Thrill ride turns deadly for instructor at racing attraction

Author: Associated Press
Published: Updated:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – For fans of speed, the Exotic Driving Experience at Walt Disney World offers a heart-pounding thrill.

People who drive minivans during the week can settle in behind the wheel of a Ferrari, a Porsche or another one of the fastest, most finely engineered cars in the world and hurtle around a track at up to 120 mph with a professional driving instructor offering advice from the passenger seat. The cost: $200 to $440.

The customers are just pretending to be race car drivers, but the danger is real.

TaVon Watson chose a Lamborghini on Sunday for his 24th-birthday thrill ride. With instructor Gary Terry by his side, they raced around the one-mile course until Watson lost control of the sports car and slammed into a guardrail, killing 36-year-old Terry.

“It’s not the kid’s fault. It’s a freak thing that happened,” said Timothy Horvath, a Terry family friend. As for Terry, “if he thought he was in any danger, he wouldn’t have done it.”

It was at least the third death in the past year at speedways in the U.S. that allow customers to get behind the wheel of a fast car. Last September, an Indiana man was killed in a crash at the Rusty Wallace Driving Experience at Kentucky Speedway, and a New Jersey woman died at the Wall Stadium Speedway in New Jersey.

Watson had paid under $400 for the chance to drive the Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera, which sells for around $240,000.

He failed to maneuver the high-powered vehicle through the course while driving around 100 mph, and the passenger side struck the guardrail, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Terry died at the scene. Watson was treated at a hospital and released.

Both Watson and Terry were wearing helmets and lap and shoulder belts, said Sgt. Kim Montes, a spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol.

Watson doesn’t face any traffic charges since the accident took place on a closed track, and there are no indications he was doing anything criminal, authorities said. Investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration are looking into what happened.

Terry was a former race car driver and was also senior operations manager at the tourist attraction. Working there was his “dream job,” Horvath said.

Watson, a hotel bellhop, didn’t respond to emails or an inquiry via Facebook. He didn’t have a phone listing. On his LinkedIn profile, he described himself as self-motivated, professionally mannered, humble and “a very quick learner.” He told authorities he had been at the Exotic Driving Experience before.

A spokeswoman for Petty Holdings, which operates the track, wouldn’t comment on whether the Lamborghini had any special safety devices like a driver’s ed car, and Montes said investigators had yet to examine the Lamborghini. But online reviews of the attraction said instructors had override control of the sports cars.

Customers must sign a waiver in case of an accident, watch a five-minute safety video and then spend 45 minutes with the instructor going over the track, the car and safety tips.

The instructor drives first, showing the customer how to maneuver the vehicle, and then the customer can take the wheel. Afterward, customers can buy photos and a video of their driving.

Petty Holdings has other Exotic Driving Experience attractions at speedways in Atlanta; Daytona Beach, Florida; New Jersey; Kansas; New Hampshire; and Texas.

The Exotic Driving Experience and its sister track at Disney World, the Richard Petty Driving Experience, were slated to close this summer for reasons Disney said were unrelated to the wreck. Disney said it wants to put a new transportation project in the spot.

Driving classes at both attractions will be put on hold for the rest of the week, said Lauren Swoboda, a spokeswoman for Petty Holdings.

Terry grew up in a racing family in Michigan. His brother, Adam, was also a race car driver. Terry was married with a toddler-age daughter, said Horvath, who grew up with the Terry family and runs a graphics business in Michigan that specializes in motor sports.

“Gary was one of the best,” Horvath said. “He was a natural-born talent behind the wheel.”

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