Tag Archives: NASCAR

Savage Racing

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.

Pensive racer Savage before slipping behind the wheel.

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.

Turns at the 118-year-old Milwaukee Mile are flat and treacherous. Keep the inside wheels on the darker pavement!

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.

“Trophy wife” hugs this racer before he risks his life. Yes, the insurance is paid up! Meanwhile the pit crew stands at the ready, anticipating track action.

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.

There was one Oops moment this day, but fortunately it wasn’t My moment.

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!

A closer look at the Oops moment experienced by one racer. Advice? Buy the crash insurance!

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?

Ready to climb aboard, and doesn’t it look like I belong here?

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.

Fasten that helmet and get the ear phones in there so I can hear the spotter.

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.

Well, almost!

Waiting, and waiting, in the pits. Ready to roll!

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!

The cockpit is pretty sparse. HANS device laying on the dash now, but will go behind the head and neck soon. Minimal gauges and a bare steering column awaits a wheel.

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.

I look like I’m nailing the throttle on this lap!

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!

Eventually it’s time to pit and let someone else fulfill a dream!

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.

Not a bad run for a semi-old-timer with a heavy right foot.

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.

Everyone’s a winner at the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience!

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

2020 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody

Hellraisin Challenger cures a lot of ills … 

I’ve discovered the perfect cure for pandemic boredom.

Slip into the camel brown suede and black leather interior of a muscle-bound hot rod, known to the Mopar brethren as a Dodge Challenger. But not the low-end V6-powered SXT, although I’m sure it has its party favors too. But lavish in the luxurious cow-threatening interior of the R/T Scat Pack Widebody.

Yes, the more names and initials Dodge adds to its retro muscle car, the faster it goes and the cooler it looks, just ask any post-pubescent guy. My heartthrob for the week was a Hellraisin (metallic dark purple, get it?) Widebody loaded with all the options one could want, and still not have to sell the house, maybe. Continue reading 2020 Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack Widebody

2020 Toyota Camry TRD

TRD makes Toyota’s Camry racy …

Toyota’s Camry has won three NASCAR championships and a fair number of “stock car” races to get there, but be honest, do you think of a Camry as racy?

Camry mostly conjures the image of a practical family sedan. But that could change, and all because of Toyota’s 2020 Camry TRD. For those not versed in car jargon, TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development. That’s the Toyota division that concentrates on making racing equipment for its vehicles, and race cars for various series.

It’s also affectionately pronounced Turd! Not quite the same ring as Chrysler’s Mopar. Continue reading 2020 Toyota Camry TRD

Die-cast: NEO 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 Futuramic

Olds’ Futuramic coupe swooped its way toward the 1950s …

Post-WWII cars have their own charm and simplicity, yet even by 1949 General Motors was trying to get a little swoopy with their 2-doors, plus adding muscle. Plus at Oldsmobile the Rocket 88 was a name that launched the Greatest Generation into their growing family years. Continue reading Die-cast: NEO 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 Futuramic

Die-cast: Replicarz 1925 Duesenberg Indy 500 winner

Pete DePaolo’s Duesenberg is a beauty … Replicarz 1925 Duesenberg Indy 500 winner

Last time we laid eyes on Replicarz’s 1/18 scale Indy-winning Duesenbergs they were prototypes. Now comes the real deal, and just in time for next month’s 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500.

Granted Duesenbergs haven’t been ripping up the Speedway recently, but they were a force in the 1920s. And Peter DePaolo may have been the best-known racer of his day, and Duesenberg’s main man too. So this 1925 Indy winner should be the fastest mover of the three winners (also 1924 and 1927) now available. Continue reading Die-cast: Replicarz 1925 Duesenberg Indy 500 winner

2017 Lexus GS F

Lexus GS F is a NASCAR wannabe in street clothes … 2017 Lexus GS F

            Unless your name is Hellcat or you sport some semblance of racing stripes and a hood scoop you’re not supposed to gurgle and pop with power if you’re simply a luxury sport sedan.

Ah, but the Lexus GS is everything from a fine luxury sedan to a NASCAR wannabe, a racer in street clothes.

A base GS 200t, you see, is equipped with a 241-horse 2.0-liter I4 that’s turbocharged. Oh that’s nice and sporty in its own way and a potential Lexus owner that’s pushing the limits of his home equity loan to snag one will shell out roughly $47 grand and change.

But there are so many other choices, two more engines and a hybrid model too. So say sayonara to that base model if you want to light up the tires and thumb your nose at German luxury sedans, or domestic muscle too. The tested GS F, or F Sport model is the sharp end of the GS line and it’ll flat out fly.

Reason?

