06 May 2010

A New Appreciation for Speed

It felt like I was crawling.

No, not my laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday.  The drive home following the three laps.  Because once you've topped 170 mph in an Indycar, 70 on I-465 just doesn't really compare.

If you're an IndyCar fan, taking a ride with the Indy Racing Experience is a must.  (I'd call it a bucket list item, but that seems too cliche).  And allow me shill for the Indy Racing Experience and Indy Downforce for a moment: for $499 you can purchase your laps around Orlando, IMS or any of the other tracks the IZOD IndyCar Series visits.

But, with a membership in
Indy Downforce, you can earn points towards receiving $100 off this price, allowing you, in total, to save roughly $70 off the price (after accounting for your membership).

I had received the ride as a Christmas present (or the money), and finally earned enough Downforce points to get the $100 off in April; I signed up immediately for the first running at IMS, May 6.

It was George Mallory who famously replied when queried about climbing Mount Everest, "Because it's there."  And IMS has been there for 99 years now, challenging all comers.  While running laps at IMS isn't quite the feat that reaching the world's highest peak is, I would argue it comes close, especially after my experience this morning.

I arrived at IMS at 8:30, rushing through traffic in Indianapolis after an accident snarled up the northeast side, arriving in time to fill out scads of paperwork, essentially clearing IMS and the Indy Racing Experience of any liability should a two-seater find a wall during my laps.

As we filled out paperwork,
Arie Luyendyk Jr. cruised through the crowd, looking Euro-cool as he sent out messages early in the morning.  I didn't have the heart to bring up that I'd watch the young Dutchman pilot an ill-handling CheapCaribbean.com livery to a 28th-place finish in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 (retiring after 54 laps of the classic race) - it didn't seem like the right karma for the day.

Over my shoulder, a familiar voice - not the one of my father, or my wife, who both attended the day's events - "Trackdude" Michael Young.  If you don't know the voice, you'll recognize later in the month, when Mr. Young conducts many of the interviews you hear and see at IMS throughout May.  He was picking up Long's Donuts for the crew - another IMS staple - if you haven't been to Long's, head east on 16th Street until you smell the glaze.  You can't go wrong.

Young's voice was just another sign that the 500 is right around the corner, and shortly thereafter, we were herded to the changing room in order to put on our driver's suit.  While we were instructed to pick our size based on our coat size, it was readily apparent that while I might wear a medium jacket, the medium suit I had picked up was, shall we say, snug.

The other two gentlemen also came across this issue, and we were all quickly upgrading a size or two.  I settled on a medium-large Canadian Club racing suit, which Dario Franchitti may or may not have worn at some point during the 2007 season, when he claimed the 91st Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar championship.

With Ray Bans on and a driver's suit, I sauntered onto pit lane, imagining the rush that must accompany seeing 100,000 fans on the front stretch cheering for you.

We were quickly handed balaclavas and fitted for helmets and gloves and soon enough, the two-seaters were on track.  As the engines got going, the other participants and I made idle chat, probably trying to calm the nerves.

Davey Hamilton made his way to pit lane, helmet in hand and ready to drive the No. 21 HP two-seater, while Luyendyk Jr. had the No. 4 National Guard machine.

Two gentlemen made their way to the cars, and soon enough, I heard "Stand here.  You're next."  I turned over my shoulder, as my wife and dad took a few pictures for the scrapbook, and I tried not to think too much about what was to come.

I heard a "Have fun," and managed a "I think I can do that," before heading onto pit lane to become the third person to take laps at IMS in the month of May (well, technically, only Hamilton and Luyendyk are driving, but you get the drift).

My 5-foot-6 frame fit easily in the cockpit (I should have been a racer or a jockey, it was more befitting my height and weight), and as I was being strapped in/down, Chris told me, "I'll put your visor down when you're about to go, and there are hand grips in front of you to hold on."

In my head, I chuckled at his final comment.  "Sure, right; I'm going to do this with no hands."

(Unfortunately, Brian Barnhardt didn't come out to lean and tell us, "Give me four good ones.")

