Ever wonder if you have what it takes to drive a Winston Cup
car? Here's your chance to find out. We've created a seat for
you in the number 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo of series points
leader Jeff Gordon, who has won eight of the 20 Winston Cup
races run so far this year, including Sunday's road race at
Watkins Glen, N.Y. The seat is imaginary but the race is
real--May's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a
1.5-mile tri-oval that is the nearest thing to an average track
that NASCAR runs on. And as you'll see, there's far more to
getting a stock car around a track than just standing on the gas
pedal and turning left.
Before we strap in with Gordon, he wants us to know how his
vehicle works. And that means starting with the basics. There is
no key with which to fire up a Winston Cup car; a driver must
anticipate the command to start engines by flipping a series of
toggle switches on the dash, and must time the flipping just
right, to get the engine going when the command comes. "I hit my
battery switch just a few seconds before I know they're going to
give the 'start your engines,'" says Gordon. "Then I flip my
tachometer on, then my voltmeter. Then I hit the crank switch to
get the engine turning. Finally I hit the start switch, which
actually lights the distributor to give the power to start the
Gordon then engages the clutch--no automatic transmissions
here--and shifts into first gear. He has to release the clutch
carefully because of the car's tremendous power. "A normal
passenger car has about 200 horsepower," says Gordon. "Even a
Corvette has only about 300. We're talking 700-plus horsepower
in my DuPont Monte Carlo. So it's really easy to spin the tires
leaving the pit road. In a street car you have to get on the gas
pretty hard just to get up to 55 or 65 mph. In my car I can do
65 in first gear and 100 easily in second, and I've still got
two more gears to go."
As he drives, Gordon has to keep thinking, Turn right, turn
right. Yes, oval tracks feature nothing but left-hand turns. But
anywhere else on the track, and at lower speeds, "if you don't
pull the car back to the right it will turn left on its own,
because it's built to go through the turns as fast as possible,"
he says. Our car has power steering that can be adjusted from an
easier to a stiffer feel. "I like a stiffer feel, so I can feel
the front tires a lot more," says Gordon. "But as a result,
turning takes a lot more effort than it would in a street car."
As for the ride, well, you better make sure all of your fillings
are tight. "Our cars are not built for comfort," he says. "The
biggest difference between them and street cars is the stiffness
of the springs and shock absorbers. When you hit a bump in a
race car, it's, Uh! Uh! It shocks you. But I want to feel the
bumps so I know how the car's responding and can react to it.
These cars actually ride better at full speed, as the banking of
the track, the grip of the tires, the weight of the car [a
Winston Cup car weighs 3,400 pounds before the driver gets in]
and the aerodynamic downforce compress the springs."
Like most other drivers, Gordon uses a different engine, chassis
setup and driving style in qualifying than he does on race day.
The warmup lap is crucial in qualifying. "I want to come down
the back straightaway at full speed and get through Turns 3 and
4 to take the green flag as fast as I can," says Gordon. "The
more momentum I carry off 4, the faster my lap is going to be.
Plus, the harder I run through 3 and 4, the better idea I have
of what the car's going to do on the actual qualifying lap."
On the qualifying lap Gordon runs hard into Turn 1. "Now you're
pulling the car down into the corner, still on the gas, pulling
it down low on the banking," he says. "When you get off the gas
you've got to turn back to the right. About halfway through the
turn, when you're confident [that you're not out of control],
bang! You jump right back on the gas and start pulling the car
down again toward the white line. Right then is the deciding
moment of whether you're going to have a good lap or wreck.
"Coming off Turn 2, you're looking as far ahead as you can, down
the backstretch, all the way into Turn 3. I want to get my line
just right, because the way you arc into the corner is
everything. You carry as much speed into 3 as you can, until you
get the feeling, whether it's in the seat of your pants or
whatever, that you need to get off the gas. You pull the car
down, and as long as it sticks and feels comfortable and you're
kind of on the edge, bang! You jump right back onto the gas in
"And you either lose it right then, or it sticks and goes."
