Running the Milwaukee Mile with the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience …
The guttural roar of a stock car engine and the resulting vibration transmitted through the seat of my racing jumpsuit as I approach Turn 1 at the Milwaukee Mile nearly makes me feel as if I’ll pass out.
I feel woozy in a way I’m unfamiliar with. It’s not fear, it’s not noxious fumes. I don’t feel sick, it’s just the rumble that shakes my innards and maybe my brain stem a little that gets my attention. A person needs to pay attention. Some don’t and they tag the wall. One did at my stock car class mid-May.
This is the Rusty Wallace (yes, that Rusty Wallace) Racing Experience (RWRE). It’s a traveling circus of stock and exotic car classes and experiences for would-be racers, but mostly it’s for those of us who have missed our calling, those who WISH we’d have tried our hand at racing super-modifieds, stock cars or even Indy Cars.
The RWRE travels to 80 race tracks across the U.S. and Canada each year, visiting Milwaukee’s famous one-mile oval at State Fair Park twice a year, in May and September. It’s here just one day each time. Pray for no rain.
I drove 12 laps (well 15 really, but more on that later) after my dear family decided it was time for the old guy to bury the pedal on a race track, not the highway, and in a real stock car, not the family Subaru. It was sort of a belated 65th birthday gift after that marker was Covidified a year ago April.
The day was a blast, but not without its challenges.
I was in the 10 a.m. grouping, which meant a 9:30 arrival to sign away my life and those of my loved ones who came to watch. My 12-year-old grandson was hoping I’d crash because that would be “cool.” It wouldn’t!
Participants who arrive a few minutes early get to watch as pro drivers take paying customers on ride-alongs. That allows you to get used to the bark of the two No. 18 M&M paint scheme stockers blasting around the Mile in the good hands of experienced racers. They look, and sound, fast.
Then it’s into the media center for about 45 minutes of class time explaining the intricacies of driving a 1-mile flat oval. It’s trickier than, say, Daytona where the huge banking in the turns makes driving those turns easier in some ways, but not all.
The key here is timing.
Accelerate hard down the straights, then let off the throttle just before the sharp barely-banked turns. (The Mile started as a dirt track, being paved in 1954.) The RWRE folks painted big orange rectangles on the track to let drivers know the optimum spot to get off the gas. Thanks!
Then brake hard when entering the turn, slowly letting off the pressure. That sets the car, moving the weight to the front tires so it steers easily through the turn. A bigger (greater inflation) right rear tire also assures the stock car always wants to turn left, even on the straightaways. Let off the brake when nearing the turn’s apex, then get back, gingerly and smoothly, on the throttle. The car will naturally push up toward the outer wall when exiting the turns. Orange and green stripes have been painted at intervals in the turns and on the straights to give you a precise idea of where you should be.
See Mark’s in-car video: Mark drives a stock car at the Milwaukee Mile
At the Milwaukee Mile, the nation’s oldest continuously operating race track (sorry Indy!), right side tires should be on the lighter, older asphalt track in the turns, and the left side tires on the darker apron down low.
Our instructor made sure we knew that, and that when the spotter on the 1-way radio said Lift and Left, we stayed to the left as let off the throttle, another racer was about to pass. Safety first! Don’t worry, the other drivers were gonna get those same instructions once I caught up to them. I got to pass four cars (never more than 6 on the track at once), two in turns. That’s pressure!
Much of the class involved going over the safety issues, such as how to quickly unhook the HANS device that keeps your head and neck safe (pull two release cords attached to the helmet’s sides), how to flip the latch on your tight five-point safety harness, and how to unhook the window’s safety net. Those are the three essential steps to a safe car exit, should, uh, a problem arise.
Oh, and the instructor passed around a steering wheel so we could get the feel of pulling on the center ring at its base to slide it on and off the steering column. You can’t get in or out of the car with the steering wheel attached. It’s that tight of a squeeze!
