not all. Hillenburg, a native of Indianapolis, is an astute businessman. When the shuttered former Cup racetrack in Rockingham, North Carolina, went up for auction, Hillenburg went after it. He picked the place up for a cool $4.4 million, and almost immediately announced plans to re-open its gates with a 2008 ARCA event.
This isn't going to be just any ol' ARCA race. The last several Cup races at Rockingham were 400-mile affairs, cutting-and some say, mercifully so-100 miles off previous showdowns in the Carolina sandhills. Hillenburg's ARCA race will use a 500-kilometer format.
Not only that, but Hillenburg also plans to put 50 cars on the starting grid.
Hello...Joe's Wrecker Service? Yeah, we're gonna need a little help down at the track...make that a lot of help. Bring two wreckers. Or three. Better yet, bring the whole fleet.
That sense of excitement and energy has been missing from the Rockingham community for far too long, and it looks as though Hillenburg is looking to bring it back in one fell swoop. Some might call it a gamble, buying an old racetrack and debuting its grand re-opening with a 500-kilometer ARCA race filled with 50 cars.
Houston gives high marks to...
Houston gives high marks to Hillenburg's school.
If good things happen to good people, though, Hillenburg's race will be a resounding success.
Still, that's not the extent of Hillenburg's resume. Hillenburg, one of the most likeable personalities in the sport, might very well be best known as the owner of Fast Track High Performance Driving School. Hillenburg has worked at Fast Track since 1989, and owned it outright since 1991. During that time, quite literally thousands of people have climbed through the windows of the school's racecars.
Some have cool day jobs. More than a few are middle-aged thrill-seekers, looking-even if they won't admit it-to maybe shake the cobwebs off their egos. They have gone skydiving. They have climbed mountains. They've done a hundred crazy things, and this is next. Almost without fail, this is also best.
They have made their way to Fast Track for the experience of seeing what it's like to drive a racecar on the same tracks where their heroes race. They go home and enthrall their family and friends with tales of their exploits. It is darn near impossible to finish up a few laps at Charlotte or Texas or any of the several other tracks on which Fast Track runs without a huge, ear-to-ear, cat-that-just-ate-the-canary grin.
These are the folks who are George Plimpton in a firesuit and helmet. Forget Plimpton's exploits in quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing goalie for the Boston Bruins or sparring with Sugar Ray Robinson. This is way more cool.
Others go on to careers in racing. Drivers like...oh, say...Fast Track alums Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeremy Mayfield, Aric Almirola, and Jason Keller. They're there for the experience, certainly, but experience of a decidedly different nature. They're looking for seat time on big tracks, and that's exactly what Hillenburg has to offer. They want to get on the track, go fast, and not have it necessarily feel like a tryout.
No lap times or speeds are...
No lap times or speeds are recorded at the school, keeping the focus on consistency and proper driving lines.
There's pressure when Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jack Roush or Joe Gibbs are watching. Fast Track offers experience without the pressure.
The official driving school of ARCA, Fast Track has an advanced course for those who have already been through its more standard three-day session. Fast Track's advanced class is basically a one-on-one coaching session, and while it isn't a requirement to receive an ARCA license, it surely doesn't hurt. Essentially, for wannabe ARCA racers, it's that much more time on a track far removed from a Saturday night bullring, driving an ARCA-legal racecar.
It should be noted here that, hands down, Fast Track is awesome.
From the moment students arrive, there is a particular emphasis on safety. More than once, chief instructor Jay Hawley insists that the school is not a competition. Don't worry about what the other person is doing. Worry about your line, your consistency. To emphasize the point, no lap times or speeds are recorded.
Also more than once, Hawley mentions the need to be smooth on the racetrack. This has two purposes. First, being smooth leads to increased speed. The second is not so much something that Hawley states outright, but you catch his drift in no uncertain terms. Maintaining consistency on the track keeps students from, well, doing something stupid and busting their butts.
Make no mistake about it. These cars are real, and you can get hurt driving them.
Instructor Jay Hawley goes...
Instructor Jay Hawley goes over some last-minute instructions.
Students introduce themselves, and in this, there is another positive. They get to know each other. There's a small sense of camaraderie, even between strangers. This is going to be a great adventure, and everybody seems to share in the moment.
From Hawley's initial safety instructions and introductions, students then board passenger vans, in which Hawley shows students the proper, and quite precise, line to take around the track, in this case, Lowe's Motor Speedway. Then, students get to drive the van.
Before students ever sit in an actual racecar, they know the racetrack.
How much does Fast Track concentrate on safety and getting a proper line down pat on the track? It takes more than three hours to actually strap into a racecar, and then it's with an instructor riding shotgun. You have time to look around the car, and get a sense of what you're about to do.
Even for us plus-sized guys, Fast Track has cars and seats that are sized comfortably. Here's a hint, though: If you're relatively tall, don't wear the school-provided helmet and HANS while you're getting into the car. There's plenty of time to get ready when you're in place inside the cockpit.
For those who have never raced, there is security in having someone with you in those first few rather timid laps around the track. Obviously, you can't hear over the roar of the engine...and the thudding in your chest that happens to be your heart...but hand signals and an occasional light touch on the steering wheel from Right-Seat Charlie do the trick.
And then...then you're on your own.
Fast Track drivers do not have pace cars to follow. You're truly solo. That's not to say, however, that you're not being watched. You are. A Fast Track crewmember watches from the flagstand and several are on pit road. You can't pass until given the flag to do so, again, due to safety concerns.
Enter a turn too high or low, and you're going to hear about it. Still, that's one more item in the plus column. Because class sizes are typically fairly small, with maybe 15-20 students, there is time for one-on-one instruction after each set of 10 laps or so. The instructors correct, encourage and then send you back on your way.
Fast Track gets so much right, it's hard to consider where the school might have room for improvement.
Because this is a school that can include racing novices, it's quite understandable that passing is only allowed on the backstretch. And that's only after being given a go-ahead from the flagstand to do so. You absolutely, positively don't want a bunch of idiots who've never sat behind the wheel of a racecar going for all the marbles all over the place.
Do that, and you'll lose your marbles. If not more.
Still, catch a car at the wrong time, and you may get stuck behind Grandma for a lap or so. At $1,250 for 30 laps, you certainly want to make every single one count. It can be frustrating, but not overly so. You don't trade safety for economy, ever.
The car I drove did not feature the aerodynamic roof rails that are standard in NASCAR and ARCA. Even without them, it drove beautifully and stuck in the corners.
Finally, most racing schools offer DVDs featuring footage of each student's time on the track, shot from inside the car. It is an absolute must-have, especially for fans. Fast Track's DVD, however, is pretty pricey at $105 (Fast Track T-shirts are $30).
I wanted the DVD, so I ponied up the money and gave an instructor my address to ship the disc when ready. I couldn't wait to see it, to time my laps and figure out exactly how fast I'd gone. I waited. And waited. Then waited some more. It never came. Turns out, the camera in my car had shut off after recording only the first couple of minutes while I was still sitting on pit road.
|The Rundown |
|School Name ||Fast Track High Performance Driving school |
|Locations ||Lowe's Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor |
Speedway, Kentucky Speedway,
Michigan International Speedway, Rockingham
|Price Range ||$90 for a three-lap ride, and up to $3,200 for |
three-day basic oval course
|Web Site ||www.fasttrackracing.com |
|Phone Number ||(704) 455-1700 |