"Now just put your left hip up against the door," the race car driver told me.
"Doesn't the door open?" I asked. Everyone around me laughed.
"No, the doors are sealed shut," the race car driver said. "Now put your hip against the door and pull yourself in."
I did as was told, sliding into the race car Dukes of Hazzard style, taking care not to bump my shiny, black helmet.
"Did she sign the release form?" someone asked. Yes, I had.
"Is the helmet on tight enough?" Yes, it is.
Was I totally insane to be doing this? Yes, I was.
"Are you as nervous as me?" the race car driver asked, grinning as he warmed up the engine. Great, a real king of the one-liners, I thought to myself, and managed a meek laugh. My mother always told me not to take rides from strange men. I had laughed off the advice. Now, I was going to die.
Houston Speedway, the oldest continuously run speedway in the area, was debuting its URace Driving Experience program, and I was going to be its first victim -- I mean, participant. While URace allows wannabe speed demons a chance to drive, I was willing only to go along for a ride. If all went according to plan, I would get just a taste of what sends drivers and families out to the track each weekend from April until October.
"My fiancee says if I took up crack cocaine, it would be cheaper and she'd see me more," says Jeff Pollard, 38, who raced motorcycles before taking up cars. "I can't explain it. I just have to do it."
If racing is an addiction for Jeff, it's a tradition for the Bumbera family. Eleven-year-old Kristin Bumbera thought it would be neat to race like her dad, Kenny, and her mom, Cheri. So she started with go-carts and worked her way up to a mini orange race car modeled after her father's. The fifth-grade honor student mostly races against boys her age, whom she mostly beats.
Her mom says rigorous precautions and heavy-duty equipment keep Kristin safe. In fact, even daredevil drivers are more concerned with safety than you might guess. This is music to my ears.
"It's a rare racer who doesn't wear a seat belt [in a regular car]," says J.R. Hand, 50, who has been racing for 15 years. "You get in a wreck in a race car and you realize the importance of them." J.R. has seen his share of wrecks, including one that sent his car flipping several times. "I walked away like a punch-drunk fighter, but I still wanted to get back in that car," he says.
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The flip might have exhilarated J.R., but it was just the kind of disaster I was thinking about as my race car driver pulled off the infield onto the black asphalt of the speedway. I could feel the rumble of the motor in the soles of my shoes, my head shook from side to side, my stomach was in my mouth.
I looked at the race car driver and yelled over the roar of the engine: "Hey, go faster!"
-- Jennifer Mathieu
For more information about URace Driving Experiences and the Houston Speedway, call (281)458-1972 and ask for Mick Anderson. Lessons, which range in price from $39 to $499, are available year-round during daylight hours on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.