The Food Lion AutoFair is a scene. Describing it almost makes me sound like Bill Hader's Stefon character from Saturday Night Live. You've got deep-fried cupcakes, the world's largest television, reality-show repo men, catfish racing, and that thing where monkeys dressed as cowboys ride around on dogs. (No, really. They're called Team Ghost Riders.) From what I understand, there are even some attractions that involve cars. Which is why 100,000 people show up over the course of the four-day event. Come for the car show, stay to wager on catfish.
As much as I'd like to hang around eating cupcakes and cheering for monkeys, I'm here on a mission. Out behind the main Charlotte Motor Speedway track is a small oval, a diabolically bumpy little tassel of pavement draped over a gentle slope, so you drive downhill on the back straight and uphill on the front one. It's the kind of subtly confounding layout that looks simple but really isn't, a place where you want a balanced, forgiving car with a long wheelbase and a reasonable power-to-weight ratio. Unfortunately for me and my ego, we don't have any cars like that. What we have are a bunch of Legends.
If you're unfamiliar with U.S. Legend Cars' products, they're spec machines aimed at grassroots racers. They're also the most common racing cars on the planet, with more than 5500 plying tracks around the world. The Legends' retro bodywork resembles prewar Fords, Chevys, and Dodges rendered in something just above Shriners scale -- they're cute, really. Walk up to one, and you want to pat it on the roof and tell it that it's a good little car, yes it is.
Then you skid off the track and into a swamp at a billion miles per hour and realize that this thing is not cute. It's a ten-round fight with Manny Pacquiao -- and he's wearing brass knuckles. Not that I slid into a swamp. It was more of a fen or a marsh. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This is Legends Car Driving School, so I expect that a significant portion of the day will be devoted to classroom talk about apexes and contact-patch theory, as it is at seemingly every racing school everywhere. But after we walk the track, the expected diversion to a nearby chalkboard never materializes. With Legend cars, the educational approach seems to be, "Here's a car. Go figure it out."
We do get some tips on the Legend's capabilities. The main thing to remember is that this track is handled entirely in third gear, and at those (considerable) speeds, a Legend car can spin its tires anyplace on the track. Under the stubby hood, a 1250-cc Yamaha motorcycle engine cranks out 140 hp, which is quite a lot in a vehicle that weighs 1100 pounds. There is no differential, and suspension travel is mostly hypothetical.
On my first laps, I drive the Legend car the same way I would, say, a Corvette: brake hard into the corners, then gradually add throttle as I pass the apex. However, a Corvette has a differential and antilock brakes and a functioning suspension. Here, my "slow in, fast out" approach translates to, "slow in, yet also slow out because you're terrified of snap oversteer." Early in the day, the guy who sets the fastest lap spins out on just about every other one of his laps. I do not spin out. Nor do I go very fast. This is unacceptable.
In a bid to clock a respectable time, I double down on my misguided strategy: If braking into the corner isn't working, maybe I'll stay at full throttle longer and brake later. Heading into the downhill corner, I'm hard on the brakes when the car hits a bump, and suddenly the stoppers seem to disappear. I actually have time to look down at the pedal box and verify that I am, in fact, stepping on the brake pedal. And yet, my miniature Dodge heads resolutely off the track, over a banking, and into a soggy ditch. I manage to avoid hitting any walls, but my car will need a tow. If you're still unclear on the scale of these things, the tow truck is a golf cart.
As I climb back up to the track, my mistake is evident -- skid marks stretch from the straight directly down to the bog. I locked the brakes. Back at the pits, a veteran Legend driver tells me, "You've got to quit braking so much. With these cars, you throw them into the corner and let them scrub speed until you can get back on the throttle."
I get back out there and try it his way. I spin coming out of corners. I clip the infield and spray dirt all over the track. I do a 180 in the middle of one corner. I feel like I'm a total mess, the antithesis of the "smooth is fast" mantra preached at every other driving school. But I start laying down competitive lap times on those passes when I'm not utterly screwing it up.
I tend to dwell on my mistakes, and normal driving schools encourage psychic self-flagellation -- contemplate thy crimes, lest you commit them again. But everyone at the track in Charlotte is nonchalant about my many, many errors, seeming to regard them as a natural part of the learning curve. Thus, on my way home that night, I find myself contemplating my one best lap rather than my trip to the swamp. This might be how racing drivers' brains work.
Despite the constant chaos, the Legend cars were huge fun. So much fun that I missed Team Ghost Riders' last show of the day. There are a lot of cars that are easier to drive but not many that are more fun than a monkey rodeo.