Richard Petty Driving Exprience

High-octane fun in Kansas City, Kansas

I treasure nothing more than time spent with my wife and two children, who often endure my bad music as I tote us around in our minivan. But as I neared age 40, I sometimes felt time slipping away and suspected I needed a little jump start. My wife must have sensed my anxiety because for my birthday, she planned an incredible weekend for me along with my best friend, Satch, in Kansas City, Kan.

When not driving, I often spend time watching other people do so, in the form of NASCAR and drivers racing at speeds that can exceed 190 mph. What could be better than that? Well, how about being behind the wheel of one of those race cars?

That’s exactly what people do at the NASCAR Racing Experience at Kansas Speedway. Originally named for and part-owned by the champion NASCAR driver nicknamed “The King,” Richard Petty, the company offers a number of different options for fans of the sport, but I opted for the “Rookie” experience. Spend eight minutes racing around the track and reach speeds that would normally land me in a jail cell—sign me up!

But here, I could get that rush and still feel safe as I wore a helmet and had a personal instructor riding shotgun. Before heading to the track, Satch and I put on racing uniforms like the pros wear; I couldn’t decide whether I looked more like Ricky Bobby from “Talladega Nights” or my favorite driver, Denny Hamlin. We watched a video that provided safety instructions and information on how the car operates. Then a crew chief took time to answer our questions.

After stepping into the Chevrolet, staff helped secure belts around me and inserted the steering wheel.

My instructor, Rich, introduced himself over the radio and then told me to tug on the wheel of the car to make sure it was secure. “You ready to go fast today?” he asked.

“Sure am.”

Rich explained the markers and cones we would use to guide us and at which RPMs I should shift gears.

“Let’s fire it up,” he said.

Kansas City Speedway - Frontstretch

Satch had control of the car in front of me and started to ease out. My instructor told me to start giving it some gas and then to shift into second. Give it some more gas, he said. As the yellow line turned into a dotted line, Rich told me I was clear to blend onto the race track.

Suddenly, I was flying! Rich provided some guidance on how much to turn the steering wheel as I came around corners and he directed me toward various markers, but I still felt plenty of freedom. The engine sounded mean, like nothing I had heard before, and as I handled the steering wheel and shifter, I felt like I was in charge of some supernatural force.

I started thinking about what it would be like to compete in an event like the Kansas 400 before 70,000 fans. With each lap I became more confident and better at handling the car. After I had reached 155 mph, I decided the logical thing to do would be to quit my day job and start racing. When Satch told me he felt the same way, I realized that maybe wasn’t such a good idea—probably just the aftermath of an incredible experience.

Zip KC Name tags

(ZIP)LINING UP FOR MORE ADVENTURE

After a debrief at our hotel room, Satch and I both felt ready to get our hearts pounding again, so we headed to Zip KC, a zip line tour park featuring nine lines, one of which is a quarter-mile long. We arrived around dusk and saw laser beams and LED lights start to come on around the park. My wife had signed us up for the Night Flight Tower Tour.

We put on helmets, headlamps and glow sticks twisted into glasses, bracelets and necklaces. I felt like a teen again—and that was before I had even done anything.

We got to the first tower and raced up its 77 steps, eager to jump off the 65-foot-tall structure. Satch seemed a little out of breath when we reached the top but played it off like he wasn’t fazed.

A staff member connected my harness to the line and checked to make sure everything was secure. I turned my body toward the tower, took a deep breath, leaned backwards and dropped off the platform, taking flight. Suddenly, I was soaring through a maze of trees and pink and green lights. The closest sensation I could compare it to was flying down a steep hill on a racing bike—except I was mid-air and traveling at faster speeds than on any two wheels without an engine.

Zip KC

For the next two hours, we moved around the park and tried different zip lines that ran through the thick forest. Music thumped as I flew between trees. It felt simultaneously modern and primordial. A few times, I tilted my head back and looked at the full moon, which—regardless of how many fluorescent LEDs, fog machines and glow sticks surrounded me—remained the most striking, brightest light.

KC Kayak & Canoe

A LITTLE BIT SOFTER NOW

The next morning, these two middle-aged dads were ready for something a little slower. We drove to Lewis & Clark Park at Kaw Point to meet up with our float trip guide who runs the river outfitter Kansas City Kayak and Canoe. Then we unloaded the kayaks we’d rented. We slid the kayaks into the water and off we went. We floated around the various coves and alternately paddled hard and took breaks to let our hands skim the top of the water. We found it a relaxing rhythm and perfect end to our trip after a day of heart-pounding fun.

The time on the river allowed me to consider how I would spend my fifth decade. I decided I could be content staying under the speed limit in my minivan with my loving family—so long as I could fly through the trees now and then.

Guest Blogger: Leo Martin