Thursday, June 3, 2010

Climbing in and Strapping Up: Behind the Wheel at Pocono

DSC01501A racecar from the StockCar Racing Experience gets ready to go out on the track.

On Tuesday I shared with you my experience of doing a ride-along at Pocono Raceway last week with StockCar Racing Experience, the driving school based at the 2.5-mile speedway in Long Pond, Pa. The ride-along is recommended for those in SRE's driving program so they can experience how the racecar handles on the track and observe some of the maneuvers they will later perform themselves.

I couldn't drive one of the Sprint Cup-style stock cars myself because I do not drive stick shift. However, I tagged along with a class of students as they prepared to get behind the wheel. I want to thank StockCar Racing Experience for giving me this opportunity and to the students who let me live vicariously through them.

Nuts and bolts
StockCar Racing Experience offers a variety of driving programs, starting with the basic package of eight laps (20 miles, one session) and up to 32 laps (80 miles, four sessions). Participants must be at least 18 years of age, have a valid driver's license and experience in driving a manual transmission.

The majority of the school's customers, around 70 percent, receive the experience as a gift, said SRE President Jesse Roverana. The school also brings in many clients through its corporate race program. Companies may offer the drive or ride programs as incentives to employees to meet company or sales goals, Roverana said.

Students in the driving program wait to take their turn.

SRE also offers advanced driving programs that allow for more one-on-one time with an instructor at Pocono. At this level, you're more likely to see professional racecar drivers coming in, especially those who have little to no experience running at the unique tri-oval track.

"Some drivers have never been here (at Pocono) before," Roverana said, noting that the speedway would be hosting its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in August.

Roverana said that just a few weeks earlier, Truck Series driver Austin Dillon had been at Pocono and ran laps with the program.

"He did well. He was getting a feel for markers, visual reference points, bumps on the track," Roverana said. NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer also utilized SRE's program during his rookie year in Sprint Cup in 2006.

StockCar Racing Experience will have an informational booth at Pocono during the NASCAR race weekend, June 4-6. For pricing and more information, you can also visit


Participants in the driving program wait for class to start.

Class in session
Chris Marcho, the instructor who took me on a ride-along around Pocono, guided me to a classroom where a group of students would begin the driving program. I counted 17 drivers in the session.

The majority of students would be participating in the eight-lap program, including Marianne Imburgia of West Chester. She received the SRE driving experience as a gift from her husband.

"I'm a huge NASCAR fan," Imburgia told me. "I love driving fast and I love loud cars."

She's never been to a race at Pocono, but attends the September NASCAR races at Dover.

B.J. Hageman, 51, of New Jersey is a motorsports fan who likes to watch Rally Car and motorcycle racing, especially the Isle of Man TT race. Hageman himself has been riding motorcycles since he was 16. But this would be his first time driving a stock car.

Hageman said he had recently gotten a bonus from work. With the money he had left over, he said, "I decided I was going to have some fun."

There was also a local celebrity among the class. Eric Peterson is a DJ for country music radio station Froggy 101. Peterson co-hosts the morning show "Wake-Up Call with Eric and Selena." A co-worker would be filming his experience for the radio station's website.

Instructor Bruce Sibel brought the session to order. The purpose of the class was to provide a detailed look at operating the racecars, safety procedures and track rules. After watching a half-hour video, we discussed its main points.

Sibel explained an instructor will lead two students on the track. The first lap will be run at 100 mph (5,000 rpm).

"The first lap is the hardest lap - the car is rattling and banging around," Sibel said. From then on, as the students become more comfortable in the car, the instructor will gradually increase speed.

Drivers should maintain a following distance of four car-lengths while staying one car-length away from the wall.

"Stay in your instructor's tracks, not those of the student in front of you," Sibel said.

DSC01495 Instructor Bruce Sibel talks about the importance
of making sure the steering wheel is securely in place.

Field trip
Next, Sibel took the class to the garage to demonstrate some basics, such as how to enter and exit the racecar. The steering wheel is removed before the driver gets in, then put back on once he or she is seated. (When I did the ride-along, the steering wheel was not a factor for me because I entered the car through the passenger side.) Sibel stressed the importance of pulling on the steering wheel after the driver is seated to make sure it is securely in place.

