King for a Day

Tenth-grade driver's ed was never like this: professional pit crews, engines packing 600 ponies, and fevered orders to hit the gas. Sure, fashion takes a back seat -- participants zip themselves into baggy blue jumpsuits -- but, for speed freaks, The Richard Petty Driving Experience is a tailpipe dream come true.

Named for racing royalty (with a record 200 victories, Petty reigns as "The King" of NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit), the RPDE puts rookie racers on track -- in Winston Cup-style stock cars. The program pulls into Phoenix International Raceway this Friday, April 16, for a weekend of high-speed course work.

PIR officials report that the average participant clocks about 105 on the track. Sure, most of us drive that fast on the 17 . . . but it's way more fun in a car equipped with a fire extinguisher.

"It was a great experience," says Henry Kwan, who took the wheel in February. "You don't appreciate how powerful those cars are until you actually drive one."

After a crash course on racing flags, acceleration and deceleration points, and the car's interior equipment, drivers slap on a head sock, strap on a helmet, and shimmy in through the window, Bo Duke-style. After being rendered immobile by a five-point safety harness, it's time to tear up the track.

And whether they set a new land speed record or merely take a thunderous Sunday drive, participants receive a time sheet detailing their top speed per lap. RPDE's shortest program, the Rookie Experience, grants eight laps on PIR's one-mile oval. And if eight isn't enough? The King's Experience and the Experience of a Lifetime offer 18 and 30 laps, respectively.

So speed now or hold your peace . . . at least until autumn. After cooling their engines over the summer, Petty's crew returns to PIR in the fall.

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Jill Koch
Contact: Jill Koch