At Charlotte it stuck and went, and Gordon won the pole with a
record qualifying speed of 184.3 mph. (He had known he had it
going even during the warmup lap. "When I ran through 4 just
before the green, I said, 'Oh, yeah! This car's gonna be good!'")
And so, here we are, ready to race.
Soon after the command to start engines, the NASCAR pit marshals
give us the signal to roll. Down the pit road, out onto the
track, we're still in first gear. "I shift when I see about
8,000 rpm on the tachometer," Gordon says. We swerve side to
side to warm up the tires.
"As I come by the pits," Gordon says, "the guys will say on the
radio, 'O.K., this is where we're at,'" and wave the pit
signboard. It looks like a multicolored tomahawk, symbolic of
Gordon's pit crew's nickname, the Rainbow Warriors. "I always
take a second look at where my pit is," Gordon continues. "Then
I talk to my spotter [posted high above the track, often atop
the grandstands or the press box] on the radio, to find out
where his good views of the track are and where his bad views
are. Then he says, 'Get your belts tight and get ready to go.'"
If our five-point safety harnesses aren't so tight they hurt our
torsos, they aren't tight enough to be safe. To fight the
140-degree temperatures that develop in the car during a race,
Gordon flips a switch beside his seat to activate the fan that
blows air through tubing and into our helmets. The blower, as it
is known, also cuts down on the amount of carbon monoxide we'll
At the 6:40 p.m. start, the asphalt of the Charlotte track is
soft from the daytime heat. The grip of the tires is minimal.
Our Chevy has been set up to oversteer, which on an oval track
and with these track conditions will cause the rear end to skid
to the right as the car goes through the turns. This is called
running loose. Early on, through every corner, it will be
nip-and-tuck whether Gordon will be able to maintain control of
Setting up the car this way is dangerous but central to the
larger race strategy. As night falls and the track cools, grip
will improve and the Monte Carlo will no longer feel as if it's
oversteering. With most of the race yet to be run, the car will
now feel "perfect," according to Gordon. "I want the car to be
just right after dark," he says.
The green flag is about to fly. The pace car, its roof lights
off, no longer is boss of the field. Our number 24 Monte Carlo
is. "If you're on the pole, you control the start," Gordon says.
"If you're on the outside pole, you've got to wait to go when
the pole sitter goes." Still in second gear, five seconds from
the start, Gordon doesn't get overanxious: "I try to give the
pace car enough room to peel off down the pit road." We're
almost through Turn 4, and Gordon says, "I'm looking for that
green flag. Just a little bit before it drops...just as he
starts to wave it...I'm going."
Still in second gear, Gordon floors the throttle, the tachometer
needle shoots to 8,600 rpm, and the $35,000 Hendrick Motorsports
358-cubic-inch V-8 engine screams for its life. "Boom!" says
Gordon. "Into third gear, see the tach go over 8,000 again,
boom! Into fourth, and into Turn 1."
Already, we've got company. Up on the right comes Gordon's
teammate, Ricky Craven. On our inside comes a blur of blue and
red, Dale Jarrett's Thunderbird. The nearby cars make ours feel
extra loose. "Air plays a big role at a track like Charlotte,"
says Gordon. "When a guy tucks in behind, it loosens us up [by
altering the flow of air over the rear spoiler, thereby reducing
downforce and making the back end of the car skate out]. That's
how you pass here. You get in behind a guy and he says, 'Man, I
just cannot hang onto this thing any longer. I'm gonna wreck.
You go on. I'll race you for it later.'"
Which is what we say, in effect, to Jarrett and Craven now as
they pass us. But Gordon drops us in right behind them. "You get
right back on the guy who passed you and show him what it was
like when he was behind you," says Gordon.
To slip back into the lead on Lap 4, we loosen Craven and pass
him, then do the same to Jarrett. Here comes Jarrett back for
more. And so it goes until the caution flag flies on Lap 54 and
Gordon keeps the clutch in and the engine revving as the Rainbow
Warriors swarm the car. There's a semiviolent jerk as our right
side goes up on the jack. Bam! Down goes the right side, up goes
the left. Bam! Down again, but something has gone wrong. A tire
has rolled against the jack handle and released it prematurely.
