Feature Article, Motorsports Industry, Stock Cars, Washington — April 9, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Racing schools at Evergreen Speedway (Issue 105)

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105 Racing Schools at Evergreen

By Steve Heeb

Doug Swerland of Kirkland, Wash., remembers wet tracks being an issue while racing Formula 3 on the European courses, but it was nothing but sunshine and dry tack when he and several other Northwest thrill-seekers met up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience last August at Evergreen Speedway.

The group of about 15 students gathered under the grandstands Aug. 12, joking amongst themselves and engaging in light conversation while the sound of stock cars could be heard thundering by outside on the 5/8-mile oval.

They were greeted by RPDE instructor Corrie Matthews of Las Vegas, a 12-year veteran driver, coach and crew chief.

After a 25-minute instructional video, the group headed out to the track and each was given their own personal flash drive that would be used to store performance data and in-car footage of their experience.

There’s no doubt the rookie driver gets a bit of butterflies as he climbs into the car and the straps are adjusted, but they can be assured these cars are built for speed and safety.

More than 115 cars have been built in-house in Charlotte for the RPDE program. The cars feature a 110-inch wheelbase and tip the scales at 3400 pounds. Each has a four-speed manual transmission.

Students are instructed to keep their hands at the 10-and-3 positions, to relax and avoid a tense grip. That reassurance comes in handy when the instructor throws the switches bringing more than 600 horsepower roaring to life.

Drivers are instructed to keep looking far ahead and to make smooth throttle adjustments, but there is plenty of freedom to get a feel for the course and hone one’s skills. The instructors offer direction to improve the driver’s performance, and also can slow the car if a student is driving too dangerously.

The driving lines are marked by gates on the track. At the start of the turn there’s a cone to show where the driver should ease off the gas and start slowing the car into the turn. The proper line is indicated by stripes on the track all the way through the turn until the car reaches a set of double cones which signal the proper place to start accelerating.

“The cars are set up to stick to the track,” instructors assure the student drivers. “Just trust the car.”

“I like the idea that there is a driver in there with you,” says 62-year-old Delaine Sylvester, who made the trip from Honolulu, Hawaii, to drive that day. “It made me more confident.”

Delaine’s brother had bought her a spot in the program as a gift.

“I wanted to check this off my bucket list,” she smiles.

Delaine can now add driving a stock car to a list that includes white-water rafting, indoor skydiving and being over lava in Hawaii during a helicopter tour.

“And on a cruise to Alaska I took a helicopter and landed on a glacier,” she adds.

But what she really likes is speed.

“They asked me if I was going to do the ride-along,” she laughs. “I said no – I want to drive. I want to live life to the fullest.”

She wasn’t going to pass up a a chance to pilot a race car on Evergreen Speedway’s big 5/8-mile oval.

“I love it,” she says. “I was surprised that the way the wheels held on to the road. My heart is just pounding. It’s a wonderful experience and I’m going to tell everyone they’ve got to try it.”

Bob Moore of Vancouver, Wash., also says the program was awesome.

“I wanted to keep going,” he said climbing out of his drivers suit. “That was a kick.”

Bob was impressed by the acceleration.

“It feels like the car will cut loose in the corners but it won’t,” he grins.

Mike Yeoman of Burlington, Wash., is an avid sprint car fan.

“I heard Justin Youngquist had done this so I decided to do it,” he says. “It gave me a whole new perspective on racing.”

Rich Brandt of Bothell, Wash., crewed as a tire man for NASCAR veterans Tobey Butler and Mark Hubbard.

“I knew what it took to fix a race car so I didn’t want to drive them,” Brandt laughs.

But the RPDE program gave him an opportunity to do just that.

“I’m just excited to do it,” he says. “I want to see what it is like so I can see what the drivers were whining about.”

After taking his laps on the track there was no whining.

“It was awesome,” Rich says with a smile. “I thought the lifting would be more challenging, but the instructor walked through it pretty well.”

He encourages people to do the program, especially those who are on a race crew.

“It will be easier to translate for the driver now that I’ve done it myself,” Rich says.

Others in the group already had other types of racing experience, like Sasha Niebuhr of Stanwood, Wash., who raced autocross at Sears Point 15 years ago; and Ryan Abrigo of Woodinville, Wash., has plenty of experience in racing of the two-wheel variety.

Ryan is a two-time World Champion (2012 and 2013) Mini Moto rider who normally fields a 190-cc bike built on the kids frame.

“I started racing motocross when I was four years old in Ohio,” he says of his early days on a Yamaha PW50 before moving to the Northwest at the age of 8. “I turned professional at 16, racing a Kawasaki 125 at Seattle International Raceway, Portland and Washougal. I’ve never looked back since.”

Ryan also enjoys running on the motocross track at Evergreen Speedway.

“I came to try four wheels instead of two,” he says of climbing into a full size stock car.

After his session, Ryan noted that there is a difference between driving a race car and riding a motorcycle.

“The biggest thing is visual,” he explains. “You can’t look down the track – it puts you in a zone. With dirt bikes, things come at you unexpectedly.”

Ryan says he liked the way the cars handled in the corners at speed.

“I love the acceleration,” he says. “The way you go back in the seat when you put your foot in it. It’s amazing to feel that amount of power under your foot.”

Ryan says the Richard Petty Driving Experience is a great program and is organized very well.

“I felt safe in a car with that much power,” he says.

This season Ryan will go for three-peat in a Mini Moto.

And as for the civilian thrill seekers, Delaine says now that she’s driven a race car she wants a ride in a fighter jet.

“You only live once,” Delaine says. “You have got to do everything while you’re able.”

“I thought it was a great, worthwhile experience,” Doug says as one who has notched some notable moments. “I ran with the bulls a long time ago. Back when I was faster.”

But the RPDE program gave him a chance to be even faster yet.

“This is a real adrenaline rush,” Doug adds. “Real professional fun from the moment you show up. I highly recommend it.”

This year Evergreen Speedway will host six days of the Rusty Wallace Driving Experience, with driving and ride-along sessions slated for June 24-25, July 1-2 and Sept. 18-19.

“We want to make sure there is a chance for everyone to experience the thrill of driving a race car at Evergreen Speedway,” says Traci Hobbs. “And programs like these are a great opportunity for the driver and race fan alike.”

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