A Memory For A Lifetime

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If you read the comments section From the post I wrote about buying race tickets last Wednesday, you saw a comment from longtime reader and commenter Ron Ford, from Wisconsin. In the comment, Ron offered an alternate Christmas gift idea that apparently he and I can both speak about – the Indy Racing Experience.

Ron shared his experience the first time he did it, saying that he was so overcome by the history of everything that had taken place around him that he forgot to concentrate on going fast. He is hinting for his children to give him another go at it.

I can relate.

Since I started this blog in 2009, I have gotten to experience things I never would have dreamed of. I’ve toured the ABC/ESPN production truck at Indianapolis on Race Morning. I’ve had two-seater rides at Fontana and Indianapolis, and a pace car ride at Pocono. I waved the green, white and checkered flags at Fontana on the qualifying run for Helio Castroneves. I’ve stood at the top of The Pagoda on a cold night in December, overlooking an eerily quiet track. Plus, I have practically unlimited access at any track I go to – including rubbing elbows with many media personalities and drivers in the media centers of various tracks – just to name a few.

I don’t mention this to brag or gloat, but to put everything in perspective. None of that compares to the thrill I had on October 3, 2008. OK…I also got married in a suite at IMS in May of 2012. I guess I’d better say that was my biggest thrill, if I want to stay married.

I was to turn fifty the following week in October of 2008. Do the math and you now know I’m now a ripe old fifty-eight years old. A few weeks before, my two brothers surprised me with an early fiftieth birthday gift. They had pitched in together and bought me three laps in the one-seater at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway through the Indy Racing Experience. On that Friday morning in early October, Susan and I made the familiar trek from Nashville to Indianapolis to give us plenty of time to make my 1:30 appointment.

I checked in and signed what seemed like a million wavers. I was then directed to a classroom set inside one of the old F1 garages along the main straightaway. There they gave instructions about what and what not to do. It was then that I learned that there was a chase car in front of you. The instructions were clear – DO NOT PASS THE CHASE CAR!

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We were then led to a fitting area to pick our fire-suits. I ended up with one in the one-time familiar Delphi colors – not because I was a Scott Sharp fan, but because it fit.

As I awaited my turn, I leaned against the pit wall and chatted with a guy from the Indy Racing Experience about the cars. I learned that the cars had been fitted with Honda Gold Wing motorcycle engines, which would explain the muted sound of the exhaust. I asked how fast I could expect to go and he said about 125-130. I was bummed. I wanted to go faster.

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I guess he had carried on the same conversation a million times, because he soon walked off. Susan snapped a couple of pictures from across the pits. This one will look familiar because the cropped headshot is the same one that sits at the top of every article I post on here. I liked the picture because I didn’t know she was taking it and is completely unposed and natural. I like it now because it was taken over eight years ago before I had as much gray hair as I do now. It lulls me into incorrectly thinking I still look like this. Perhaps I should someday update my photo here, but probably not – change is bad.

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They called my name to get fitted for my gloves, headsock and helmet. Now things were getting serious. They took extra care to make sure everything fit. As I stood and waited my turn, I noticed the guy just before me couldn’t handle the clutch and killed the engine. The cars are equipped with starters, so he re-fired it quickly – but he still looked like a rookie. I drive a stick shift every day, but I suddenly found myself afraid I that might suffer the same indignity and look as stupid as he did.

What was to be my car came to a halt. It’s previous occupant crawled out with a look of jubilation on his face. The cars are painted in different liveries. Mine was Pennzoil yellow with Firestone written on the sidepods. I later found out that this particular car was a 2000 G-Force and was the backup car to Juan Montoya. He would drive the car some in practice, but this car never actually raced in the “500”.

They motioned for me to crawl in. I was surprised how natural it felt as I slipped into the cockpit. It felt surprisingly comfortable as I continued to lower myself into the car until it felt as if I was almost lying down. The only discomfort came when they inserted the head-restraint around the cockpit. Suddenly, I could hardly move my helmet – but I suppose that was the idea.

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I’m not sure what the holdup was, but it seemed I sat there a full ten minutes. I didn’t mind as I savored my new surroundings. I adjusted my mirrors with my gloved hands as if I would actually need them being on the track virtually alone. I stole a quick glance out to Turn One and flashed back to all of the races I had seen on that very stretch of pavement. I thought about Art Pollard losing his life at that very spot on the morning of Pole Day in 1973. Then I reflected on all the great men who had raced through that turn over the decades.

As I was day-dreaming, I was suddenly brought back to the present by the guy telling me to start it up as he closed my visor down. The car started right up and so did my heart rate. It suddenly dawned on me what I was about to do. As a kid, I used to dream about just taking laps in an Indy car at Indianapolis. Now, forty-something years later – I was about to do it.