There is damage to the left underside of the car. Can't fix it
now. If the pace car, leading the field under caution, passes us
while we're sitting in the pits, we lose a lap. Gordon heads us
back onto the track, then pits for repairs on the next lap,
while the yellow is still out.
The green flies again, but we've dropped to 32nd place, and
Gordon is struggling with a very loose car. Through each corner,
the rear end of the Chevy slides badly to the right, threatening
to turn us sideways. Gordon doesn't panic. "When I start to go
sideways the first thing I do is get off the gas if I think I
can save the car," says Gordon. "Then, I don't look where the
car is pointed--toward the infield--but back to the right, where
I want to be, on the track. My hands, on the steering wheel,
will follow my eyes and turn back to the right. It's no
different than if, say, you're driving down the road and you
look in your left mirror and all of a sudden you find yourself
straying to the left. You drive in the direction you're looking."
With the car handling so poorly, Gordon warns us to prepare for
the possibility that the rear tires will lose adhesion
completely, or that just a tap on our left rear quarter panel
from another car will send us spinning. "The worst feeling in
the world is to get clipped in the left rear, because that means
bye-bye, you're going for a ride," he says. "When you realize
you're not going to save the car, and it starts to go all the
way around, you floor the accelerator to counteract the momentum
of the car's back end, which is going up into the wall. You want
to spin the car down the track. If you're able to do that and
stay out of the wall, then you lock down the brakes. Whichever
direction you're going, that's the way you'll continue to go if
you lock down the brakes."
If flooring the throttle while out of control sounds maniacal,
remember that in April at Martinsville, Va., Gordon used the
tactic to make a complete 360-degree spin. He won the race.
Gordon works us through the pack until the black number 3 Chevy
of Dale Earnhardt looms ahead. "The object here is to pass,"
says Gordon. "A lot of guys get side by side and then don't
quite make it all the way past. So the object is to slow the
momentum of the guy in front of you. Get by him, get in front of
him, get away from him. Because if he stays close enough to you,
he's just going to drive into the next turn a little harder,
take the air away from you [off the rear spoiler] and slow you
down. You've just got to be able to drive away from a guy and
get out into the clean air."
Gordon's pass is a success. With the black car dwindling in our
mirror, Ray Evernham, Gordon's crew chief, comes on the radio to
say that rain is headed this way. The drivers must complete 200
laps--half the scheduled distance--to make the 600 an official
race should the rain preclude further competition. There are 180
laps down. We're now in sixth place, and Gordon must go all out
to catch the leaders before it's too late. Fortunately, we're
going through the turns much more smoothly, almost like a slot
car on its track. The game plan--to set up the car to be loose
early but perfect later--is working.
The caution flag flies when a car wrecks in Turn 4. "If somebody
loses it in front of you, it's pretty much guaranteed that he's
going to go up the track and hit the outside wall [due to
centrifugal force]," says Gordon. "So if I'm right behind him, I
just stay on line or go to the inside. If I'm further back, I'm
on the brakes pretty hard and I wait, and if I can get by on the
inside, I will. But usually I get on the brakes and go high and
wait for him to slide back down the track, and I go by the wreck
on the outside. Ideally, I like to stand on the gas and get past
the wreck as fast as I can. That keeps the guys behind you from
running over you."
On Lap 194, the rain comes. Within moments it is falling in
torrents. Red flag. Stop. Park. "Halftime," Gordon calls it, as
we climb out of the car. There's nothing to do but wait. Crewmen
with umbrellas escort us back to the garage.
Two-and-a-half hours later we're rolling again, but under
caution, to dry the track. There is still a damp spot in Turn 3
that could be calamitous for cars running on slick racing tires
at 185 mph. The laps click off under yellow, past the 200 mark
that makes the race official. We're now in third, behind Bobby
Labonte and Ernie Irvan.
At 11:45 p.m., the race goes green again. Labonte gets a big
jump, but Gordon is patient. NASCAR lets the teams know that the
race is being abbreviated because of the late hour. We'll race
until 12:45 a.m., at which point we'll run 20 more laps.