A few more tips and questions from the 20 or so other would-be drivers and it’s time to suit up. I chose a black jumpsuit, one because it came in short so I’d fit and didn’t have to wad up the legs, and two, the black is much sexier than the red suits. Those look like you’re on the safety crew … not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Next I grab a sanitized helmet (they ran large), and a balaclava to keep my hair out of my face (not really necessary). Then it’s out to the track to stand in line. This is a good time for pictures with the family as they stand with you in the pits (behind a short wall) until it’s your turn to drive.
Then you wait. The Rusty Wallace school here had five or six Nationwide and Cup series cars for drivers, plus the two for its pros to provide high-speed rides. All was well and but my mind starting playing the game of figuring out which car I’d get. I was hoping for the yellow and black Matt Kenseth style No. 17 DeWalt car, he being our home state hero.
It takes at least 10 (often more) minutes to load a driver aboard a racecar, take pictures, strap in, put on the helmet and ear pieces that let a spotter up in the scoring tower talk to you, and then get the HANS device hooked up properly. It takes a little less time when getting out, depending on how big a rush the conditions dictate.
So you wait and watch as this is repeated and you inch ever closer to the front of the line. Some folks trundle by at what appears to be city street speeds. Others hustle up to racier speeds quickly. You can tell visually, but also much by the sound of the racers as they rocket toward Turn 1. Some backfire at lower speeds.
On my Saturday, the day turned from gorgeous warm spring morning to ugly black skies with a strong wind and sliding temperatures. When I was sixth in line to go racing, it started to sprinkle. Figures!
For safety, the racing was yellow flagged, then stopped.
We waited, tried to stay warm and watched the skies that alternated between sunny and demonic black. The track was directly on the edge of a line of storms moving through. Our phones predicted 100% chance of rain, but we caught a break and after 45 minutes were back to the track. But skies were still threatening.
The group ahead of me started slipping into their cars. Second driver out and the yellow light blinks on. The walkie-talkies crackled with the news. He’d hit the wall exiting Turn 2 on his first lap. Wow!
We waited some more. The skies darkened further.
A tow truck brought his car back. Ouch! Then an emergency vehicle returned the driver to the pits, none the worse for wear physically. Mentally, well? Crashing is the ultimate embarrassment. Folks applauded lightly as he got out and walked through the crowd. I’m not sure if it was because he could walk, or they were just being kind.
Finally, it was nearly my turn. An older gentleman got to go before me because he was tall and fit the next available car. Who knew there were tall and short cars?
Then the Blue 2, as the pit boss called it, pulled in. This thundering blue and black Dodge Charger in Rusty Wallace livery, complete with his No. 2 all over it, was to be my beast.
Feet first into the window and onto the seat. Sit on the door frame for a couple pictures. This feels natural, like I should have been doing it for years. Slither inside the 500-horsepower racer and strap into my helmet, loosely. The steering wheel is still on the roof as a RWRE worker cinches up my belts and makes sure the HANS is attached. Then he hands me the wheel and I slip it in place. Turn it a couple times to make sure it’s latched. I needn’t have worried, the spotter will ask me to do that again just before heading on to the track.
Next my crew member hooks up the window net as I fiddle to slide the ear pieces under my helmet so I can hear the spotter. Now I tighten the helmet and flip the Ignition and Start buttons up, giving it a little gas. The Charger’s engine fires. It’s go time.
Now the pit boss, a Hoosier like me, runs through some final instructions to make sure my radio works, the wheel is attached and I understand Lift and Left. A lot of thumbs up here. OK, I pull up behind the car in line before me as it sits in pit lane. Let the clutch out, but keep those revs up. I don’t want to be the driver that kills his engine in the pits.
I sit anxiously behind the earlier driver for a minute or more. He finally pulls into the merge lane that brings a racer out of the pits onto the back straightaway. Then I wait in radio silence. Where’s the spotter? When do I go? Is my radio working? That huge black cloud is moving over Turn 1 now. Is it gonna rain again? Not now, please!
