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600 Horses Or One? An Olympic Dressager Takes A Daytona Thrill Ride To Address The Question

On the way to Daytona International Speedway this past weekend to give high-speed (170 mph) ride-alongs, I was discussing my impending Saturday morning ride customer Jan Lamontagne, an Olympic hopeful in horse Dressage who heads up equestrian team training at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s Keiser University. Mike Carollo, who oversees track operations at Daytona for the NASCAR Racing Experience, laughed and said I should call the story, “600 Horses To One,” referring to the 600-horsepower stock cars the company uses for its rides. I thought, ‘That’s a great title,’ and filed it away in the back of my mind.

Horsepower has been a benchmark for measuring power since the early Eighteenth Century, originated when Scottish engineer James Watt compared steam-engine power to draft horses. Your typical passenger cars crank out just a few hundred horsepower, muscle cars and race cars several hundred, and exotics, like the Bugatti Chiron, 1,600. Of course, there are the NHRA dragsters, at more than 12,000 hp, but that’s another story.

I have given rides to a number of folks with high-adrenaline adventure and sports backgrounds, and am always curious to see what their reactions might be to the G-forces experienced in Daytona’s 31-degree-banked corners, and the frightening speeds we achieve on the straightaways of the 2.5-mile-long oval. My past ride-along guinea pigs include two-time Daytona 500 champ Michael Waltrip, NHRA Top Fuel superstar Antron Brown, U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds pilot Michael “Thorny” Brewer, SpaceX Inspiration4 astronaut Dr. Sian Proctor and former parachute world-record-holder (102,800 feet) Joe Kittinger. All of these passengers’ observations have been unique (see past Forbes stories), and I was hoping Lamontagne’s would be, too, her being an elite horse person.

When the 5-foot 1-inch, 100-pound athlete deftly climbed into the passenger side of my #10 race car through the window, I detected no fear, just a very positive attitude for what she was about to experience. That’s not always the case. So, after the NRE crew strapped her in with a five-point harness system, complete with helmet and Hans device, we did a quick fist bump and scampered from pit lane onto the track, near Turn 1. As the car picked up speed down the back-straight in fourth gear, I glanced over, and Lamontagne still seemed relatively calm. Okay, here we go.

The noise in the car is deafening at full speed, what with the engine roar and the wind, so there’s no way I could tell if she was screaming, humming or just quietly frozen in her seat. After six hot laps, each lasting less than a minute, I pulled back into the pits, and shut down the engine. Well?

“Once we hit the Gs, it was an amazing feeling,” says Lamontagne, 47. “In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Well, I hope it’s not my day, but here I am, so let’s do this.’ Then, as we went around more, I became concerned about motion sickness, as I’m prone to it. On the last laps my stomach was, ‘Um, okay.’ But the perseverance of working through the nausea was worth it because it’s an experience I’ve never had, and one I’ll probably never have again.”

Lamontagne, who lives near Wellington, Florida, has been riding horses since she was two, and training in Dressage, a type of horse dancing, since she was 20. While not really a motorsports fan, she does remember her parents taking her to auto races in New England when she was a kid, and enjoying watching, even falling asleep, during them. Over her lengthy horse career, as in so many walks of life, she says perseverance and patience are the keys to success – those, and the right horse. Hers is a 7-year-old named Kentucky, and, as she describes him, a fireball. Chemistry is important with a show horse, obviously, and she rode several before ultimately picking hers.

When asked, she connected some dots between horses and race cars. “Driving one car around a track may be very different from driving another,” she says. “It’s the same with horses. They all have different personalities, different feels. Also, weather and mood of the driver/rider are always in flux. Then there’s the unexpected. Say somebody wrecks in front of you in a race, you deal with that situation, make quick decisions. Same if a horse gets out of control or throws you. You have to anticipate and react quickly.”

This is not a cheap sport to compete in like say, track and field. As in auto racing, it takes a large fortune to make a small one in the horse business. In addition to all of the upkeep, Dressage animals in the top breeding echelons range in price from $75,000 to $250,000. Lamontagne says that, through negotiation, she was able to purchase hers on the lower end of that range, in Holland. Also, if accepted, to join the Olympic Team requires a $25,000 non-refundable entrance fee. Amusingly, Lamontagne calls herself, “horse-poor.”

Given all of this, does Lamontagne want to drive an NRE stock car herself next time, if there is one? Her immediate answer: Yes. “If I were driving, I probably wouldn’t get car sick,” she says, laughing. “I’d also like to see how it handles, being a driver versus a passenger. I love cars, going fast. But I love horses, too.”

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