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Start Your Engines: The Richard Petty Experience at Walt Disney World

By Jacque Boyles, PassPorter Guest Columnist

I have been a NASCAR fan for nearly 30 years. So when I read about Richard Petty Driving Experience, or RPDE, at Walt Disney World Speedway I knew I had to try it. RPDE puts you in a NASCAR "Cup" style stock car, either as a passenger or behind the wheel. I love to drive, so I called 1-800-BE-PETTY and made a reservation for the eight-lap "Rookie Experience."

As I drove through the tunnel to the Speedway infield, I got goose bumps thinking that this was how real race drivers get to the track. At RPDE everyone knew how nervous this "Rookie" was and they put me at ease. There was the usual waiver, but it was carefully explained so I was comfortable signing it. I was fitted for a fire suit to wear over my clothes (they have all sizes!). Since it gets hot in the car and I'd be crawling in and out of the window, I wore my favorite NASCAR t-shirt and shorts. Because the floor in the car gets hot, I wore sneakers and socks to protect my feet. While I waited for the driver's orientation, I read the inscriptions on photos of celebrities who have done RPDE at WDW. My favorite was Michael J. Fox, whose picture said "Sorry about the car!"   

I watched a safety and orientation film and then was introduced to the instructor, a licensed NASCAR driver. Next there's a van ride around the track to see the "driving line" marks on the pavement. The instructor told me I would be in my own car with him in a car on the track in front of me. The first couple of laps he'd evaluate my driving ability, slowly increasing the speed. If he felt that I was capable of handling it, I could go as fast as 145 mph! He explained the colored instructional flags I'd see from the starter's stand, his hand signals and what to do when I saw them. Then he told me I couldn't pass him -- well, darn! How about a little bump draft? That's not allowed either.

Finally, there on pit road, my machine waited, a 600 HP stock car painted Petty blue and red. I was fitted for a helmet and it was time for someone to get in the car. This was one time when I heard "Ladies first" that I didn't argue. Professional drivers make getting in and out of a stock car look so easy. I just wanted to do it without falling on my head or looking completely ridiculous. Well, I didn't fall on my head and my boyfriend said that I looked "cute." It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I'm vertically challenged, so the worst part for me was getting my rear up to the windowsill -- after that I got through the window feet first and settled into the seat. At this point the steering wheel isn't installed and the seat is set up for someone in the 6' range, so I had plenty of room for maneuvering. One of the RPDE pit crew was there to assist, but thankfully I didn't have to call on him. The pit crew guy helped me get everything adjusted. These stock cars have a standard shift transmission, so I had to be able work the clutch properly, and it would help if I could see out the windshield! The pit crew had plenty of cushions and they got me comfortable in the car.    

Safety is very important in racing, so the pit crew went over all the safety equipment. I sincerely hoped I wouldn't need to remember how to do any of these things, but it was comforting having it all explained. They made sure my harness was securely buckled and that I knew how to unbuckle it in the unlikely event that I needed to get out in a hurry. They showed me the engine kill switch, how to drop the safety net over the driver's window, how to disconnect and remove the steering wheel and how to set off the fire extinguisher bottle

Helmet on, safety harness buckled and tight, window net up and latched. Lady, start your engine! I hit those toggle switches, the engine roared to life and I felt that raw power running through me. I had a few seconds to get used to this feeling and it was time to roll out of the pits. I put it in first gear, slowly let out the clutch as I gave it some gas (I didn't want to stall) and I was moving off pit road and on to the track

Walt Disney World Speedway is a one mile long track. During the van ride, it seemed huge and almost overwhelming. When I started coming up to speed, the track got small in a hurry and those corners came up pretty fast. Going in to the third turn on the second lap, I felt this huge smile breakout on my face -- this was more fun than Test Track and Tower of Terror combined! The instructor waved me to come up and we picked up speed and he kept waving me up and picking up speed, I was hitting my marks, and I felt like I was flying.  

All too soon, that checkered flag waved and I had gone back to the pit. The pit crewman patted me on the helmet and shoulder and told me I did great. Then I managed to get out of the car without falling on my head. My boyfriend said when I turned around I had a smile on my face like he had never seen, and I was yelling that I wanted to do it again! The instructor shook my hand and told me I did great, and then we went to the pit box to see the telemetry from the drive.  My fastest average lap speed was 125! The RPDE crew all congratulated me and gave me a certificate with my top lap speed on it.  

I wanted to do it again. I didn't have enough money for another 8 laps, but I had enough for the 3 lap Ride Along. I signed up and I got a discount because I had done the 8 laps. I buckled in, the driver climbed in, shook my hand, buckled in, fired up the car, put it in gear, let out the clutch and I was slammed back in the seat! We must have hit 145 by end of the back straight. And I know we were only millimeters from the wall! Okay, it was probably inches - maybe 10, but it looked like 6 and felt like 1. The driver kept looking to see if I was okay and I know I was grinning like a crazy woman.   

I've done some neat things at Walt Disney World since 1971, but this was, by far, the coolest! If you're looking for a new thrill, try the fastest ride at Walt Disney World, Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Speedway. You don't have to be young (I'm 50-ish), and you don't have to be big and strong (I'm only 5' tall), and you obviously don't have to be a guy. If you're not sure about spending money on driving, try the Ride-Along first. One of my friends did and now she's saving money to do the Rookie Experience. Ladies, don't let the men have all the fun! Everybody -- Start Your Engines!

To book the Richard Petty Driving Experience, call 800-BE-PETTY (237-3889). Check out for more information.

This article originally appeared in our August 25, 2005 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!

Related Articles:

  • Dave Does Richard Petty
  • Ft. Wilderness Trail Ride

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    Updated 02/15/07 

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