SpaceX Astronaut Sian Proctor’s Daytona Stock Car Ride, Not Space But Just As Thrilling

When I interviewed Dr. Sian Proctor a few months back after her epic SpaceX Inspiration4 charity flight courtesy of billionaire Jared Isaacman, I asked what items – if any – remained on her life’s bucket list. I mean, going to space higher than the International Space Station for three days – how can you top that (pun intended)? Well, she said, there were many things she still wanted to do – climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, visit the Amundsen-Scott Station at the geographic South Pole, take a thrill ride in a NASCAR stock car…

At that point, I gently stopped her and said that I could make her third dream come true, if she were really serious and would travel from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, to Daytona International Speedway. From time to time, I give high-speed ride-alongs at the storied track for the NASCAR Racing Experience. Surprisingly, Proctor, 52, agreed to my proposal, and we hatched a plan for her to come in April. Problem was she tested positive for COVID-19 the day before her trip, and we had to postpone. Last week, she said she had some free time, and I happened to be at the speedway giving rides. We rescheduled, and the plan was back on.

To say I was nervous about giving an astronaut a ride is an understatement. Proctor had pulled 6 Gs on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere, and had experienced weightlessness and the “overview effect” by seeing our planet and its thin atmosphere from 364 miles up. How could a stock car ride around Daytona’s speedway even compare? Sure, we would be traveling close to 170 mph through the track’s corners, banked at a whopping 31 degrees, pulling some 3 Gs in the process. But that was only half of what she had experienced in Elon Musk’s Dragon spacecraft. Proctor is also somewhat of a celebrity now, after her flight, which raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. What if something unexpected were to happen during her ride?

That said, I have given well over 1,500 three-lap rides to NRE customers at the speedway, easily eclipsing 10,000 miles on the asphalt. I know every crack, crevice and racing line around the oval. I have also given other well-known persons rides, including two-time Daytona 500 champ Michael Waltrip, NHRA Top Fuel superstar Antron Brown, legendary parachutist Joe Kittinger (who, for many decades, held the highest jump record of 102,800 feet) and United States Air Force Thunderbirds’ pilot Michael “Thorny” Brewer. Sure, Proctor was high-profile, but no more or less so than those aforementioned people.

The night before our ride, Proctor and I had a hearty Mexican dinner at a local Daytona Beach restaurant. I prepped her, discussed the lateral Gs she would pull. She, in turn, showed me amazing videos of her trip to space – on her cellphone, if you can believe it. Rain was forecast for the following day, though, and we both tried to stay positive. Daytona’s weather is notoriously fickle. Racing fans know this, but you cannot run stock cars on ovals in the rain. The slick tires will hydroplane, sending the machines careening into the track’s outside retaining wall.

But thankfully the following morning dawned cloudy and clear, humid but with no precipitation. As important, the track had dried from the previous afternoon’s rainstorm. Proctor’s ride, scheduled for six laps, was to be done first thing, when the track was still devoid of NRE students, and the weather cool – well, as cool as Florida can be in late June.

After I warmed up the car, the crew supplied Proctor with a crash helmet and HANS neck device, then brought her onto pit lane. They helped her climb into the passenger’s side of my car, #19, through an open window (stock cars have no doors), and belted her in snugly with a five-point harness system, “uncomfortably comfortable” as the guys like to say. I re-fired the 600-plus horsepower engine, we exchanged fist bumps and smiles, then it was up through four gears and off to the races!

The car is so loud that I cannot hear the person sitting next to me, and, with my concentrating on the track, I cannot see them, either. For all I knew, Proctor was screaming – or maybe just sitting there, bored to death. I took her low through the corners, high up near the wall, mid-track, etc., for a good sense of the different paths around the track. We were circling quickly, each 2.5-mile-long lap lasting less than a minute, so the time flew by. Afterward, I pulled the car back into pit lane, a little apprehensive. How did this experience compare to Proctor’s space trip, or to other intrepid things she had done in her life?

“My expectation was that this was going to be a lot of fun, and it exceeded that,” said Procter, grinning. “You’ve got the sound, the speed – then the experience of going into the corners. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because I love NASCAR and racing.”

Was Proctor ever afraid? I worried because she had told me before our ride that she had been in a serious accident awhile back where the passenger car she was in slid, then rolled. “There was one moment when we came out of the corner and went up toward the wall, and I thought, ‘Well, this is interesting.’ I’m used to Gs being directed into my chest. Here, it was downward and to the right. On one lap, I even tried to lift my right leg. I could lift it, but it was really heavy. It was a bit like when I flew with Jared in his MiG-29 fighter jet with full afterburners, heading into a turn.”

Ah, but the bigger question: Would Proctor try it again? “Absolutely,” she said without hesitation. “The experience makes me want to take the wheel myself!” Well, there you have it. Let’s get Proctor back to the track. Perhaps she’ll even bring Jared Isaacman with her for a ride! Are you NRE guys listening? Jared, are you listening?