Fans of Epcot’s Test Track and Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Rock N Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith often think that either one of those attractions are the fastest on Walt Disney World property, but many are surprised to learn that’s not necessarily the case.
Many travelers to Walt Disney World are unfamiliar with the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the Richard Petty Exotic Car Experience, both of which are arguably the fastest and most exciting experiences found on the Orlando, Florida property. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of one of the many packages available at the Richard Petty Experience, for a recent milestone birthday. Experiences include ride-alongs in a NASCAR car with a professional driver, and driving packages for both NASCAR cars and exotic cars. My treat? A driving package. Warning – these don’t come cheap, but boy are they fun!
I arrived at the Walt Disney World Speedway shortly before my assigned drive time. I was required to show my driver’s license, and fill out and sign the required paperwork and waivers. Yes – there is an inherent risk involved, and Petty wants to make sure the participants won’t file a lawsuit in the event of a problem. It was at this time I was assigned my number and given a flash drive which stores all the drive information and was given a driving suit.
Once the rest of my class arrived, we watched a brief video about Richard Petty and the history of the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and were given instruction on the basic features of the vehicle – the driving line on the track, how to drive the car and shifting (yes, it’s a manual transmission), acceleration and deceleration points around the track. At that time we were also briefed about how to exit the five-point harness, how to remove the steering wheel and how to remove the window mesh in the event you need to exit the vehicle. At this point my adrenaline and anticipation were running high, and I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to remember it all! Communication with our right-seat driver was discussed – as you drive you are in constant radio communication with your pro driver, and in the event of problems, they can override any aspect of the vehicle, including speed and braking. Your family is welcome to attend this training with you.
Once classroom time was over, it was time to go outside, be introduced to our right-seat pros, complete training, and start to go drive our laps! There were 12 of us in the program and we were called in groups of four at a time. My group was the last of the four, and it was nice to be able to watch the others drive out of the pit. From this vantage point, you can’t see all of the track, which has three turns instead of the usual two, but one can observe most of the drive.
Family and friends who may have accompanied drivers are also permitted in this area, and are encouraged to check out the cars, and take photos. My daughter took some time while I was in class to drool over some of the more exotic offerings.
After group two was called out, it was time for me to get my helmet and HANS device – a shoulder harness that rests over both shoulders, extends up the back of the neck, and snaps to the sides of the helmet. Helmets are big, and the line of vision out of the front is very narrow and limited. It was time to get into my car – and at my age I needed a stepstool as I’m not the most agile kid on the block! Once I was in I was buckled in and ratcheted down into my seat. Leave all your conceptions of our comfy passenger cars at home – this was all roll cage, racing seat, a couple instruments and an unmarked stick shift! Dang – I couldn’t even find where to turn on the radio! Oh….
My right-seat driver was in and as we waited to exit the pit we chatted back and forth to make sure the radio worked. It was now time to start her up and go. Starting the car was a thrill in and of itself – 600 horsepower just rumbled around me and sent a chill up my spine. Truth be told, my adrenaline level was off the charts and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t the least bit nervous. Here it was – time to shift into first and head out of the pit!! The sound of that engine, the pure power underneath me was amazing!! My laps went by a LOT faster than I anticipated, and frankly I wasn’t the fastest on the track – hardly so, in fact. I never got comfortable with just letting the car corner the way it was built to – after repeated attempts by my right seat driver to encourage me NOT to slow down in the corners, I think he finally gave up. It took me every one of my 9 laps to get comfortable with that amazing vehicle, but I did finally start to get to that point. Unlike any vehicle I’d been in before, it was tough to resist over 30 years of street driving habits like checking rearview mirrors and side mirrors (and of course, slowing down cornering).
After the drive was completed, we needed to return our driving suits, pick up our paperwork showing our lap times and speeds, and of course we were invited to view and purchase our in-car video and photography, which I respectfully declined. The video, although it would have been a great memento, was very expensive.
I’d do the drive again in a heartbeat, and frankly, I’d encourage anyone interested in fast things to book a spot and go run around the track a few times. If you have to save up your pennies, it’s worth it!
(all photo credits E Welch)