Photo by Derrick Mahone
Staff writer Brian Paglia gets some instructions from Dwight Pilgram, the Director of Legend Racing, before taking a Legends car for a test drive during Thursday’s press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway to announce the lineup for this season’s Thursday Thunder racing series.
There is no going back once inside a Legends racecar at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Too many preparations have been made to go to waste. Too many eyes are focused on you.
Even an empty 125,000-capacity NASCAR track seems to be watching, wondering if you can get to third gear by the first turn.
But once you’ve made that turn — navigating gears with surprising poise, holding the wheel through the turn though it fights back every second — you don’t want to go back. You want the bleachers filled to the brim with fans, the track filled with cars and 20 laps to see whose got what it takes.
You want to be a racecar driver.
I was for one day. Actually, not even one hour. But from one experience of racing a Legends car Thursday on Thunder Ring after media day at AMS, I understood what a vast number of people don’t about NASCAR, but should — racing cars is addictive.
I already knew this, but I didn’t realize it. There’s a reason racing video games at arcades are never empty. There’s also a reason the Fast & Furious movie franchise made a fifth film last year (though they were already pushing it by film three).
It’s not just that we love speed. We love the idea of controlling it.
And even more than controlling it, we love controlling it better than someone else. That’s why a drag racing movie just doesn’t work (and please don’t try, Hollywood).
That’s why the first thing I thought after my handful of laps around the track was, “I wonder what that feels like with other cars?”
I no longer have to wonder what it feels like to take a speeding car and guide it around a quarter moon turn.
This is where the debate that recycles every two to five years in the media resurfaces — are racecar drivers, specifically, NASCAR drivers, athletes?
Mason Massey thinks so. The Douglasville native, who recently signed with Bill Elliott Racing in February and is a two-time Thursday Thunder champion, lifts weights, and not as a hobby. It’s a requisite. A young driver can’t get through 20 adrenaline-filled laps without some strength. A professional driver can’t get through 500 laps without a lot of strength.
I needed all the strength I could muster to make something like a respectable turn, and I couldn’t rely on just my arms. I needed every body part my upper body could spare — core, arms, shoulders, neck and head.
The body is in complete unison inside a racecar. The hands can’t question the eyes. The feet can’t question the mind. There’s no room for dissent. Too much is at stake.
The beautiful thing is the track wants be in unison, too. It wants you and the car to find that perfect path — high on the outside against the walls on straightaways, low and inside beside the infield grass on turns — to soar.
Professional drivers have the path ingrained in their racing DNA. Even the young drivers at Thursday Thunder make it look easy, like you just slip into the car and the path finds you.
I found out it’s not that easy. The path doesn’t find you. You have to find the path. Given another try, I think I could’ve found it. Instead, I drove right down the middle on the straightaways, which put me right down the middle on the turns.
See, this is what happens once you’ve been inside a racecar. I can’t help but dissect my racing, how it could improve, how I could have been more efficient, where I should’ve started my turns.
The racecar driver fantasy only takes a mustard seed of adrenaline to grow into a tree of desire.
Brian Paglia covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @BrianPaglia on Twitter.