Gordon brings us in for our last pit stop, on Lap 296. We take
on four tires and 22 gallons of gas--at Charlotte the car gets
about six miles per gallon--in 19.96 seconds. Down the pit road
we go in first gear, the engine screaming, the tach shooting to
8,600 rpm before Gordon shifts into second. It hits 8,600 again
before he slams the Chevy into third. "Driving a street car, I
want to be smooth when I shift," says Gordon. "I don't want to
jerk the passengers or myself around. Out here I don't care how
smooth I am. It's just Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!"
Back on the track now, and soon we're running third behind Rusty
Wallace and Jeff Burton. We tuck in behind Burton, loosen him up
and take second place. Dead ahead runs Wallace. Gordon is
stalking him. We can't just run up beside Wallace. We must,
Gordon says, "get enough momentum to blow completely by him."
Wallace's last pit stop was 20 laps earlier than ours, so his
tires are more worn. Gordon chases him, stays on him, makes him
"use his tires up." With 17 laps to go, Gordon tucks us in on
Wallace's rear bumper and takes the air off his spoiler. That
move, combined with Wallace's tired tires, sends Wallace's
T-Bird skating out. Gordon sees our opening and pounces, passing
Wallace on the outside to take the lead. But Wallace locks right
back onto our bumper, turning the tables, becoming the stalker.
"You want to get away from him," says Gordon. "Get as far away
from him as you can, or he's going to get right back up on you
and loosen you up and pass you. If he does try to pass you, make
him do it on the inside. If he gets outside you, where the
higher line is a little bit faster, he'll be able to keep his
momentum going, and you're done."
Gordon takes us on a high, wide line, protecting our lead over
the final laps as Wallace doggedly tries to find an opening. All
he can do is make a futile effort to the inside. Checkered flag.
"After the rain is when the track and the car came to me,"
Gordon says. Just as he'd planned it: loose early, perfect when
COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE [Jeff Gordon wearing helmet]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GEORGE TIEDEMANN (2) [Jeff Gordon in race car; dashboard of race car]
COLOR PHOTO: DON GRASSMAN [Pit crew working on race car]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GEORGE TIEDEMANN (2) [Radio button on steering wheel; fire switch under dash board]
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN [Jeff Gordon climbing out of race car]
Ten toggle switches control everything from Gordon's helmet fan
to the engine's ignition; extenders put them within reach.
When the engine rpm reading hits 8,800, a light comes on to let
Gordon know he's running at the engine's designed limit.
Some of the instruments in Gordon's Monte Carlo are tilted
sideways so that their needles are easier for him to see. The
voltmeter (A) measures battery power; the tachometer (B)
indicates engine rpm, which is in the 8,000-to-9,000 range
during a race; water temperature (C) should read around
210[degrees]; engine oil pressure (D) should be 70 psi, and oil
temperature (E) should stay between 220[degrees] and
230[degrees]; there's no needle that points to "E" when Gordon
needs gas--if the fuel-pressure gauge (F) drops to 5 psi, it's
time for a pit stop. The master cutoff switch (G) instantly
kills the vehicle's electrical power.
THE PIT STOP
In a typical 500-mile race, Gordon will go through as many as
five sets of tires; right ones wear more quickly than the left.
A crew member behind the wall cleans debris from the grille and
airdam to prevent the engine from overheating.
Exhaust soot and chunks of tire rubber build up on the
windshield and obscure vision; a quick wash cleans them off.
Gordon's Chevy has a 22-gallon tank; he will refill with up to
eight 11-gallon cans of 104-octane fuel during a 500-miler.
When Gordon wants to talk to his crew, he must key the mike by
pushing this button.
If there's a fire, Gordon can pull this switch, and two nozzles
will blanket him with a fire-extinguishing spray.
Plastic scoop catches fresh air, which travels via hoses to cool
Gordon's helmet, seatback and oil tank.
Winston Cup cars use nylon webbing in place of a driver's window
to prevent debris from entering the car.
For safety reasons Winston Cup cars are built without doors;
Gordon gets in and out through the window.