A new father takes the American Muscle Car Challenge

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As the 38-year-old father of a 4-month-old baby girl, my sources of entertainment (outside of my job) have become fairly limited. I've found simple joy in going for a walk with her on a warm day or getting to change a diaper that hasn't been pooped in. Oh, how times have changed ...

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When I was contacted about a media opportunity giving local journalists the chance to drive three American muscle cars to find out "How fast can you go?" - I jumped at the opportunity. The only time I've played that game before was when I was in college, driving my little blue Plymouth Sundance like a bat out of hell on my way to cover Music Midtown in Atlanta. I scared the shit out of my two co-worker passengers. (The answer at that time was 114 mph - sorry, Mom.)

The American Muscle Car Challenge is the latest experience from the people who created the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Instead of sitting in the stands, watching your favorite NASCAR driver take 200+ left turns around the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the American Muscle Car Challenge (which opens in Charlotte on April 12) lets the average Joe burn rubber on the track via a testing process in three hearty American cars - a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, a Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 and a Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. (The tests are done in the opposite direction from NASCAR to make it more likely an errant driver will cruise onto the grass instead of into a concrete wall.)

After a brief class, participants are paired with an instructor and drive each car through a practice lap and official test for a total of six laps. Each test consists of four stations - acceleration of 0 to 60 mph; braking efficiency from 60 mph to 0; cornering capability (driving around a curve) to determine lateral G forces and, of course, top speed.

So, how does it compare to the thrill of changing a diaper? I guess it depends on the driver (and baby?) ...

I've driven a manual transmission twice in my life - up until the American Muscle Car Challenge. Both times were roughly 15 to 20 years ago. So, when I found out the Challenge required experience with a stick shift (they will eventually have automatics available as well), I figured there was no better place for a by-the-seat-of-your-pants refresher. After all, it's really about getting used to the feel of the clutch.

I was selected as the first driver to hit the track, and by luck of the draw, I picked the white Dodge Challenger SRT8 392 to start. After putting on a helmet and adjusting my seat, an instructor in the passenger seat gave me a quick rundown of the course and a primer on clutch driving. I think I only stalled once on the way to the start line.

As a series of lights in front of the car changed from red to yellow to green, I let up on the clutch, punched the gas and cruised to a brisk 50 mph on the first part of the course. Thankfully, it was just a practice lap. For the next segment, I hit the brakes as instructed and then made my way around the curved interior of the speedway to experience cornering G forces. Let's face it, though - this was all about speed. As I made my way to third gear on the straightaway, I realized I didn't have the pedal to the floor. Whoops ... Again, thankful it was a practice lap.

For the Challenger test lap, I made my way back through the course with more comfort, but went from 2nd to 5th gear instead of 3rd. My top speed plateaued at 86 mph. Pathetic.

Next up was the glowing blue Ford Mustang Shelby GT500. I could sense the power right from the start. The clutch was trying to pop my foot off of it and the engine seemed to rev just by thinking about the gas pedal. Yep, I stalled a couple of times getting to the start for both the practice and test rounds, but by the time the green light was up for the second lap, my tires were squealing and I was quickly approaching 60 mph. Braking was simple enough, and I could feel a bit more G force around the corner this time as I proceeded to launch it into the straightaway for a top speed of 104 mph. Now, I was getting the hang of it ...

Finally, I took the wheel of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. The clutch wasn't as temperamental - not as snappy as the Ford but had more attitude than the Challenger. After a practice lap to get a feel of the new car, I was ready for the test round. I hit 68 mph on the first stretch before slowing to a stop for part two. I made my way around the corner in third gear and floored it when I got to the straightaway. 108 mph. That's it?!? Damn. I went faster in my Sundance.

I thought I had gone faster, but I blamed the slower-than-expected speed on my lack of manual transmission experience. I know if I had another few laps, I'd easily hit 120 mph. While walking back to the waiting area, another driver told me the same thing - it took him until the third car to feel comfortable enough in the turn to really push the car's limits. His top speed was 130 mph. I was jealous.

I left the track feeling that I enjoyed driving the Camaro the most, but maybe it was because by the time I reached the third car, I was more comfortable using the clutch. The Challenger felt the most timid, but then again, so was I. Regardless, it was a fun, controlled way to fulfill the need for speed without worrying about your passengers screaming... or a speeding ticket.

Interested people can sign up to go through their own experience for $199. Also available is a picture of you with the three cars and videos of your driving experience - one camera on your face and another out the windshield (see above).

Aside from getting behind the wheel of three powerful muscle cars, it was also downright cool to be driving on the Charlotte Motor Speedway, taking the banked turn and getting a bit of high-speed excitement back into my life. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a diaper to change ...

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