After a two-minute wait I hear, “You’re good to go.” Finally!
Slip the stocker into first, then quickly to second to get it rolling and assure I won’t stall in front of the crowd, well, mainly the family. It’s easy into third gear and finally fourth as I pull into the racing line on the back straight. I’m done shifting for now, and there are only four gears anyway.
Take it easy the first lap. Feel the car. It’s heavy. Tap the accelerator on the straight, never a turn. Someone had already learned that lesson today. There’s plenty of giddyup. Then let off into the turn and feel the brakes. They are pretty grabby and squeal at low speeds. I’m probably going 40 mph, a low speed.
Out on the front straight for the first time and I can see the grandstands, the pits, the people in the pits. This is the last time I’ll pay any attention to all that until I pull into the pit lane.
Lap 2 I accelerate a little harder out of the second turn and then hear Lift and Left. The pro driver rockets by on the outside. Next lap I pick up the pace a little more. Maybe I’m going 60 now. There’s no speedometer in the car, just a tachometer and I’m not really watching it. I’m keeping my eyes on the track. The instructor told us to look where we want to go, never at the wall or you’ll hit it. She told us of a shy driver doing about 30 mph that tapped the wall after being told the session was over because he looked at the wall. Really?
Several laps in now and starting to get the feel, but a yellow light. Shoot, is it raining on the track? I have no moisture on my windshield. Hmm, no rain, no cars stalled. Three laps later it’s green and I’m back in the groove. I pass a car in Turn 3 with the spotter assuring me, “You’re much faster, just go around.” Of course the outside lane in a turn is much closer to the cement wall. I know what it can do to a car. I’ve seen that already today and even though I took out the crash insurance ($75), I don’t want to shell out the $1,000 deductible.
Pass complete, I race down the front straight. A few laps later I catch another car going into Turn 1. Again the spotter advises the high line. I get by as I exit onto the back straight. Still feeling a little iffy in that high groove, but now I’m a racer, I’m passing folks, possibly the older gentleman (he was 80), but still!
A few more laps and I’m holding the throttle down all the way to the cutoff point, doing heavier braking and feeling that my timing is at least acceptable now. I pass another car as I come out of Turn 4 on the main straight. Did “everybody” see that? What a move!
Just a couple more laps and I was feeling like the revs, the sounds, the roar and the shudder of the steel on jig-built chassis stock car was about to make me pass out. Darn it, this was my chance to shine, but the final lap I took it a little easier, just one last full throttle shot down the back straight before entering the pits.
Easy, really, except that while I was hitting maybe 100 on the straights and averaging about 70 mph on the track, the pros do it much quicker. RWRE doesn’t provide times, but my pit crew said I got better as I went and did 52 second laps, about 70 mph. The lap record is 185 mph or 20 seconds, but that was in an open-wheel Indycar back in 1998. I don’t see how.
As I climbed from the car, first the window net down, then the wheel off, then release the HANS device, then the belts, then take that now hot helmet off my head. Pull my feet up into the seat and push myself out the window. Ah, fresh air, and a wave to my “fans” before reuniting with the family and taking my place on the victory podium. No autographs please!
That yellow? My brother-in-law and favorite pro photographer had snuck down to the first turn to get some photos of me lapping at speed. The RWRE folks didn’t care for that, so asked him to move and threw the yellow until he was back in the pits.
Hey, but that got me a few extra laps on a track that I’ve known about since I was a kid, worshiping the likes of Tony Bettenhausen, A.J. Foyt, Roger Ward, Jim Clark, Bobby Unser, and my hero Jim Hurtubise. Herk was seriously burned here in a 1964 Turn 4 accident, but came back to race for years after that. That’s what heroes do.
Dreams do come true and Rusty Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Champion, knows how to make that happen. It’s an experience I’ll cherish until I can’t crawl into or out of a race car anymore. But I’ve seen that it can still be done, even when that racer is 80!
Photos: Patrick McSweeney