The Greatest Birthday Gift Ever
This past Saturday, Oct 3, marked the one-year anniversary of the greatest birthday gift I have ever received. No, Saturday was not my birthday but it was close enough for the gift to count. Last year, I celebrated a milestone birthday as I crossed the half-century mark. Knowing my love of IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, my two brothers went in together and bought me a ride in the one-seater at the Indy Racing Experience at IMS.
This was not a cheap gift. A three-lap drive will run around $400. But it is well worth it, particularly when someone else is paying for it. But even if I were footing the bill, it would have been well worth the price. I hope to do it again sometime in the next couple of years – and I’ll gladly pay for it this time.
First they have you and a few others near your assigned time- slot sit through about a thirty-minute class, mostly on what to do in case something goes wrong. Then, they have you get dressed for the drive. They have a wide assortment of driver suits to choose from. I was looking for a Penske firesuit but had to settle for the old Scott Sharp style of the Delphi uniform. They had me don a balaclava along with driving gloves and even genuine driving shoes – the ones that have the ultra-thin soles.
As I waited my turn while watching others drive around the track, it struck me that even though they looked like IndyCars, they certainly didn’t sound like IndyCars and they seemed noticeably slower. These are actual IndyCars. They are older G-Force (Panoz) chassis that are vintage 2000 – the same type car that Juan Montoya won in at Indy that year. Of course, this was back in the day when the IRL actually changed chassis about every three years. Who knew that these current cars would actually span a generation? But I digress.
As it turns out, the difference in the sound was attributed to the fact that these cars are actually powered by Honda Gold Wing motorcycle engines. It makes sense. They run on gasoline and have plenty of torque and require little maintenance. I don’t think IMS would freely turn the general public loose on their tracks with full-blown 3.5-liter Honda engines – no matter how many legal releases we signed.
As I leaned against the pit wall talking to one of the employees, I asked him how fast the cars go. He said they do about 125 mph. I was kind of bummed. That’s about 100 mph slower than the pole speed. I just knew I was capable of doing at least 200 mph!
It was when I was leaving pit lane that I realized that the motorcycle engine was going to be quite enough. As I was still on the pit lane exit-road building up speed to enter on the backstretch, I realized just how rough those things rode. I could feel every single pebble that I drove over. I had not yet made it onto the track when I also realized just how quick the steering was. It dawned on me that it wouldn’t take much of an over-correction to make the car spin before I even ventured out onto the track – causing the ultimate embarrassment. Fortunately, I kept it reasonable straight.
There is a chase-car that they keep in front of you and you are given strict instructions to not pass it. They never really explained the consequences of such an action but I suppressed my rebellious urge and decided to obey. It didn’t matter. By the time I entered the backstretch, the chase car was disappearing through turn three.
As I gathered speed on the backstretch, that’s when it hit me that this was not a video game or a roller coaster on a track. Those front wheels spinning in front of me were under my total control and that concrete wall that was approaching ever so quickly in turn three was a real wall. SAFER barrier or not, if I jerk the wheel too much or not enough – I’m into that wall. Many drivers much more skilled than I had done it. Regardless of the safety advances, if I don’t navigate this turn – this is going to hurt and be extremely embarrassing.
I was convinced that this car had the regular 3.5-liter engine. I was certain that I was doing at least 240 mph down that backstretch. As I arrived in turn-three, it also dawned on me that there was absolutely no way that this or any car could navigate a sharp 90-degree turn like that. I lifted. As soon as I did, I came to my senses. The car took the turn like it was on rails and never even hinted at going out of control. I was mad at myself for allowing my senses to overrule my thinking. I knew that the car was designed to take the turn at twice the speed I was going. From that point on I vowed not to lift again, and I didn’t.
As I came around on the front-stretch at full-throttle, that was my first glimpse to what the drivers talk about when going into turn-one. The giant grandstands make the track appear to be two feet wide. From video games and countless hours of watching qualifying runs, I knew the correct line to take into the turn. I set up myself by moving to the right side of the track and then cut across to hit the apex. I then let the car drift out wide in the short chute before setting up for turn-two. I’ve got to say, I hit it perfectly – which even at such a relatively slow speed was not easy to do, considering I had NO experience in such a car at all.
When I hit the backstretch after successfully navigating those turns, the rush I felt was ultimate elation – especially considering the fact that my last trip down the backstretch one lap earlier, was filled with sheer terror. As I went through turns three and four again, I began to feel comfortable enough take note of some of the little things. The 9-degree banking on the track looks practically non-existent on television. It is more noticeable when sitting in the stands but is almost intimidating when approaching it in a car. It’s amazing how much it helps turn the car.
I also allowed my mind to drift a little as I drove around the famed oval. Looking back, I was surprised at the names that popped into my head as I took my final lap. One would have thought that names like Harroun, Shaw, Foyt or Mears would have passed before my eyes – but they didn’t. The first name that came to mind was Jim Hurtubise – and don’t ask me why. As I came out of turn-four the only other name that I thought of was Parnelli Jones. I remembered the story of how Parnelli almost lost it coming out of the same turn, but he saved it at the last second. By chance, he realized the limit of the right rear tire and that gave him an edge in speed that no one else had. As I exited turn four, that story came to mind.
As I coasted to the end of the pit wall, the end of the ride had come too soon. In just three laps, I had gone from being terrified to elation and then to an almost dreamy state. As I pulled the balaclava off of my head and the gloves off of my still-shaking hands, my significant other was photographing me. My first words to her were “What a rush!”
The entire trip back to Nashville seemed to take about twenty minutes, while in fact it took the usual four hours. My mind kept replaying the whole experience over and over. It was then that all of the usual names stormed through my mind. I was almost overwhelmed at the thought that I had driven a racecar down the exact path as all of those heroic names from the past. I also thought of those days when I was a kid in the sixties, watching qualifying and races. Like most kids, I had dreams of driving down that front-straightaway but never actually thought I would do it.
Saturday was the one-year anniversary of that drive and it seems like I did it about two weeks ago. As you can tell, I can still recount every second of it. If I live another fifty years, I’ll never forget that day. It was the greatest birthday gift ever. Now, I wonder what they are getting me this year.