When the Sprint All-Star Race kicks off May 22 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the field will be led to the green by a Toyota Camry Hybrid, one that’s all stock save for some decals on the side and upgraded tires.
And against what surely must be good judgment — not to mention provisions of their insurance policies — the folks at Toyota turned over two Camry Hybrid pace cars to a group of motorsports journalists Wednesday at CMS. The stated goal was to put 600 miles on each of the Camrys during the day, a nod to the May 30 Coca-Cola 600 at CMS, which the Toyotas also will pace.
All we had to do was sign a waiver that presumably excused the track from liability should we do something profoundly stupid.
After that, David Newton of ESPN and I hopped in our Camrys, each accompanied by a track intern who must have desperately wanted to work in NASCAR if she was willing to do something so foolhardy as be our passenger.
Then, it was time to take to the track.
Last year, Ryan Newman won the pole for the Coke 600 at 188.475 miles per hour. Of course, he was in a Sprint Cup car and we were in hybrid production sedans. And Newman has genuine talent. The two of us? Not so much, at least not behind the wheel.
But once rolling, the Camry proved ably capable of lapping the 1.5-mile track at a swift pace. The fastest I managed to get it up to was 117 miles per hour going into Turn 3. We didn’t clock any laps, but presumably they were in the low 100+ mph range. With a professional driver — and stickier rubber — certainly the Camrys would have gone a good bit faster.
On the other hand, neither one of us had any interest in doing something stupid like wadding up the car, as former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley did here in 2003, when he stuffed one of Jimmie Johnson’s race cars into the backstretch wall.
That explains a good bit about why we didn’t race each other once up to speed.
A couple of times, I got fairly close to Newton on the track, and when I did, I backed off. While it would have been fun to rattle his cage, neither one of us would have ever lived it down if we’d crashed in a display of testosterone fueled bravado. It wasn’t going to happen.
Still, the cars were impressive and did their job, even if we aren’t exactly race-worthy pilots. And after 20 minutes between the wheel at speed, it’s safe to say that the drivers will be in good hands when the Toyota Camry Hybrid pace cars lead the way in the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.