Pedestrians flowed out of uptown Charlotte restaurants and cafes at lunchtime Tuesday to watch race cars weave around the skyscrapers.
Yes, you read that right. Race cars. The ones that can go 160 mph, where you must crawl in through the window and need a full firesuit to drive, just in case you crash and the car around you combusts.
Usually these cars are relegated to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where they’ll be this weekend for the fourth race of the NASCAR playoffs – up in Concord, but not Tuesday. Tuesday, they zoomed and purred, with speeds reaching about 60 mph through the streets of Charlotte, riding on the right side of the road while ordinary people drove on the other side.
There was even a Cup Series champion, Brad Keselowski, driving one of them – with me riding shotgun.
Some context there: The convoy was in advance of Sunday’s race, something of a promotional tour to drum up fans. And if the crowds of cell phone-adorning businessmen, or women eating lunch, or young couples shopping were any indication, it might have worked.
But before we could actually start driving, there was the issue of getting into the car. It’s not nearly as easy as it looks.
You swing your legs in to start, which isn’t too tricky, and then slide in feet first. That was all fine. But the headrests jut out about a foot (they’re meant to accomodate someone wearing a helmet), and it takes everything not to scrape your back on those when you slip in.
Once I’m in and strapped into my five-part seatbelt (two over the shoulder buckles, two from the sides, one from underneath), Keselowski comes over and starts up the engine. He gets in with much more ease, and then he lends me a fist bump.
“How much trouble do you want to get in today?” he asks.
Not that it would have mattered how I answered, given Keselowski’s controversial history. He speaks his mind and doesn’t care much what others think, which is respectable, but also a bit intimidating the first time you’re in a race car.
It’s not as loud inside the car as it is outside, or at least not until Keselowski revs his engine. Which, naturally, he does as soon as we hit the first “straightaway” (on Caldwell, between East MLK Jr. Bvoulevard and East 3rd Street). When he does step on the accelerator, it feels like an airplane taking off, the whole thrusting your head back into your seat thing that happens with that much force.
By the time we hit the Spectrum Center, home of the NBA’s Hornets, Keselowski tells me why he’s spending a crucial day before Sunday’s Bank of America 500 around uptown. After all, he’s fourth in the playoff standings and has a chance to make it to the season finale in Homestead, Fla., in November.
“I just love seeing the looks on people’s faces,” he said. “Just seeing people so excited.”
We take a few more laps, down Tryon Street and back, looping past businesses and over train tracks. Keselowski keeps speeding up and knocking into the car ahead of us in the parade. It’s a bright pink Toyota Camry from Charlotte Motor Speedway. He bumps into it over and over from behind, which feels like bumper cars at an amusement park.
On our last stretch, we see a tiny white car emblazoned ‘Student Driver’ pulled over to the curb.
“What a bad time to be doing that,” Keselowski said, laughing. As we go past, he slows down and waves at the nervous girl in the driver’s seat.
Eventually we roll back into our starting lane outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When the car is on, it’s hard to realize how much your ears are ringing (especially without earplugs in). Keselowski pulls his out, pops them back in their plastic case, and says he tried not to obliterate mine, which is much appreciated.
We climb out of the car and chat one last time. It was only around uptown, never reaching (or really coming close to) the top speed these vehicles are capable of, but it was still a thrill whenever Keselowski slammed on the accelerator. Extrapolate those few seconds to a three-hour race and it makes sense why these drivers find racing so exciting.
“It’s not a bad job to have, man,” Keselowski said as he walked away. “It’s definitely a cool job.”