Brainerd racetrack lets speed buffs explore their inner Mario Andretti by turning their family cars into racers for a day.
The cars that were lined up early in the morning on Brainerd International Raceway's pit row weren't your typical race cars, unless you think a race car comes with a baby seat, bicycle attached to the back and empty fast-food bags under the driver's seat.
But for the next few hours they were going to be race cars. Real race cars.
Several times each summer, BIR's Performance Driving School offers regular Joes -- and an increasing number of regular Janes -- a chance to find out what it's like to put the pedal to the metal on a professional race course with banked turns and a milelong straightaway.
"I thought I'd be scared," admitted Alison Sefton of St. Louis Park, who brought her Audi S4 to see how fast it -- and she -- could go.
With her husband, Steve, along as her one-man cheering section, she reached 95 miles per hour on her first session, but by midafternoon, was routinely hitting 130. And loving it.
"In fact, on my next session, I'm taking my husband out so he can see what 130 feels like," she said.
Many of the cars lined up along the track were pretty fancy, including exotic sports cars that start at $150,000 stripped down -- and these were not the stripped-down versions. But there also were a surprising number of family sedans.
"We get everything from Ferraris to Dodge Neons," said Gary Curtis, the driving school's lead instructor. "We get a lot of people buying gift certificates and then having the whole family come to watch. I like to say that we're the Disney World of motorsports, except instead of a roller coaster that goes up and down, ours goes side to side."
Before the drivers can take their cars out on the track, everything that is not bolted down has to come out. That includes the obvious things, like baby seats and bikes. But it also includes things you might not think of, including floor mats and spare change.
"Don't forget to check under the seats," Curtis advised. "It's amazing what we see come flying out from under there, especially in Turn 3 [the sharpest corner of the track]. The last thing you want is to be going into a turn and have a Coke can roll out from under your seat and get jammed under your pedals."
'This is not 494'
This is the 19th year that Curtis has run the classes, and he's never had a serious crash. A big reason is the first thing that happens when a student arrives: The instructors say that they're going to drive you around the track a couple of times so you can get familiar with it. That turns out to be only partly true.
About the time you're halfway through Turn 3 and your stomach is going one way, the car is going another and neither is the direction of the track coming out of the turn -- a realization that hits you at the exact instant that the driver slams the accelerator back to the floor -- it becomes apparent that their real intention is to scare the living daylights out of you.
"The first lesson is humility," Curtis admitted. "We've got to bring these guys down off the testosterone and make them realize that this is not 494."
At the end of the track tour, the students are ushered into a classroom training session that is a hairpin-turn different in tone. While the ride leaves you wondering which wall you're going to crash into first, by the time the classroom session is over, Curtis has you convinced that you can do this.
'Driving for dummies'
The track has been outfitted in a "high-speed driving for dummies" motif. Each turn has markers showing where to brake, where to begin turning the steering wheel and where to straighten it out again (which is well before you reach the far side of the turn).
Racers are grouped by speed. A driver whose goal is to break 100 miles per hour won't be on the track with someone who's out to top 150.
"We will never force anyone to go faster than they feel comfortable with or have the skill set for," Curtis said. "We want everyone to leave with a smile on their face."
The day includes six 25-minute driving sessions for $295 if participants use their own car. (Prices start at $325 per session to use one of the track's race cars.) An instructor rides along on the first session and will continue to do so on others if a student wishes or if the instructors see that someone is struggling -- for instance, not following the proper line through the turns.
To the novices, 25 minutes doesn't sound very long. But by the end of their first session, most were ready to take a break. The intensity is impossible to describe. Even after all these years, Curtis still can't do it.
"I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Why didn't you tell me it was going to be like that?'" he said. "I've tried, but I can't do it. There just aren't the right words."
He does have an interesting measuring stick, however. By midafternoon, the temperature had crept into the 90s and the car interiors had turned into blast furnaces. But the drivers wouldn't turn on their air conditioners because that would sap valuable engine RPM needed for speed.
Besides, the heat "is only a factor until you start moving," Curtis assured. "By the time you're into Turn 1, you could be sitting on broken glass and you wouldn't notice."
The exhilaration was evident in the drivers. R.C. Brown brought his Corvette from Osceola, Wis. "I needed coffee to get going this morning," he said after his first run on the track. "I'm not going to need any coffee on the way home, I can promise you that."
A one-day class is not going to turn anyone into a NASCAR star. As with any skill, this needs to honed and practiced.
That's why Bob Bergh of Eau Claire, Wis., signs up for several classes a summer and has done so for five years. He works with an instructor on the finer points of milking a few extra miles per hour out of his Mustang Cobra.
"My goal is to reach my age plus one year plus 100 miles per hour," he said. He's 66. "I've gotten to 165," he said, with two of his track sessions yet to come. "So I'm close. I just need to keep my speed up in the corners."
It's all a blur - literally
Later in the day, the track's owner, Jed Copham, took me out in one of his cars to show me what the experience of running the track is like for a pro. It's surreal.
There were four things we were supposed to spot in every turn: the three markers put out by the school and a flagman indicating whether the track ahead was safe. As Copham took me through the first turn at 148 miles per hour, I managed to locate only two of the four.
Through five laps with a total of 50 turns, I never spotted all four. There were a couple of turns where I found three, but they were offset by the gentler turns that we went through at full throttle and I was able to locate only one.
Keep in mind that I was just riding. I wasn't also trying to shift, brake, accelerate, steer and watch out for other cars.
"It's harder than it looks, isn't it?" Curtis said as he helped me from the car afterward. It was a rhetorical question.