Young racing fans who want to go fast like their favorite NASCAR drivers now have a chance to do just that with the Junior Ride-Along offered by the Richard Petty Experience.
Kids ages 6 to 13 who are at least 48 inches tall can ride shotgun with a professional driver in a stock car that goes up to 140 mph and is equipped with a child-size racing seat and a five-point harness.
In Florida, they have two regular track options: the 1-mile three-turn Walt Disney World Speedway with banking of up to 10 degrees, or the 2.5-mile tri-oval Daytona International Speedway with banking of up to 31 degrees.
"They're two different experiences," Petty Experience operations manager Gary Terry said. "The Daytona track is a fast track with more banking, where the Disney track is smaller with more G force because of tighter turns."
The Disney track recently added another feature. Fans of the Cars movies can ride in race cars that look like characters from the film: Sage VandDerSpin (No. 80) or Aiken Axler (28). (Don't worry, parents, the driver and rider can still see through the vinyl-covered windshield.)
Going to the NASCAR races this weekend at Daytona? Ride-alongs for adults and kids will be available on race days.
For our review, we chose the hallowed grounds of Daytona Speedway, with test rider, Isaak, 10, a former quarter midget racer and my son. Petty Experience provided the racing suit, head sock, helmet and a Hans neck protection device. Riders must wear closed-toe shoes.
At Daytona, the staging area is under a tent with just a small fan, so in the heat of the summer, the temperatures were brutal. (Water and sodas are for sale at the check-in trailer.)
After buckling into the car, a quick introduction, and a few instructions, the driver cranked up the car with a roar, and took it down pit road and onto the track with a quick acceleration to top speed.
"The wall looks really close to the car, especially since you're sitting on the right side," Isaak said. The car actually drove a few feet from the wall.
"The ride is pretty smooth, and it feels like you're going fast in a car on the interstate," he said, "until you hit the high banking, and it's like going sideways on a roller coaster." At speeds of up to 140 mph (which Isaak hit), kids will feel gravitational force of up to 2G. (In comparison, NASCAR drivers experience up to 4 or 5 Gs.)
But not every child may be a speedster. "We've gone as slow as 45 miles per hour to make sure the kids don't cry," said Terry. The ride is tailored to the child — his or her height and comfort level, he said.
Because the cockpit is loud, kids can use hand signals — thumbs up for okay, thumbs down or palm down for slow down or no more — to let the driver know how he or she is doing. "Our whole goal is not to scare anybody. It's to give them an experience of what it feels like in a race car," Terry said.
For Isaak, it was thumbs up all the way.
With all the safety gear and the temperature of the track, it gets very hot in the car, Isaak warned, as he exited the cockpit with a huge grin on his face.
His biggest complaint? "It's too short," he said. His ride took less than 5 minutes to complete.
"Can I do it again?"