I drove through the tunnel into the infield garage area for the umpteenth time. I had worked races here as a mechanic, a reporter, a car show visitor, and once even rode shotgun in a Richard Petty Driving School stock car.
But this time was different. This is a day I had excitedly counted down for over four months. This time I was here to sample a taste of what it was to be Bobby Unser or Rick Mears.
This day I was to pilot an Indycar around the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
My wife Shelly and daughter Colleen joined me on this trip. I was trying to act cool on my exterior, but I doubt I fooled either one of them. My inner racer switch is always on. Months, weeks, days, and finally hours were crossed off in my head since the Christmas Day bliss when I opened this particular gift envelope.
The late afternoon sun was descending behind the massive frontstretch grandstands upon our arrival for the Saturday Night Mario Andretti Experience. My firesuit, helmet and radio ear buds were issued to me when I checked in. The shoes used were the same ones I wore. No gloves or nomex underwear were necessary. That translated into an impression of a good company safety record. Or at least I chose to stick with that interpretation.
A large group of about 40 of us met in the media center for driving instructions. We were told of the preferred line to take around the track, how to start and shift the car, and what to expect.
Our speaker remarked how much downforce was built into the car’s nose and how well it would turn. That statement stuck in my head.
After roughly an hour, the group walked back to pit road where roughly a half dozen Indy-like machines were warming up. I call them Indy-like because a closer inspection of the cars showed that they had a long way to go mechanically to be legitimate Indycars. They were quick high performance machines nonetheless but were far from passing tech inspection at the Brickyard.
Drivers are push started sprint car style and sent out onto the speedway two to three at a time. Spotters queued into the radio and guided the driver off pit road onto the racing groove. From there your eight minutes were on.
After the unfortunate timing of my name of being near the bottom of the list, two radio failures, and about a three-hour wait, I accelerated up onto the turn one 24-degree banking. The spotters and radios increased in value since the cars are not equipped with mirrors.
The roar of the engine bolted just a few inches from my back was long awaited music to my ears. The cool night air whistled around my full-face helmet in the open cockpit. All the patience exercised leading to this moment became instantly worth it.
My focus was on the driving line. I looked as far ahead as I could, used as much throttle as a possible, and absorbed the experience.
I found a comfort spot after a few laps. Driving into a turn too hard caused the car to slide up the banking towards the wall. The nose downforce comment from class echoed back to me. I think they were fibbing. To be honest, the car pushed like a dump truck.
My forearms grabbed a fitness center workout in the eight minutes of driving. A good input of muscle was required to steer the car at high speed.
My run ended and I was radioed back to pit road. Seeing Shelly and Colleen when I unbuckled gave me a sense of self-hero pride. But I immediately understood my new view of myself was shared only by me. I chuckled in my own thoughts.
They both were glad I enjoyed the experience. I felt like I should be drinking milk.
The printed readout from my run showed a top speed of 152.85mph. Immediately I wanted to go back on the track and go faster. That was my inner racer talking again.
I got a brief glimpse of what it felt like to be a Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt. Yet I did it on a speedway better known for the accomplishments of David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip.
Driving through the tunnel heading for home felt more satisfying than any other time leaving the speedway. Shelly was happy her present was a winner. Colleen was quickly asleep but I’m pretty sure she was happy for Dad.
Goals had been reached before on these grounds, but this one was personal. The only record book it will be part of is my own. But sometimes those records are the best.
My inner racer strikes again.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com.)