By Eric Welder
Not long ago, my six-year-old son Bryce was able to do something few of us will ever get to do in our lifetime: go over 140 miles per hour in a car. A race car. On a NASCAR track. How, you may ask? Through The Richard Petty Driving Experience Junior Ride-Along Experience, right here in North Carolina.
When we first arrived at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, two things immediately impressed Bryce: this place was big, and it was loud! He had actually been there before, not for a race but for the Speedway Christmas holiday lights show they do each winter. Bryce is not a huge racing fan, but has enjoyed playing in the racecar at the Greensboro Children’s Museum and of course loves the movie Cars, so he was excited even if he wasn’t sure what to expect.
The Richard Petty Experience, right in the infield of the track, was busy even at 9am on a weekday morning. They offer not only the Junior Ride-Along experience, which only recently began for kids age 6-13, but also a program for adults who want to actually drive a real racecar on the real track (after training, of course). There were several other children there who were excited about the Junior Ride-Along, but also scores of adults in their driver gear taking their racing class, hitting the track, and getting their official speeds and times. (In fact, the Experience offers several programs for adults, including both Ride-Alongs and Driving Experiences.)
Bryce was invited to participate in the experience as a culmination of the Draw the King hood design contest, where kids were invited to design the hood for the new Junior Ride-Along car. The winning design was chosen by Richard Petty himself (“The King” to everyone whom we spoke with at the track), and we were there as part of its unveiling.
From the moment we arrived, the staff were friendly, attentive, and informative. Our first concern was safety, since racecars aren’t exactly made for kids and my son was about to go hurtling around a track at well over 100mph. I was reassured by COO Mike Bartelli that the cars for the Junior Ride-Along Experience were specially fitted with a modified seat and a custom-built harness, and that the helmet as well was specially made for kids and to ensure to maximum safety. First begun at the Richard Petty Experience at, where else, Disneyworld, the Junior Ride-Along was a way to extend the adult driving experience to include kids as well, and expanded from there to Charlotte earlier this year.
After a safety and training film, Bryce and the other children, who ranged in age from six (minimum height is 48 “) to thirteen, were outfitted with customized “fire suits” and helmets, then took turns riding with a professional driver. Each child got a GigStick, a USB wristband which actually records the entire video of the drive, so Bryce could do more than just tell his mom and grandparents about riding in a racecar at 140 miles per hour – he could show them! The driver he rode with was friendly and careful not to make Bryce uncomfortable, giving him hand signals to show whether he wanted to go faster or slow down. And just like that, they were off, for three very fast laps around the Charlotte Motor Speedway track. Thank goodness they did have the USB recorder, because the video I took could barely catch the racecar flying by! Bryce’s three-year-old sister was of course too small to ride herself, but she was thrilled to see her brother go speeding past, and the staff was friendly enough to let her get in the car for a picture as well. Numerous souvenirs were available to remember the day, which was a wonderful family outing – we chose a framed commemorative photo of Bryce in his fire suit strapped in and ready to go. This was an experience that I know Bryce will never forget, right down the road in Charlotte.
For more information, visit http://www.drivepetty.com/experiences/junior-ride-along , or follow on Twitter #jrridealong.