Skip to main content

Gupta: NASCAR ride 'more than a little terrifying'

Dr. Sanjay Gupta describes life behind the wheel

Programming Note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta gets behind the wheel to examine safety and athletic performance in NASCAR racing, "NASCAR: Driven to Extremes," Thursday, November 24, 11 p.m. ET.

In "NASCAR: Driven to Extremes," Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at the medical aspects of the sport.



(CNN) -- Driving in NASCAR is a lot more than hitting the gas and turning left, as I learned working on "NASCAR: Driven to Extremes."

NASCAR drivers compete in physically challenging conditions. The temperature inside the cars can be more than 100 degrees and humid. Scott Sutherland, a racing consultant, likened it to sitting in a sauna for three hours with a roll of nickels in each hand.

Not only is it hot, but it is stressful. NASCAR drivers race at up to 200 miles per hour, nose-to-tail with the competition, sometimes three across on the racetrack. There is very little margin for error.

As part of the special, I was lucky enough to experience the speed of NASCAR, or close to it. Wally Dallenbach, a former NASCAR driver who now does commentary for TNT and NBC, offered me a chance to ride shotgun on the oval track at New Hampshire International Speedway. The ride was thrilling and, as we sped down the straightaway inches from the wall, more than a little terrifying.

I got my chance behind the wheel a couple of weeks later at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Richard Petty Driving Experience. After attending a safety class, I climbed into the stock car built to NASCAR specifications. The temperature outside was in the 90s. Inside the car was sweltering.

I was wearing a vest called a LifeShirt, which measured my core body temperature and other vital signs. Before I'd driven out of pit road, my body was measuring a temperature of 101 degrees, a fever. I forgot about the heat once I stepped on the gas. There is something both primitive and exhilarating about the roar of an 850-horsepower engine.

In the Richard Petty Driving Experience, you follow an instructor around the track as he takes the fastest line around the oval. My top speed for a lap was 139 mph. Another 50 mph, and I'd be ready for NASCAR.

Reporting "NASCAR: Driven to Extremes," I was fascinated by the personality of the successful drivers, who need to combine hours of focus and split-second timing, hours of patience and moments of aggression.

In the special, we profile NASCAR veteran Rusty Wallace and relative newcomer Carl Edwards, a rising star. Off the track, they are so outgoing and personable it's difficult to imagine them as hard-nosed competitors.

I was also surprised to learn racing has become like Little League, with boys and girls starting at 6 or 7 and moving up through the ranks as they get older, all the while dreaming of becoming the next Rusty Wallace, Carl Edwards or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At a junior-sized oval outside Lowe's International Speedway, I watched youngsters participate in a clinic with NASCAR driver Reed Sorenson. The Nextel Cup wannabes did a couple of laps in small Bandolero cars and then -- wide-eyed -- received pointers from Sorenson. One couple had moved from Rhode Island to North Carolina pursue their 7-year-old's racing dreams.

A driver who started young and is now considered one of the top prospects in stock car racing is 15-year-old Joey Logano. Joey's father, Tom Logano, told me how Joey didn't do well in T-ball or basketball but somehow seemed like a natural behind the wheel when he got a go-kart at age 6.

He has driven in hundreds of races since and has succeeded at every level, suggesting nature and nurture play a role in becoming a successful driver.

In the end, I was left with a healthy respect for the physical and mental skills of NASCAR drivers, and a small understanding of what attracted them to the sport in the first place.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines