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Originally published: 2013-03-30 23:41:57
Last modified: 2013-03-30 23:41:57

Behr: Driving muscle cars is awesome

by Steve Behr Sports Editor

CHARLOTTE — Sometimes, this job allows you to do things that are uber cool.

I’ve seen the biggest upset in college football history when Appalachian State beat Michigan. I’ve covered the NBA playoffs when the Charlotte Hornets played the Chicago Bulls — yes with Michael Jordan. I’ve shot photos of the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football, and worked the 1994 NCAA basketball final between Arkansas and Duke, witnessed by President Bill Clinton.

It makes up for the crazy hours we can work.

Chalk driving a souped-up Mustang — at Lowes Motor Speedway no less — to that list.

Most race fans have heard about the Richard Petty Driving Experience. It’s a chance for fans, for a fee, to drive actual stock cars at tracks all over the country, including Charlotte. 

That was expanded into the Exotic Driving Experience, which allows fans a rare chance to drive a Ferrari, Lamborghini, and a Porsche, or other cars I can’t spell. That was started at the racetrack at Walt Disney World.

There is a new challenge. It’s the American Muscle Car Challenge, which is being offered at Lowes Motor Speedway beginning April 12. The experience I got to have, and other members of the media who ventured to the track, was to drive a Ford Mustang GT 500, Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 and a Chevy Camaro ZL1.

At first, it wasn’t my idea. The executive editor at Mountain Times Publications, Tom Mayer, talked me into waking up at 4 a.m. so we could get to LMS by 9 a.m.

If morning rush hour traffic in Charlotte won’t wake you up, these cars will.

I knew I was in the right place when I saw Petty himself, shades, hat and his trademark smile, at the door of the orientation room. There are four steps spelled out in orientation. 

There is the acceleration, which drivers see how quickly they can get from zero-to-60 miles per hour.

Then there is step two, which is braking as fast as a driver can after reaching 60 mph. The braking systems are so good on these cars; there is no skidding to a stop.

The third step is cornering capability and the fourth is to see how fast those cars can go.

Then it was time to go to the track. After getting our pictures taken with the cars, we went close to the starting line and put our helmets on. I almost felt like “Sanka,” the short guy played by Doug E. Doug felt in the movie “Cool Runnings” when John Candy had to hit the top of Sanka’s helmet to get it to fit.

“Thanks coach.”

Then the driving began. Even though I’ve driven 80 miles per hour on a freeway, it still took a while to take full advantage of the power underneath the hood of these bad boys.

The Mustang, which retails at $54,995, had the most muscle with 662-horse power. I’ve always liked Mustangs. I liked the way they looked and I still like their reputation for speed.

I even owned a Mustang. Although my 1992 LX didn’t go up to 170 miles per hour, it had little kick in its get-along.

The Challenger ($45,770) has 470 horsepower, while the Camaro ($54,350) has 580. That’s more than enough giddy-up-and-go to get you anywhere you want to go. 

All three cars got me when I wanted to go, which is around the racetrack, very quickly. It took me a while to get used to the manual transmissions, since I hadn’t driven once since 1994.

My fastest speed of 99 MPH may not seem all that fast, but it was a lot of fun getting there. It took a lot longer to get the wobble out of my knees from driving it than I thought it would, and the giggle out of me whenever anybody asked me how it went.

The experience itself costs $199 plus a driver release fee of $25. Coaches work with drivers on when to accelerate, when to stop and where on the track to drive. Drivers also get a zip disc that records all of their times and driving statistics.

Coaches can also drive those who are not comfortable driving themselves. Helpful hint: Practice on a manual transmission before trying this. The shifting will be easier. 

It’s an experience that those who really like fast cars should try. The only blue light they’ll see is the one that starts the countdown to Stage One.

That’s reason enough to give it a try.