By rick minter
On the morning — or afternoon — before every major NASCAR race, the top drivers participate in meet-and-greet sessions with fans at hospitality villages set up on speedway property.
Most of those fans who get to attend do so as guests of a driver’s sponsor, and the crowds are relatively small compared to a driver’s fan base. The driver typically offers opening remarks, then fields questions from the audience before signing some autographs and moving on to the next appearance.
In many cases, the answers given in the low-key environment of the hospitality sessions better explain what it’s like to drive a race car than the answers given in sessions with the media or in televised interviews.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing, is considered one of the circuit’s best at explaining his profession.
Since he’s known as the “Rocket Man” for his performances on pole day, which include 51 career poles in the Sprint Cup Series, 12 in the Nationwide Series and one in the Camping World Truck Series, he’s often asked what it feels like to drive really fast.
His initial answer usually brings smiles to the faces of those in his audience.
“From 140 miles an hour on up, it all feels the same,” he said. “When you take off in an airplane, you’re usually leaving the ground at about 120 miles an hour.
“You can feel the speed up to 120, but from that point on, you can feel it accelerate a little bit, but you don’t realize you’re going 600 miles per hour, or 500 miles per hour or 350.
“You don’t have the acceleration to feel the speed, and that’s the same feeling in a race car.”
Newman explains that in a race car, the faster one goes, the better the car reacts to the speed.
“When you leave pit road and get halfway up to speed, the rest of it is just a matter of the faster you go, the better the car sticks, because you have more downforce,” he said, quickly adding that there comes a point when the downforce isn’t enough to keep the car sticking to the track.
“The tires want to slide, so there’s a happy medium in there that we all try to hit as drivers,” he said.
Then there’s the issue of something happening at extreme speed, which is where the danger factor kicks in.
“When you’re going 200 [miles per hour] and you hit something or a tire blows or whatever, it’s going to be compounded by the next hit and the hit after that and who comes up and hits you at 200 while you’re sitting still,” he said. “Going 200 miles an hour doesn’t mean anything as long as the guy next to you is going 200 miles an hour.
“It’s the difference in speed that makes a difference. That closing rate is like being in rush-hour traffic. If you’re all going the same speed, there’s really no difference. It’s when somebody checks up and you have to get on the binders [brakes] because you weren’t paying attention, that’s when there’s a difference.”
Newman said the sensation of speed depends a lot on the circumstances, such as the type of car he’s driving or the length and shape of the track he’s on.
“If you’re at Michigan, where it’s a little more wide open, it’s one thing,” he said. “And if you have a tire that kind of locks you in to the race track, that’s one thing. But like at Atlanta, when you’re going almost 200 miles per hour, you’re almost in a controlled slide. That’s good because you’re controlled, but you’re still sliding.
“It’s part of what we do in taking race cars to the edge, but ultimately it’s whoever is sliding the least that’s leading.”
And he said that the speeds he feels in a Sprint Cup car sometimes seem mild compared to those he attained in smaller, open-wheeled cars earlier in his career.
“Running a Midget at 140 miles per hour average at Pikes Peak [International Raceway] with open wheels and a little four-cylinder car, I think that kind of gets you prepped for a lot of things,” he said. “Silver Crown cars would run 185 at the end of the straightaway at Gateway [Motorsports Park], which was clipping right along for that type of car.
“So 200 in a full-fendered [Sprint Cup] car with a lot of downforce isn’t such a big deal. The weight [of the Cup car] kinds of works to your advantage because you can feel it moving around.”