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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Taking Your Ego for a Spin : At Saugus Speedway, you can speed the family car around a racetrack.

July 16, 1993|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Your need for speed rivals Mario Andretti's. But that stack of speeding tickets and those ever-increasing auto insurance premiums are driving you crazy.

Clearly, you have a problem. And probably a screw loose if you think that driving your car--the one you're still making monthly payments on--around a racetrack will solve it.

But here you are, perched behind the wheel, your engine idling and your heart rumbling, about to enter the high-speed world of auto racing in Saugus Speedway's Ego Challenge.

You asked for it. And you paid $20 for the opportunity to do it: fireball the family car around the speedway's one-third of a mile paved oval in a two-lap race against the clock.

If you win--meaning that you're fastest in your class of cars--you walk away with a trophy and a T-shirt.

If you lose, if you really lose--meaning that you screech across the pavement and smack into the concrete perimeter wall before more than 3,000 spectators--you slink home with your tailpipe between your legs.

Try explaining that to your insurance agent.

All of which races through your head, which is crammed inside a crash helmet as you wait among the procession of 20 vehicles for your turn to race. One by one, street-legal wheels of various shapes, sizes and speeds streak onto the track.

You watch, try to remember your instructions and battle butterflies. Only two cars are ahead of you. A track official sticks his head inside your window to offer a few last-minute words of advice:

"Don't worry," he says. "And remember . . . there's an ambulance here if you need it."

Oh, that helps.

The green flag drops and you're off. Instinct tells you to give it the gas and you do. Then you wish you hadn't. You're doing better than 60 m.p.h. down the straightaway and the first of four unforgiving turns is fast approaching.

Instantly, you recall what the track's veteran drivers spent the afternoon telling you: Saugus Speedway, with its pancake-flat surface and sharp, non-banked turns, is one of the toughest racetracks in the country to negotiate.

Halfway through the turn, inertia makes you feel as though you're riding on two wheels.

Whatever you do, don't hit the wall!

Ever since the Ego Challenge was created in 1985, some real, well, crowd-pleasers have left their mark on the track. And sometimes a grimy splotch on the concrete wall.

The mark from one such mishap adorns the wall. You noticed it from the stands, but your eyes are riveted to the track now as you whip out of the first turn and shoot the back straightaway.

So far, so good.

Taking that first turn was a confidence-builder. You're loosening up. Your foot mashes down on the gas pedal.

The next turn is a bit easier, and you whip through it with a tad more speed. The starter is waving a white flag. One lap to go.

And a quick decision to make.

The sound of track announcer Virgil Kilpatrick calling the action and the crowd roaring for you to step on the gas comes through loud and clear.

You've wondered why they call it the Ego Challenge. Now you know: Drive too slow and the crowd boos. Drive too fast and you know what might happen.

You've got to escape this with your car and self-respect intact.

Deciding that a little extra speed won't hurt, you give it the throttle down the straightaway. Hitting the turn, you discover you made a mistake. Too much speed. The sound of screeching tires is louder than before and you're terrified by the sensation that your vehicle is moving sideways.

Don't hit the wall! Don't slam on the brakes!

Your head is spinning, and it sure seems like your car is too. Seconds seem like minutes as you fumble with the steering wheel. Finally, mercifully, your car skids to a halt several feet from the wall.

That never happened on the Ventura Freeway.

Lesson learned and sigh heaved, you put the car in gear and drive tentatively for the checkered flag. Needless to say, the spin ruined your chances of bagging a trophy.

But there's a consolation prize in the stands, where your best friend is sitting with a video camera. You're relieved to be finished, but disappointed to discover your car's brake lights dominate the videotape of your adventure.

"Was I riding the brake that much?" you ask in disbelief.

"You sure were," your friend replies. "Didn't you hear the crowd booing?"

Where and When What: Saugus Speedway's Ego Challenge, 22500 Soledad Canyon Road. Hours: About 6 p.m. the first and third Saturday of every month through September. Price: $20 to enter Ego Challenge; $8 regular admission, $3 children 6 to 11, free 5 and under. Call: (805) 259-3886.

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