Before I knew it, the visor was done and I was staring at the back of Luyendyk's head (there's the back of his helmet, courtesy of
his twitter page).

No real need to get the tires warmed up, as he'd already run four laps, so before I knew it, we were on the entrance road to the back stretch, and butterflies were filling my stomach, just as they do when you reach the apex of a roller coaster.

Then he punched it.  And the butterflies were gone.  My hands shot to the hand grips.  Air shot into my helmet, forcing it up a bit, and for a brief moment, I considered that it might fly off, either taking my head with it or shortening my ride (or both, I suppose).

Before I knew it, we were heading up the track to set up the entrance into Turn 3, and I felt the G-forces that come along with nearing 170 mph.  Instead of rolling with it, I thought to myself, "Let's see what it's like.  Mimic Arie's head movement."

So as Luyendyk dug into the turn, angling in to fight the Gs, I did the same, fighting the turn.

Through Turn 3.  Brief respite.  Turn 4.  Fight the Gs again.  Okay, straightaway.  Look to the left, see the Pagoda and Scoring Tower.  Look right.  Find your seats.  Alright, now look left again, see the people on hand to watch their loved ones.

Turn 1.  G forces.  Man, you're moving fast.  Taking laps at 9 a.m., you can watch the sun bounce off the aluminum bleachers in the shortchute between Turns 1 and 2.  I made sure to catch the Museum and as we hit Turn 2, tried to fight the turn and look at the Suites (they could use a facelift).

Coming out of Turn 2 and onto the backstretch, I noticed the Food/Drink building that stands solo; I wondered if the drivers ever notice that somewhere around lap 130 and wish they could get something to eat. Then I recalled they'd be near a few other cars at the moment, so they'd probably focus on that.

Down the backstretch we went, as I caught a few glimpses of the Brickyard Crossing, reminding me that I need to get out on the course sometime this summer.

Those thoughts were broken up by feeling the car set up to enter Turn 3 again.  I fought the turns once more, and just looked around, trying to imagine the feeling of entering 3 and seeing nothing but fans from Turn 3 into the exit of Turn 4 and seeing the frontstretch, packed with people.

I looked for the green-yellow lights on the fence, in order to get a feel for everything a driver has to look for on the track.  I tried to feel if crossing the strip of bricks at the start/finish line felt any different (it doesn't).

And it was back into Turn 1.  My last lap around IMS.  Before I knew it, Luyendyk was pulling in to the pits after exiting Turn 4, slowing down and parking the car at the pit road exit.

I won't lie.  My legs were a little wobbly.  I was a little dizzy, just as you be after a roller coaster ride.  But my adrenaline was off the charts.  I managed a smile for the Trackdude, who was snapping pictures of each participant, and then headed off to talk to my wife and dad, recounting the experience.

The word that came out over and over was "Awesome."  Honestly, I'm in awe of the men and women who take part in the IZOD IndyCar Series and put themselves on the line every time out on the track.

I have a new appreciation for both the physical and mental demands of Indianapolis - writing this at noon, my hands are sore from squeezing the hand grips, and my neck and shoulders feel fatigued.  After three laps.  I can only imagine what it would feel like after 200 - if you finished anywhere from 2nd to 33rd, that fatigue would be overwhelming.

But after three laps, I can say I've done it.  When those cars head out on track for qualifications, I'll know what some if feels like.  Come May 30, I'll have that appreciation when 33 drivers head out trying to capture the 94th Indianapolis 500.

Thanks to the Indy Racing Experience for bringing it to the fans, and to Arie Luyendyk Jr. for the expert driving.


  1. What a great write-up! I'm going to have to get around to doing the ride-along thing one of these years...

  2. That sounds like suck a great experience, it definitely makes me want to do it even more.

  3. Excellent recap! You're a lucky man.

  4. Oh man, this makes me jealous. My wish to sit in a car like you did. Once met Arie in Assen (Arie.. www.arieluyendyk.nl...remember?
    Next weekend we have the Superleague Formula races (with BobbyD)and Minardi is coming with the two-seater.