Local celebrities, athletes put pedal to the medal at NASCAR Racing Experience

Legendary NASCAR driver Dale Jarret drove people around in the No. 39 car during the NASCAR Fan Experience at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Jacob Flores/Cronkite News)

AVONDALE – With NASCAR Championship Weekend fast approaching, NASCAR and Phoenix Raceway invited local celebrities and athletes to take part in the NASCAR Racing Experience, giving them the chance to drive actual race cars and ride with three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett.

With the Championship 4 due to be finalized Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, Valley celebrities and athletes got a chance to burn some rubber of their own, driving cars provided by the NASCAR Racing Experience that were driven in past NASCAR races.

“What better way to kick off that final two-week push into the race than letting people come out and take their own spin around Phoenix Raceway behind the wheel of a race car,” said Phoenix Raceway president Julie Giese. “It’s a really great opportunity to really see what the drivers (at the Cup championship) are gonna be doing. You get behind the wheel, you’re on the race track, you’re in an actual stock car, so it just really gives a lot of perspective and also just have a little bit of fun as we lead into championship weekend.”

The group included athletes such as Bellator MMA featherweight fighter A.J. McKee, Diamondbacks players Josh Rojas and Stone Garrett, and former pro bowl linebacker Shaun Phillips.

“The crazy part is I would say I was a bit more nervous for this than my own fights,” McKee said. “I’ve just grown up in the fight world and fighting my whole life. To (be here) like this, I wanna learn, and I don’t wanna mess up, so I got a bit nervous. But just being cognitive of the rev limiter and trying to find the lanes and the paths. Just paying attention to everything and making sure you’re doing everything right.”

NASCAR is gearing up for championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6. (Photo by Jacob Flores/Cronkite News)

The experience began with a drivers’ meeting, where an instructor briefed the group on details of the drive, safety procedures and tips to get the most out of the experience. The meeting also included a 22-minute video covering the specifics of expectations.

Following the meeting, the drivers headed to the track, ready to do their very own “Days of Thunder” impersonation. Upon arriving at pit road, track personnel provided the drivers with helmets equipped with a radio to communicate with a spotter throughout the drive, similar to the ones actual NASCAR drivers use.

Drivers had to keep the car within white pieces of tape on the track, unless Jarrett was passing on the high line, where he was giving ride-alongs at much higher speeds than the rookies on their maiden voyage. A driver could take the car to the bottom of the race track only with the spotter’s approval.

The cars did not have speedometers. To calculate speed, drivers used the RPM gauge. With each lap the drivers drove, the spotter told them how many RPMs they could reach, and every successful lap meant a 200-RPM increase the next time around.

For this experience, drivers topped out at 5000 RPMs, thanks to the cars’ rev limiter. However, when they rode with the NASCAR Hall of Famer, the RPMs topped out at around 5800 RPMs, giving a much more accurate feeling of what it’s like to race in a stock car.

According to the instructor in the drivers’ meeting, the top speeds folks usually hit while driving in the experience typically reach 115-120 mph.

“The experience was great, I should’ve drove faster but it’s ok,” Phillips said. “I wasn’t being a big risk taker. I guess I should’ve been a risk taker, but I wasn’t.”

The NASCAR Racing Experience is available at 16 different racetracks in the Cup Series circuit, including Phoenix Raceway Nov. 1-3 during the week leading up to the championship, with different racing packages available for purchase.

Joe Eigo joe EYE-go (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Joe Eigo expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Eigo is in his third semester at Cronkite News. He has previously worked with Inferno Intel, WCSN, The State Press and The Racing Experts.

Jacob Flores Jay-cub Floor-ehz (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Jacob Flores expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. Flores has interned as a writer with AZ Big Media and as a digital marketing manager with Vinylly.