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Living Fearlessly in 2014: My First Ride-Along During an (Actual) Car Race

On January 11th, I climbed in a 2014 Corvette Stingray, strapped on a helmet, and rode along with a professional race car driver during an actual car race. How did this come about? And why did I do it? Well, it’s a bit of a story.

For 2014, instead of setting New Year’s Resolutions (which I despise), I decided to pick a word of the year, with the intention that I would focus on making all decisions in alignment with that word for the entire year.

My word? 

“Fearless.” 

Needless to say, when the chance to go car racing came along, the decision was kind of made for me.

This opportunity came from our neighbor and friend, Rick Fergusson, who is a race car driver and instructor. He’s been racing for about 30 years, and has entertained my husband and I on many occasions with his (totally crazy) racing escapades. Since story after story involves rather amazing crashes, you’d think it would put us off the whole idea. 

It didn’t. The truth is, I couldn’t wait to go. 

I’ve always loved cars. I was a bit of a tomboy as a kid, and although I happily wore dresses and cute little sandals, I liked playing with my male friend’s Hot Wheels way more than I ever did a Barbie doll. As I got older, my dad would tell us stories about his favorite cars growing up and how he drag raced in his ’57 Chevy, and I developed an eye for beautiful design and a love for speed. 

This was only increased when my best friend in high school took me to an Indy Car race at the Mid-Ohio Race Track. I’d never seen or heard anything like that, and from then on, I was hooked.

It was time to take this love to the next level; it was time to actually experience a race.

When my husband and I arrived at historic Sebring Race Track outside of Orlando, we were excited to see all of the gorgeous cars that were being raced; there were Porsches, Audis, BMWs, Ferraris, Vipers, Corvettes, and Roadsters, to name a few. We knew that the next day Rick intended to take us out for a ride-along in one of these, and looking at the cars to choose from, I was thrilled at the prospect. 

That is, until I was chatting with the lovely wife of one of the driving instructors, who said, “Oh, I hope you don’t get sick on the ride-along. I did.” 

I responded, “Um, what?” It had never occurred to me that this might be a possibility.

“Oh yeah,” she said, nodding grimly, “People get sick in their helmets all the time. Do you get motion sick?”

“Uh...well, yeah, I do, actually.” I swallowed, now beside myself that I might throw up in someone else’s car.

“Oh....” She trailed off, looking a bit concerned. “Well, you need to know the ‘I’m going to vomit’ hand signal so you can let Rick know, ‘cause, you know, it’s too loud in the car to talk.” She made a cutting motion across her neck to demonstrate this now vital signal. 

This stunned me; all I could think was: This happens so often on ride-alongs that they have an official signal to let the driver know that you are about to lose your cookies? 

Gulp. 

From that moment on, “Fearless Tara” became “Fairly Concerned Tara.” In fact, so concerned was I that as my husband slept soundly beside me that night, I was awake furiously Googling “How to not get motion sick in a race car.” To my surprise, there were many pages dedicated to just this (now critical)  quest. I studied the suggestions with deep interest: 

No caffeine. Don’t eat anything weird. Try not to move your head too much. Make sure you are hydrated. Don’t look at the ground. Make sure you have some airflow. Keep breathing to keep yourself oxygenated. And my personal favorite: Don’t focus on the idea that you are going to get sick, because it makes it more likely that you will. 

The next morning, I followed most of this advice without a problem: I had decaf coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, a pretty normal thing for me. I drank a ton of water, and once we got to the track, I drank some Gatorade to make sure I was hydrated. I practiced slow breathing so I had lots of oxygen in my red blood cells. 

However, when it came to not worrying about getting motion sick, well, that was a bit more of a challenge. I mean really, how helpful is it to tell someone to not to think about something? Doesn’t that just pretty much guarantee that’s all you can think about? 

It did for me. No matter how I tried to distract myself from it, the fear of getting sick in someone’s beautiful car was spinning through my head like a drunk guy on a dance floor, and I was feeling just about as likely to need the “Porcelain God” (or the side of the track) at a moment’s notice. 

Our ride-along was supposed to be at 10AM, but, due to Rick’s racing schedule and a fuel emergency, we missed the time slot. No biggie, but this meant that we’d be going much later in the day, necessitating the need to grab lunch before our ride-along.

This wasn’t the best news, as the only place to eat was a shack that served all manner of greasy food - not exactly on anyone’s anti-motion-sick diet. However, figuring we had a good bit of time to be able to digest before our ride-along, my husband ordered a burger and I grabbed a fried chicken sandwich. We were about half-way through each when Rick called my phone, “Hey! Where are you guys? I’ve got the car and the race is in 10 minutes.” 

I looked at my husband and said, “Put down the hamburger. Immediately. Our ride-along is now.” 

I won’t forget the look he gave me for quite a while - it was a mix of concern, horror, and humor. We started nervously laughing and ran for the staging area to meet Rick. 

Heavy with hamburger, my husband bravely decided to go first, so I watched as he strapped on his helmet and climbed in the car - a brand-new gorgeous ruby red 2014 Corvette Stingray. I was to then run to the pit and wait until I saw them come in, when we’d switch out. 

Right before they took off, Rick said, “I haven’t driven this car before. This should be fun!” The tires squealed as he took off to grab his position at the start of the track, my husband waving goodbye. I turned and ran for the pit, repeating to myself with all the confidence I could muster, “I will not be sick. I will not be sick.” 

I heard the race heading my way before I ever saw a car. I looked down the straightaway and saw a gorgeous orange racing Porsche, then a silver one, then right on their tail, Rick and my husband. They flew past me going stunningly fast, and my husband stuck his arm in the air. I took it as a signal that he was still alive and hadn’t lost his lunch. 

All good. I kept deep breathing while watching the race; 50+ cars were out there, all fighting for position and getting faster and faster on the straightaway as they gained confidence in their cars. It was pretty awesome. 

Before I knew it, I looked down to see the Corvette coming to pick me up. I scrambled over the pit wall as they came to a stop beside me. My husband got out and pulled off the helmet. 

“How was it?” I asked brightly.

He looked a bit white. “Well, I survived,” he said as he handed me the helmet. His tone and color were a bit concerning, but I didn’t have time to think about it; I needed to get in the car, and fast. 

I jumped in, fixed the helmet to my head, and strapped myself in. “All ready?” Rick asked, patting me on the arm.

“Yep!” I said, trying to look confident. 

We took off. Now, when I say, “We took off,” I don’t mean your average, “Hey, let’s get going!” kind of moment. I mean, “Hey, you’re going to slam back into your seat while G-forces go to work on that half fried chicken sandwich you just ate” kind of take off. 

I swallowed and breathed in deeply, willing that sandwich down farther in my gut. As the car increased speed, I realized with great relief that I wasn’t going to be motion sick; my body seemed perfectly happy with being smacked around as we sped around the track, and my stomach didn’t feel in the least bit off. Whew. 

With this worry off my brain, the experience became exhilarating. What was more so was how incredibly skillful Rick is as a driver. This course is 3.7 miles long and has 17 turns. Let me repeat that: seventeen turns. That’s a lot for a track, and you better know what you are doing if you are going to be out there. Thankfully, Rick did. 

As we raced off toward turn 1, I was amazed at the amount of gear shifting that has to happen during a single moment in a race. It seemed that Rick was constantly shifting up, down, and sideways while driving with one hand and watching for the cars around us, all of which were going extremely fast, some wanting to pass, some needing to be passed. 

We wove through the rest of the course, racing along at speeds that were not something I’ve tried on a highway, and I’m a bit of a lead foot, if I'm to be honest. We made it through the slalom turns with expert braking, controlled sliding, and measured acceleration. 

And then I realized it - we were approaching the infamous Turn 17. Turn 17 is a basically a hairpin turn, and we’d already seen a couple of crashes there, so I knew it was not something to head into lightly. I glanced over to see our speed as we were about there: 80 miles an hour. Even more impressive, we were drafting off of two racing Porches, just inches away from their bumpers. 

It’s hard to describe what this is actually like, but I am going to try: 

Imagine that you are heading onto a highway off-ramp going 80 miles an hour, right on the butt-end of a couple of cars who are also going 80 miles an hour. Now imagine going around the off-ramp at that speed and proximity to the cars. Then, imagine that there is no way in hell that you are going to make it around that curve without your backend sliding out unless you control the slide by rapid, teeny-tiny adjustments of the steering wheel, which feels like you are fighting to keep the car from slingshotting into the wall (which, by the way, you are). 

That’s pretty much what it was like. It was incredible to watch and experience. 

The second we got around the turn, Rick hit the accelerator, I slammed back in my seat, and we smoked past the Porches. It was awesome. 

Rick tapped my arm and pointed at the speedometer. I looked - 135 miles per hour. Oh. My. God. 

I laughed and started clapping. 

Will I go again? Absolutely. In fact, I loved it so much that my husband and I are considering signing up for a driving school to learn to race cars ourselves. 

More importantly, I learned something fantastic from this experience: 

When you stop being afraid, you get to really live. Even better, you develop confidence in yourself that you can handle more than you think you can, and that you can start taking bigger risks. I’m finding that this realization has brought fresh energy to every area of my life; since the race, I've been taking leaps I’ve needed to take professionally and personally for a while, and it’s amazing to see what it coming into my life because of it. 

Yep. I’m pretty happy that I chose “Fearless” as my word of the year. 

If you’ve been playing it too safe this week, consider this as the sign that you needed to decide to do something fearless in your life as soon as possible. 

What big risk would you like to take? What great adventure is beckoning you? Or have you done something fearless and lived to tell the tale? I’d love to hear about it - comment below! 

Are you interested in trying out racing yourself and are in Florida or Georgia? Check out PBOC Motorsports for membership and driving instruction.