After the garage demonstration, we took a van tour around Pocono Raceway. Sibel explained there were markers positioned around the track to provide a frame of reference.

For instance, I realized there were traffic cones in different colors placed on top of the walls. Each color had a different meaning. Yellow cones indicated the driver should start slowing down going into the turn. When coming out of the corner, the orange cones were a sign to straighten the car out.

As we got into the corner, Sibel said Turn 3 was the most difficult because it was the longest and flattest of Pocono's three turns. It's easy to get lost in Turn 3 because your eyes can lose their sense of progression. The cones help aid the drivers in maintaining their focus through the turn.

DSC01496 Participants in the driving program, including Eric Peterson,
center, examine the racecar while listening to Sibel.

Almost there
After the van tour, we went to the area of pit road that I described in Part 1 of the blog as being sectioned off. The driving students would be fitted here for their firesuits and helmets. This is also where they would wait for their turn to drive the stock cars. Kurt, the driving instructor, explained the area was barricaded for safety reasons, as drivers would be entering and exiting racecars continuously.

While the drivers waited, Kurt said they could sign up for the ride-along. "You can see how the car sticks to the track at a speed much faster than you're going to run," he said. "It's also a hell of a lot of fun."

DSC01497Marianne Imburgia

Marianne Imburgia was feeling a little anxious about getting behind the wheel.

"Driving a car with 600 horsepower? Yeah, I'm nervous," she said. She had never been on a ride-along and decided to take the opportunity to go for it.

I ran into Imburgia afterward. She looked ecstatic.

"It was awesome! It was unreal," she said, smiling. "I just tried to relax." She said going on the ride-along eased some of her worries about driving.

DSC01510 SRE General Manager Steve Fox, left, gives
advice to a participant in the driving program.

Center of attention
While the drivers waited to take turns, I saw several of them gathered around one of the instructors, eagerly listening to his every word. The instructor was Steve Fox, general manager of StockCar Racing Experience. The Hazleton resident has been with SRE since the school started in 1998. He will also be competing in Saturday's ARCA race, the Messina Wildlife Stopper 200.

"I'm telling them how to go fast!" Fox said when I asked him what kind of tips he was giving. "Look far ahead. Eye technique will make you smooth. If you're smooth, you're fast."

"Drive the corners with your eyes, and think faster than you're driving."

Fox would be the man to talk to about racing. With a career in motorsports spanning 30 years, Fox has raced stock cars, motorcycles and snowmobiles and has competed throughout the region. He won a race on the road course at Pocono in his SCCA Formula Ford car on the Fourth of July in 2008 - in the rain.

Fox will again be racing at Pocono on Saturday. He will drive the No. 28 Universe Racing Firehouse Dodge in the ARCA race. His sponsor is Universe Towing, based in Bronx, N.Y. Fox's ARCA debut came at the June 2008 Pocono race. Saturday will mark his third series start.

DSC01509 A SRE car gets ready to take to the track.

Behind the wheel
So after the preparation, demonstrations and expert advice, what was it like to drive a Sprint-Cup style stock car?

"Once I got in and started the drive it was absolutely awesome!" Imburgia said. "It was a totally exhilarating drive."

Imburgia said she reached a top speed of about 135-140 mph. For someone who likes to drive fast, I think props are in order!

Froggy 101 DJ Eric Peterson was just as enthusiastic.

"By the time you get to lap 6 of the eight laps, you feel comfortable. If you like to drive, you will like this," he said.

Like Imburgia, Peterson went on the ride-along before getting into the driver's seat.

"The ride-along was totally invaluable. It allows you to understand the extra capabilities of the car before you drive it," he said. "It gives you a good feel for what it's capable of at top speed."

When the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 gets under way at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, the 17 drivers I observed at the StockCar Racing Experience will be able to look at the Sprint Cup drivers and know firsthand what it's like behind the wheel.

Related links:
StockCar Racing Experience:
Pocono Raceway:
Universe Racing:
Froggy 101:


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