A year ago almost exactly, my parents, uncle, brother, his children and your humble author made a special pilgrimage to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a mere hour and a half from where I grew up across the state line in IL (which nowadays, the old postal abbreviation seems much more apt – ILL). We journeyed east that morning brimming with an unusual amount of anticipation, even for a trip to IMS, for you see my father and I were scheduled for two seater rides around the 2.5 mile oval thanks to a Christmas present from my generous brother – thanks, bro!
We arrived before noon and once we made it into the hallowed infield and Gasoline Alley, the track was already roaring with the sort of unparalleled, breath taking action for which the Brickyard is famed. Three or four two seaters were all taking turns around the oval at tremendous speeds, thrilling and scaring the passengers beyond belief. Walking up to the sign in, my heart began racing with exhilaration while simultaneously my mind began asking what on earth I’d been signed up for. Thanks, bro? One glimpse of the speed and power of the Honda two seat IndyCar at that close range was enough to make one wonder what on earth he was getting into and even if it were too late to back out!
Clearly, backing out wasn’t an option – I’d dreamed of circling the historic track in an IndyCar since my earliest boyhood and now was mere moments away from doing exactly that. But your humble author must confess, fellow fans of fast, that it ain’t as easy as it looks on tv, not at all. From viewing dozens of 500s from Stand B in Turn 1, the sheer force of the power generated by IndyCars was indelibly burned into my memory. Seeing the 500 in person is such an awesome experience that one never forgets it. What’s most searing about being there, though, is that you actually feel the cars rushing past and their shuddering power as much as you see and hear it, if not more so. Your author can attest that as incredible as the viewing experience is from the stands, it’s even more unbelievable when you’re standing mere feet away from these modern day chariots of speed, and it’s utterly mind blowing when strapped into the back of one moving at speed.
My dad and I spotted a couple of famous faces while anxiously awaiting our turns on track, first seeing long time driver and team principle Davey Hamilton among the officials there. We next spied a broadcasting legend and were fortunate enough to have a few words with the great Bob Jenkins. He was very kind and friendly. I was nervous and overwhelmed enough at that point – sweating profusely on a hot July day in my fire suit, head spinning at the dizzying on track display – that I asked Mr. Jenkins to take a photograph of my father and I in our suits and gear. He graciously obliged us, and presumably took a terrific snap of us preparing to defy death in mere moments. ‘Presumably’ because he took our picture with his own camera and under the circumstances we were unable to give him a way of sending it to us. So Bob, if you’re reading, that’s my dad and me on your camera!
My dad went first and we all witnessed his dizzying laps, clocking in at about 185 mph around the gigantic oval. It was neat getting to watch him, as well as his reaction upon exiting the car – he loved it and wanted to go again! – but this didn’t lessen my nerves in the slightest. My turn was up next, and I approached the car apprehensively and squeezed in. That’s another point of IndyCar racing that mere viewing doesn’t fully impart – the complete lack of space inside the cockpit and the extremely uncomfortable conditions under which the drivers labor. Your author stands six foot three, about Justin Wilson’s height for comparison, and had absolutely no leg room, even in the stretched two seater. Cramped doesn’t begin to illustrate the tiny cockpit area, as my shoulders, knees and ankles all felt the strain of close confinement. Those cars definitely aren’t built for large people or with comfort in mind. This combined with the heat, nerves, ear splitting sounds and unbelievable tension, and compounded by the extreme danger of what was about to occur (“Sign the waiver?”) all had placed your author in a rather agitated state, to say the least. Suddenly the engine roared to life like an angry earthquake in the trunk, the crew strapped me into my sub-compact sized seat, and away we sped.
A word about that last process before proceeding further with my tale. Frankly, with many minutes to observe the crews securing and un-securing dozens of other riders that fine day, I’d had time to consider all the possible ways things could go wrong. Considering the liability waiver, the fact that crashes do happen, and the seemingly slipshod manner in which this rather important process was being done, my fear levels were not lessened. Strapped in and roaring down pit lane in an instant, driver Stefan Wilson (J-Wil’s younger brother and future IndyCar star) and I built speed and entered the racing surface going into turn 2. As we came up to speed and then immediately slammed through turn 2 and gained momentum down the backstretch, something was obviously wrong with the chassis. With a second to process what I had just endured through our first corner at speed, I very forcefully asked myself “How many more turns do we have to go!?!” Then almost instantly we were slamming through turns 3 and 4, and I wondered if I would survive this harrowing ordeal. I feverishly attempted to count down exactly how many corners were left to endure and how quickly I could exit that super-heated roller coaster ride called an IndyCar.
The problem with the chassis didn’t affect the handling fortunately, but it certainly affected my condition, comfort and mindset in the back seat. You see, the part of the car they put in once you’re in the seat, a sort of horseshoe shaped collar covering your shoulders called a “headrest structure” intended for safety and aerodynamic performance of the cars wasn’t properly secured. It was in point of fact barely attached at all, and at 185 miles per hour was bouncing and flapping about my head like a fluttering carbon fiber scarf in a windstorm with terrifying force and instability. We made it through the remaining turns and straightaways somehow with the headrest remaining tenuously attached. The car remained intact, barely, much unlike your humble author’s mental and physical state.
The experience was truly unique, unforgettable and for yours truly definitely a once in a lifetime event. Happily the ride wasn’t so uncomfortable or scary for everyone that day – Dad hadn’t had as much fun in years – but in my case it certainly was. As mentioned, going through Indy’s slightly banked corners at speed is mortifying, and on each and every exit I was thanking the Good Lord we’d made it through while worrying about making it through the next one. One can read about and imagine the effects of g-forces on IndyCar drivers, but until you feel several g-forces jolting your body with the jarring feel of a car crash you can’t really fathom the violence and terror of the sport. The straightaway speeds and the raw horsepower exhibited down them was marvelous to behold, but the real test is negotiating the corners four times per lap at dizzying rates of speed. When our four laps were finally and thankfully complete, we pulled onto pit lane and rolled to a halt. “Is it over?” I asked myself, struggling to remember the last time I felt quite that strange and exhilarated.
As they unstrapped me from the machine and took note of the flapping headrest structure that had frightened yours truly nearly to death, I wobbled unsteadily away from the car and removed my helmet and balaclava, drenched in sweat and thankful to have survived the epic ride. After shaking Stefan’s hand and thanking him for the safe revolutions, your author slurped down a refreshingly cool bottle of water, spoke briefly to the family, and then proceeded to the nearest trashcan to be sick in. It took me the rest of the day – and skipping lunch with the family – to begin to feel normal after that unreal experience.
I’m not proud of that reaction, but it’s as honest as your author can possibly be and believe me, it could have been worse. What one takes away from a two seater ride – even one not mechanically troubled as was mine – is the sheer ballsiness of those drivers and an even greater appreciation of the dare devils they must routinely be.