It was like a Monday morning quarterback getting a chance to start in the Super Bowl.
For nine hours last Wednesday, local drivers - just plain, everyday folks - were given a chance to drive as fast and as hard as they wanted. For once, they didn't have to worry about police officers or radar guns or speed limits. They whipped through chicanes and around hairpin turns. No matter what happened, they weren't going to get tickets, and their insurance rates weren't going to go up.
Their only concern was getting through a twisting temporary course set up at the Florida State Fairgrounds as fast as possible.
This was the Kumho Tire Challenge, a traveling promotional event that was making its first stop in the Tampa Bay area.
"It's the next best thing to actually driving in an auto race," said Jermaine Hayes of Lakeland, who came with his wife, Maria, and their two children, Alexandria, 6, and Junior, 1. "It's just a nice day - something you can do with the family."
The people from Kumho Tires and from Rent a Wheel, the local sponsor of the event, wanted to put on a fun event, but there was also an educational aspect.
Besides giving people a chance to drive faster and harder than they usually can, the Kumho Tire Challenge let them compare different types of tires under fairly extreme conditions.
Here's how the event worked:
Kumho supplied three 2004 Mini Coopers, all with brand-new tires. One had standard passenger car tires, another had high-performance tires, and the third had ultra-high-performance tires.
Drivers showed their licenses and signed releases. Then Kumho drivers took them around a course, marked by pylons, around the parking lot on the east side of the fairgrounds.
Most people rode around the track three times, once in each of the cars. Then they got their chance to drive the course on their own, with a Kumho official riding shotgun.
"A lot of times, people don't realize that tires really do make a lot of difference," said Jason Myers, a motorsports service specialist with Kumho. "What we're trying to do is to generate some brand awareness, but also to show people how important it is to get the right tires."
The differences between the kinds of tires were obvious to most drivers. The least expensive tires squealed going around the tight turns; the high-performance tires were quieter and noticeably more sure-footed.
"You can really feel the difference in the tires," said 19-year-old Chase Baldwin of Tampa, who identified himself as a street racer. "The wider tires definitely give you better traction."
Baldwin said that even though he's used to racing on city streets, he found the experience on the ad hoc track rather treacherous.
"I'm used to racing through traffic, through cars," he said. "But these pylons don't move."
Others didn't intend to drive at all. They just came with friends and planned to be spectators. But most of them quickly got into the spirit of things.
"Some of these people have been here for hours," Myers said in midafternoon. "You see them going through the course really slowly and timidly, but they get faster and faster every time they go through."
It was a tough day for tires. Each car went through two sets of tires during the event. The higher-performance tires were much more worn than the standard models.
"We could have let them go longer," said Roy Rowe, the divisional vice president of sales for Kumho. "But we wanted people to get a feel for the way these tires hold the road."
In general, Rowe said, higher-performance tires are more expensive, wear out faster and tend to be louder than lower-rated tires. So passenger car tires are definitely more cost-effective. But Rowe recommends that, when it's time to replace tires, car owners should choose ones that are at least as highly rated as those that the manufacturer put on the car originally.
The Kumho Tire Challenge drew 126 drivers. The Kumho officials said that they couldn't have accommodated more than about 200. And considering that the event was not highly advertised, they were thrilled with the turnout.
"We went through 38 pizzas," Rowe said, "so there were some people there."
They were heartened enough that they're already planning to return to the fairgrounds next year, right around the same time. Both Kumho officials and the drivers who came out for this year's event expect crowds to be larger next time.
"It was a great time," said Ritch Torrens of Tampa. "There's going to be more people next year, because the 126 who were there this time will be telling all their friends about it."