(AP) — The speedometer approaching 120 mph, the outside wall a foot or so from the door, and Kurt Busch had one hand on the wheel, the other pointing and waving as he described the nuances of the track.
The passengers — well, at least one of them — had a death grip on the door handles, but Busch was cruising along as if he were a small-town tour guide showing us the sights while tooling along in a convertible Studebaker: "And on the right, you'll find the boyhood home of pecan baron Al Crawford..."
For anyone who has watched NASCAR drivers go around in circles and thought, hey, I could do that, here's some hard truth: No, you can't. At least not like that.
Riding along with Busch before last weekend's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway, it didn't take long to realize those of us in the cut-granny-off-in-traffic crowd are nowhere near the same level as NASCAR drivers.
We're probably closer to driving on the Disneyland Autopia ride — the one in Tomorrowland where the cars drive along rails — than trading paint with the big boys of NASCAR.
Jumping into a street-legal car he had never seen before, Busch made it look so easy, from the moment he spun the tires in a smoky Fast and Furious burnout to calmly cruising within inches of a wall at speeds that turned sponsor signs into blurs. It was almost as if Busch were one with the car, connected by that life-force thingy from Avatar.
A month earlier, I had gotten behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car to turn eight laps around PIR's repaved and reconfigured mile oval.
It was, in the simplest terms, a disaster.
Disoriented by a seat that felt like a coffin, a windshield no bigger than a silverware drawer and the inescapable feeling that the car should slide off the track, I topped out at a wimpy 93 mph — well below my all-time middle-of-New-Mexico freeway mark.
That ride was a bit nerve-racking, even with all the safety equipment.
Doing it in a straight-off-the-street car, even with a professional driver at the wheel, had the butterflies in my stomach doing cartwheels.
The car was a Dodge Charger that, except for what appeared to be racing tires, looked like it had just been driven off the lot at the dealership out near Interstate 10. No roll cage, no Hans device, no helmet, no fire suit, just an "Everyone buckled?" before we peeled off.
We didn't even have to sign waivers, which made it feel almost like a dare, not a pre-planned ride.
Following a burnout that inspired hoots and high-fives from the rest of the group waiting their turn, Busch drove along pit road, around turns 1 and 2 and toward the main part of the track.
After tooling around at the pit-road speed of 45 mph, Busch dropped the hammer as the car shot up the track toward the outside of the track.
Within seconds we were closing in on triple digits on the speedometer and the wall was close enough to reach out and touch from my spot in the back seat on the passenger's side. We slowed into the corner, but it was still fast enough to have us leaning against the doors.
The tires were feeling the speed, too, sounding if they were howling in agony. Busch said the noise was from the tires catching the rubber already laid on the track, not from sliding. I took his word for it since it felt as if we were locked into a groove, on a roller coaster without rails.
As we made our way around the track, Busch acted like a hired guide with a vest and a nametag, telling us how the changes in the dogleg at PIR — it was pushed out 95 feet — affected the way drivers attack the track now.
He also gave us corner exiting strategy, pointing to a sign on the wall along the straightaway while saying "You just aim for that (whatever it was) sign." I'd like to tell you which sign Busch was talking about, but I wasn't exactly paying attention to that, thinking more about how if I aimed at the sign, I'd probably hit it.
The most impressive part of the ride, at least from my non-gearhead perspective, was Busch's one-handed driving.
We're going over 100 mph, the tires are groaning, the wall looming, and Busch is cruising along with just his left hand on the wheel most of the way around.
I'm thinking, "Uh, Kurt, 10-and-2, maybe" and he's waving his right hand around, pointing and making gestures as he talks like we're sitting on the couch. I was half expecting him to start fiddling with the radio or break out his phone and text someone. A couple corners with the knee? Why not?
Thing is, it felt completely safe.
While most of us likely would have left finger indentions on the wheel going that fast and that close to an immovable barrier, Busch was in complete control, of the car and himself. After the first get-to-know-you lap, it was an enjoyable ride, the combination of inside information from a NASCAR drive and watching him work from the inside was an amazing experience.
What Busch had done was made it look easy and, by doing so, drove home just how hard it is.