No, it’s not a HEMI, but the Lexus has a sexy sounding V8 that’ll nearly put the roughly 4,000-pound sedan into orbit. The numbers are this, 5.0-liter V8 creating 467 horsepower and 389 lb.-ft. of torque. Don’t go pooh-poohing that because your Vette or Hellcat has more ponies. With its modest weight and a dandy drive mode system that allows you to go from Normal to Sport or Sport+, you’ll suddenly find the GS turning surly.2017 Lexus GS F

I was expecting good power, but punched the console’s drive mode button just as I was pulling onto the freeway and the rear-drive GS twitched its tail and rocketed up to, er, well, more than the standard highway speed before I was halfway down the entry ramp. Haven’t had this much fun since my last Vette drive, and that’s been a while. Continue reading 2017 Lexus GS F

Die-cast: Autoart’s Mercedes-AMG GT3

Even as a model Mercedes-AMG GT3 is sexy …Mercedes-AMG GT3

Some cars are sexy, some are nasty, some are fast. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 racer is all of the above, a lawn dart of an automobile with a long nose and a monster rear wing. Looks like it could nail any competitor to the pavement.

Autoart creates a beautiful 1/18 scale version of the GT3 racer as it was presented to the media a couple years back in a gorgeous matte metallic gray paint scheme with yellow racing stripes and a No. 1 on each door.  Who’s to argue with that?

The History

If you’re deep into NASCAR or IndyCar racing you may not know much about GT3 cars. But Group GT3 cars are Grand Touring (get it?) cars that race in various series around the world.  The GT3 designation started in 2005 under rules set by FIA, the international racing rules group.

In essence GT3 cars must be based on production GT cars and have 500 to 600 horsepower and weigh between 1200kg (2,645 lbs.) and 1300kg (2,866 lbs.). They also feature ABS, traction control and include built-in air jacks to facilitate quick pit stops. Currently about 40 cars have been approved, or homologated to race in GT3, including the likes of Audi, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Ford (GT), Ferrari, Lamborghini, BMW, along with the Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper.Mercedes-AMG GT3

The Mercedes-AMG GT3 is built in conjunction with Mercedes’ AMG performance unit in Sindelfingen, Germany. Under its massive hood is a 6.2-liter naturally aspirated V8 that creates 622 horsepower, while the production model has a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 that tops out at 577. The older naturally aspirated engine is simpler and more reliable for racing, hence the difference. Oh, and top speed is 206 mph. Continue reading Die-cast: Autoart’s Mercedes-AMG GT3

Die-cast: Automodello’s 1966 Ford Galaxie 500

Rare 7-Liter Hardtop beautiful in 1/24 scale …Automodello 1966 Galaxie 500 Hardtop

As a kid I saw a lot of Ford Galaxies around the neighborhood and some of my northern Indiana relatives who farmed had them and weren’t afraid to run them out in a cornfield if necessary.

But rarer was the Galaxie 500 7-Liter Hardtop, a luxury model that wasn’t afraid to lay a little rubber at a stoplight. That’s the cast resin model Automodello reproduces in popular 1/24 scale and paints up in a variety of historically accurate colors.

The History

While the Galaxie 500 debuted in 1965 it was the 1966 model that boasted a new 7-liter V8. This was Ford’s already powerful 390 V8 but enlarged to 428 cu.in. to create a real torque monster. Unlike the earlier 390 model this one could accommodate all the luxury options Ford packed onto its Galaxie 500 models to push them from standard family cars to luxury models.

So in addition to performance type power, the 1966 models had power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning. The 7-liter also could be coupled with an automatic transmission, something the earlier Ford 427 V8 designed for NASCAR use, could not.Automodello 1966 Galaxie 500 Hardtop

The new 7-liter model came only in hardtop and convertible models and sold well, about 11,000 units being made that year. By comparison, just 38 models were equipped with the horsier 427 V8 that year. Continue reading Die-cast: Automodello’s 1966 Ford Galaxie 500

Dodge to return to NASCAR

It’s about time they did!

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

The Dodge Charger Hellcat is one of the fastest cars on the planet so it only makes sense that they hop back in. Dodge’s roots go back to the early NASCAR days and their drivers, Lee and Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, and Bobby Allison played an important part in forming what NASCAR is today. Dodge was last in the NASCAR Premier Series season in 2012 when Brad Keselowski drove the iconic “Blue Deuce”
to his first championship and the first in the series for car owner Roger Penske. Continue reading Dodge to return to NASCAR

Die-cast: NEO 1956 Chrysler 300B

NEO creates a sharp Chrysler 300B1956 Chrysler 300B

My uncle had a late 1950s Chrysler 300, a creamy thing that took up his entire garage and sported giant fins. I thought it was wonderfully exotic.

But I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of earlier 300s, which were launched in 1955 as Letter Series cars, beginning with the 300C that was even raced on the NASCAR circuit. Its paint scheme proclaimed it the “world’s fastest stock car.”

NEO moves forward a year from that premier model to create the 1956 Chrysler 300B, yes they went backward in the lettering phase for one year before the ’57 300C appeared with its big yawning front grille. But back to the ’56, which NEO so beautifully produces in 1/43 scale and in a creamy white; this is a handsome car.1956 Chrysler 300B

 

The History

While the ’55 may be the most famous because it kicked off the Letter Series 300s, the 1956 300B seems more stately and elegant to me. Its fins are modest in size and blend well with the car’s profile while the taillights are remeniscent of upscale Lincolns of the day. Continue reading Die-cast: NEO 1956 Chrysler 300B