Want to Drive 170 MPH?

Race-car-driving schools offer a glimpse of life in the fast lane.

February 10, 2009, 6:29 PM

June 18, 2007 — -- Some men buy flashy sports cars. Some take up hunting wild animals, and others more simply turn to lifting weights to lose the extra padding they've added since they hit 40.

And then, there's something thousands of other guys do to spice up the monotony of midlife, to experience something other than a day at the office, chaperoning their daughter's school dance or a weekend trip to The Home Depot.

These men head to one of the dozens of race-car-driving schools around the country where average Joes can speed around a track at upward of 170 mph in authentic stock cars once driven by some of today's top racers.

Others might make a trip to one of the 10 Mario Andretti Racing Schools in the United States to get behind the wheel of a 600-plus horsepower Indy-style race car that drives "like it has a jet engine," as one student described.

Recently, the school in Charlotte, N.C., held a "Mario Andretti Fantasy Day," where, for roughly $1,000, students could drive eight laps in an Indy-style race car and then meet Andretti trackside for a photo-op.

Students could also choose to ride as a passenger in an Indy car driven by Andretti, but with no meeting or photo-op.

Rafael Fernandez, 44, is a father of five from southeast Florida, who runs a successful business and says he works "a lot." As an early Father's Day gift from his wife, he traveled to Charlotte for the Fantasy Day and opted to experience the thrill of driving an Indy car for himself.

"It was one of those 'Thank you, Lord' moments," he said. "It was like I was flying. It was incredible."

Fernandez says he averaged 154 mph during his eight laps, but quickly pointed out that "average" means he went a lot faster at times.

"I love cars," he said. "I've got two Alfa Romeos, an old 1969 Jaguar and a 1960 Cadillac limo that I had to build a special carport for."

His experience racing in Charlotte was so life-changing that he's now contemplating buying one of his own Formula race cars.

Meeting Andretti was an even bigger dream come true for Fernandez.

"He was really down to earth, very friendly with everybody," Fernandez said. "He's small, at first. I'm 5 feet, 10 inches and he's shorter than me. But, he's a giant in my heart."

Steve Haight traveled all the way to North Carolina from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for the Andretti adventure. Haight said he'd been a car enthusiast and Indy fan since he was "knee high to a grasshopper" but it's never too late to fulfill a childhood dream.

The trip was a present from his wife who, he said, "must have gotten tired of me returning the ties."

So, she purchased the Fantasy Day for him and slipped the school's brochure in his birthday card, and watched as Haight processed the magnitude of the gift he was receiving.

"I was thrilled … floored," he said. "Meeting Mario Andretti. … He's one of my biggest heroes!"

North Carolina resident Greg Hill, 54, also received a day at the school as a gift from his wife of more than 20 years. He opted for the meet-and-greet with Andretti and to take a few laps as his passenger.

"Talk about a fantasy!" he said. "I just didn't think that sort of thing could even happen. It's so far beyond anything I could have imagined."

Hill, who runs a medical transcription business, said he worked seven days a week and needed a break. The morning of the event he anxiously watched from the stands as more than a dozen people "took their ride" before him. Finally, it was his turn.

"Mario sits in front of you, you sit behind him," he said. "We didn't get a chance to talk. But, when we got going I was screaming like a little girl, like when you're on a roller coaster."

And, with Hill screaming in the back seat, Andretti clocked more than 180 mph.

So, how did the amateur race-car-driving business for lawyers, insurance brokers, teachers and people like Hill begin?

Bob Lutz, owner of both the Mario Andretti Racing School and the Jeff Gordon Racing School for NASCAR fans, started the Andretti School when he was just 28 years old.

Lutz's father owned short tracks in upstate New York, and from age 8 he spent his summers doing everything from "emptying the garbage to making hot dogs 12 to 16 hours a day" for his dad.

"My father was a great businessman," he said. "I raced go-carts as a kid, but I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the business side of things like him."

At 19, Lutz moved to Charlotte where he met a young aspiring stock-car driver named Jeff Gordon.

"Jeff and I became good friends and then roommates from 1990 to 1993," he said.

While Gordon worked on his racing skills, Lutz founded the Richard Petty Driving Experience, an amateur stock-car-racing school, when he was just 23. The school was a huge success but Lutz sold it four years later after getting "an offer I couldn't refuse" from a faithful customer Leo Hendry, a former CEO of TCI Cable Systems.

"He came to the school about 30 times and I guess he got hooked," Lutz said.

So, a 27-year-old Lutz suddenly found himself retired and with more money he could ever imagine in his bank account, but there was a problem.

He was bored and missed "putting smiles on people's faces," and there was another problem. Lutz had signed a noncompete clause when he sold the Richard Petty Driving School so he couldn't get back into the stock-car business for several years.

His solution was expensive and risky, but paid off enormously for Lutz in the long run.

Only a year after his so-called "retirement," Lutz moved to Las Vegas where he teamed up with a group of engineers and car builders and started the first-ever Indy racing school. At a price tag of $1.2 million to build their first Indy car — Indy cars are more complex than stock cars — it was a costly investment.

But, when superstar racer Mario Andretti signed on to be a part of the business, an overnight hit among dedicated Indy fans was born. Lutz said even today the school was the only place in the world where students could drive full-size Indy cars.

As soon as Lutz's noncompete clause with the new owner of the Richard Petty Driving School had expired, he sped back into the stock-car business as well. Lutz's old roommate Jeff Gordon was, by now, a NASCAR megastar but didn't have a driving school named after him, yet.

So, the Jeff Gordon Racing School for stock-car fans was formed as the sister school to the Mario Andretti Racing School for the Indy fans.

"When I owned the Richard Petty School, we built all the cars in-house," he said, "but, now the NASCAR teams have so many cars — and they cycle through them so fast — that it allows me to use the cars that were driven directly by the pros and buy them when they're done."

Lutz said a typical NASCAR team in the early to mid-1990s would have eight to 12 cars. Today, a team can go through 30 cars in a season.

"If a driver decides he doesn't like some of the cars that are built, I can move in and buy them," said Lutz.

Today, the race-car-school industry for amateur racers, started by the young and eager 23-year-old Bob Lutz, has grown to dozens of racing schools of all kinds that stretch across every corner of the United States. Most are schools that cater to NASCAR fans looking for the excitement of speeding around a track in a stock car like Gordon's.

For Haight, Fernandez and Hill, the thrill of driving an Indy-style race car more than twice the speed limit while hobnobbing with one of the biggest legends in racing was an experience of a lifetime that might seem like a distant dream next time they have a dull day at the office or find themselves standing in line at The Home Depot.

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