Jonathan and I have been friends with Karen Hartley and her husband, Bill, for about five years now. One of the first things she ever shared with me is that she has always wanted to drive a race car. I’ve spent a lot of time in the car with Karen and I can confirm she likes to drive fast. When I learned Bill was giving Karen 12 laps driving a race car at the Rusty Wallace Driving Experience for Christmas I offered Jonathan’s services as a professional photographer to document the day; that’s what I do when I intend to invite myself somewhere. When Karen asked if we were coming to watch her race I responded, “Try and stop us!” There was no way we were going to miss Karen racing around a track at 150 miles per hour in a real Nascar race car.
So on Sunday, Sunday, Sunday (You’ve all seen commercials for monster truck rallies, right?) May 27, just days after Karen’s 47th birthday the four of us went up to Michigan International Speedway (MIS) for Karen’s big moment. We were joined at MIS by Bill’s Parents, Bill Sr. and Darlene, and his sister and brother-in law, Rene and Hank. If there’s one thing I know about the Hartleys it’s that wherever they go they bring their own party and we were quite the cheering section.
A very nervous Bill and Karen checking in.
By the time we arrived at MIS, having had five months to worry about it, Bill was pretty freaked out that his crazy wife would drive like a maniac and get herself killed and Karen was starting to get pretty nervous as well so Bill signed her up for an add-on experience in which she first got to ride along with a professional driver for four laps. So after a short training class Karen was suited up and climbing in the window of a real race car. Speaking of “suited”, can I just stop here for a moment to tell you about the jumpsuits the participants wear? They are baggy, saggy, and over-sized. Every single person on that track looked like he or she was wearing a potato sack, except for Karen, who should have one of her own and wear it all the time. She looked a-dore-able (and her tush looked great, which all of us commented on). Anyway, getting back to the action: anyone else sitting in the passenger seat of a car going 170mph would either sit back and enjoy the ride or sit back and pray for it to be over. Not Karen. She used the time to observe the driver and make mental notes about the track. She came out of her ride-along still nervous but feeling more prepared for her turn behind the wheel. I don’t think the experience did anything to calm Bill’s nerves. He was more convinced than ever that she was going to drive like a speed demon maniac.
The hand over the mouth is a classic Karen sign of excitement.
After a short but torturous (no it’s not a word but it should be) wait in the hot sun it was finally Karen’s time to climb in the driver’s side window of car number 40. After getting seated, belted, helmeted, and some final words of advice Karen was finally ready to hit the asphalt, except it still wasn’t to be. It turned out there was a problem with the transmission; we like to joke that was the first car Karen ruined. She had to be un-helmeted, unbelted, and unseated. After climbing back out through the window she was given a seat in an almost identical car number 40.
Karen and four men started the race by following the pace car for two laps. After getting a few shots of her driving past from our vantage point on the ground we joined her family on the observation deck where we could watch the action of the entire track. From our new spot we could listen in on the guy on the one way radio telling all the drivers what to do so they didn’t crash into each other. Cool spot to be. By the end of that second lap behind the pacecar Karen had already passed someone but for some reason, that has been much debated, Karen and two of the guys behind her were called back into pit road. Karen was asked if her radio was working and since it was the three were sent back out to continue the race, this time without the pacecar to hold her back. In no time Karen was catching up to and then passing both the cars in front of her. She told us afterword there was a point at the beginning of the race she thought to herself, “I’ve always wanted to do this and I’m not going to get another chance; I’m going for it.” That was the point in which she pushed the pedal to the floor and flew around the track like she owned it. Actually, for 10 laps she did own it. She passed every one of those guys out there. One poor guy got passed twice. Karen’s “party” cheered and yelled for her to go. The guy on the radio “encouraged” her as she went zooming past two other cars. Those of us listening in knew he was biasedly cheering her on as he chanted, “Go car 40, go car 40…” Car 40 went! Karen finished half a lap ahead of anyone else. Later there would be a great deal of discussion as to whether Karen was going the maximum 150mph, like she was supposed to be going, or if the car was still capable of going 170-180mph as it would if the professionals were driving it. As so often happens in such tales the tellers have opted for the more exciting, so 175mph is the speed we all agree she was going and certainly if you had been there none of you would put up an argument to the contrary.
“Go car 40.”
Karen on the backstretch. There’s no one else around because they are so far behind.
There was pride in the radio guys voice as he announced, “Car 40 you took the checkered flag. Good driving. Come on in.” Jonathan and I made it downstairs and were at the barrier when Karen pulled up to the crowd. I yelled to her, “You kicked everyone’s butt!” She yelled back, “I know; it was awesome!” She then climbed out of the car and proceeded to do a happy victory dance for the pleasure of the crowd who were now very much aware of the Hartley party in full swing. After hugging Bill, Karen turned to me and said, “Were you yelling? I heard you yelling.” I was yelling; how could she have heard me? It turns out if you stand next to the guy with the radio and yell when he talks all the drivers can hear you. Karen said she heard me yelling, “Go Karen” and then she heard Rene yelling, “Go Karen” and then the radio guy was saying, “Go car 40.” She said to herself, “I guess I’m supposed to go” and she did.
A very proud, very relieved Bill waits to greet his victorious wife.
“It was awesome!!”
“Were you yelling? I heard you yelling.”
The crew pulled her second car 40 to the back. It turned out she burnt up the water pump because, as Bill knew she would, she drove like a maniac, thus trashing another car. I overheard one of the guys Karen raced tell his family, “I got passed.” I turned to him, pointed at Karen, and said, “By that little girl over there.” He told me, “She said she was really scared.” I think he felt mislead by her earlier trepidation. That still makes me laugh. The party continued with a lot of hugs and a lot of photos. I believe the other four drivers enjoyed their time behind the wheel but no one that day had as much fun as Karen who had one of her dreams come true.
Victory Dance (notice the car in the background more than a full lap behind)