Days of Thunder was a typical cookie-cutter late 80’s/early 90’s vehicle for Tom Cruise. Determined, somewhat arrogant underdog gets humbled, taken under the wing of a wise mentor, works hard, takes risks, and is rewarded with a happy ending/court victory/beautiful girl/chequered flag – or any combination of the four. Having grown up with the more sophisticated Formula 1 series, Days of Thunder was my first introduction to NASCAR. Like many of Tom Cruise’s films, I wasn’t particularly impressed, but it nevertheless left a lasting impression for the power of autosport, and the appeal of redheads (Nicole Kidman, who was soon to be Mrs Cruise, lately Mrs Keith Urban). The possibility of actually racing on a speed track that actually hosts a NASCAR event stoked my Bucket List fires, and clearly stoked the engine of our Ford Explorer as my Dad and I bulleted along prairie backroads from Calgary to Saskatoon. These are roads seemingly designed for speed tests, and I confess I had tested the mettle of the Explorer’s governor, the name of the software that locks the top speed of most modern cars. Fortunately, my Dad was only travelling at 144km/hr when we were pulled over just outside of Harris, SK. The real injustice was the fact that the strapping RCMP officer (who in no shape or form resembled Jackie Gleason) told us the speed limit was 100 km/hr. This on a road with the electrocardiogram of a corpse , stretching five horizons into the distance. Humbled with a $384 speeding ticket, we eventually pull up at the Wyant Group Raceway located just two miles north of Saskatoon to drop the hammer (NASCAR speak for flooring the accelerator) and legally drive as fast as our four wheels could spin.
Canada’s only member-owned and volunteer-run raceway, the Wyant Group Raceway is a fine, oval track that hosts stock cars, pro-trucks, super-late models, and one of only two official NASCAR events in Western Canada. Our shimmering Explorer purrs onto the track where I can’t resist the opportunity of posing it with rusting old Fords from the 1950’s, when the Saskatoon Stock Car Racing Club first raced in its original Motordrome on 8th Street. Three bucket list experiences are on my mind:
- The opportunity to race our street Explorer on a real race track (no RCMP speed traps to worry about here!)
- The opportunity to sit in the passenger seat while a professional race driver who actually knows how to drive speeds our Explorer around a real track.
- The opportunity to suit up, crash helmet and all, and slip into the crash cage of a high-powered stock car and experience my own day of thunder.
Kevin Stanfield from Global News joined me in the Explorer for part 1. I’m not sure what was more entertaining: screaming the Explorer into the corners or watching the horrified face of the camera guy in the back seat from my rear view mirror. My Dad eventually waved us down with justified concern for the state of our treads as they melted in the unseasonal 35C weather. Tick!
Alex “Mad Cat” Leschenko has been racing since 1975 (I was born, but only just!) and has competed in every division there is. I invited him to take the wheel of the Explorer and white-knuckled the passenger seat as he dive-bombed straights with the confidence professional racetrack drivers possess. We discussed the concept of BYT, that is, doing anything “beyond your talent level,” which I picked up at North American’s fastest outdoor go-kart track in California. As one does. Alex inched closer and closer to the wall with each straight, and I imagined my door’s magnetic decal advertising my speaking tour peeling right off. He seemed to really enjoy the Explorer, which took to the racing track like a kitty takes to milk. Tick!
Finally, I suited up and climbed into a 350 horsepower Caprice stock car that seemed to have only two speeds: Fast and faster. Alex buckled me into the crash cage, showed me how to put the car in gear, install the removable steering wheel, and wished me luck. The stock car growled as only non-legal racing cars can. I manoeuvred it out the centre of the raceway, and floored it with such force I had to do another 360-degree loop just to collect my eyeballs. I toyed with the possibility of letting the banged-up Caprice rub the walls, since Tom Cruise explains in Days of Thunder that “it’s just a little rubbing, and rubbings racing!” My ten laps were exhilarating, immensely fun, and most importantly, something that anybody can actually do.
That’s right, as with all experiences on my bucket list, racing a stock car on a NASCAR speedway is accessible to the general public. Several times a year, the Wyant Group Raceway holds introductory sessions where the public can show up and drive 10 laps with an instructor and 10 laps at the wheel. Some of you might get addicted and end up signing up for more instruction. The next thing you know, you’re screaming to Mad Cat Leschenko in your headset that you’re going to drop the hammer! It’s a beautiful dream, and it will stay with you long after you exit the raceway. Just remember that after adding stock car racing in Saskatoon to the Great Canadian Bucket List, it’s best to stick to the speed limit when returning to the roads of reality.