The chase car was suddenly in front of me and they waved me out. As I followed the pit exit road through Turn One, two things became apparent very quickly – this car had the quickest steering I had ever come across on any vehicle in my life, and it was also the roughest riding car I had ever been in. I could feel every pebble on the track through my rear-end.

By the time I entered the actual track coming out of Turn two onto the backstretch, the chase car was completely out of sight. I obviously needed to pick up the pace. My passenger car instincts took over as I tried to turn my restrained head to make sure I could merge onto the empty track. As I got halfway down the backstretch, I realized my wanting to go faster than 130 was bold talk. I felt like I was holding on for dear life. Something was obviously wrong with the car, because I had to be doing at least 225 mph – at least that’s what it seemed like.

What you see on television is not what the drivers see. It dawned on me that there were these two gigantic wheels right in front of me turning at an alarming rate. They didn’t look like an afterthought like they do on television. They are right there in your face, almost blocking your view.

As Turn Three got alarmingly close, it occurred to me that there was no way I could take a ninety-degree turn at such a high rate of speed. My instincts betrayed me and I naturally lifted off of the throttle. Of course, the car seemed to be on rails as it sped through the corner effortlessly. I mentally kicked myself immediately for lifting, since these cars were designed to go twice as fast as I was going. I vowed to never lift my foot off of the throttle again. I didn’t.

I made sure I followed the correct line coming out of Turn Three, even if my slower speed didn’t mandate it. I drifted out to the short-chute wall and then back down to the apex of Turn Four without lifting. Another thing that is deceptive on television – the turns appear to be much more banked when you are in the car than they do on TV. I drifted out of Turn Four out to the wall as I tried to see all the way down to Turn One in the distance. I was mesmerized to actually be experiencing what I had dreamt about for years – the stands flashing by on both sides as I crossed the yard of bricks while going under the flag stand.

The famous scoring pylon flashed by on my left as I suddenly realized another ninety-degree turn was upon me. Just as they do on television, I swung to the right as I set up to swoop down to the apex of Turn One – this time with much more speed that I had carried into Turns Three or Four. My instincts told me to lift, but I held my foot down all through the turn. I was surprised that you could slightly hear the tires – not really screeching, but definitely saying something.

Of course, the car survived the turn beautifully. I drifted out to the wall in the south end, displaying the perfect line – just for whomever might be watching.

As I exited Turn Two, I realized I was much more comfortable beginning my second lap. It dawned on me I was about in the same spot where in 1955, Bill Vukovich collided with Johnny Boyd while trying to avoid Al Keller. Vukovich was fatally injured in the melee and I was driving in that exact spot.

I nailed Turn Three and as I was coming out of Turn Four, I thought about how Parnelli Jones had found additional speed while making the car stand on the right-rear tire when coming out of Turn Four. As I began down the main straightaway for the second time, my thoughts flashed to Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald as I drove the same route that led to their deaths in 1964.

As I crossed the start-finish line again, I realized that my ride was quickly coming to an end. While going as fast as the motorcycle engine would let me, I made the most of those last few corners. I began looking around at the whole facility, thinking how few people in this world will ever get to experience what I was at that moment.

As I entered the backstretch for the last time, I found that I had caught up to the chase car. I decided it might be fun to race him through the last few corners – whoever “he” was. I’m guessing he had more power in his engine, because just as I started getting close to him – he took off out of sight, removing any thoughts in my head that I had caught him. Instead, I then knew he let me catch up to him. Oh, well…

Following my directions from the classroom earlier – I killed the engine at the yard of bricks and coasted to the entrance to Turn One, where they pushed me into the pits. As I climbed out of the cockpit, I realized what an adrenaline rush I had just been through. I found that I was exhausted – after only three laps, and I could hardly stand. But I was also very aware that I was grinning from ear to ear underneath my helmet.

After removing my helmet, they posed me for a picture sitting on the wheel. If you look over my left shoulder, you’ll see Susan with a video camera, filming the whole thing. Keep in mind, this was before iPhones had video and we still relied on camcorders to record moments.

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That brings me to the part that still makes Susan cringe. I showed her how to operate the camera beforehand. However when it came time to film, at some point she pressed the button one too many times – meaning she was filming when she didn’t mean to, and was not filming when she thought she was. There are a lot of close-up videos of pit lane but few of me driving at speed. Fortunately when she was shooting with the still camera, she set the running video camera on the pit wall pointed towards the track. That means there is about a two-second shot where you see my car drive by, as the camera sits stationary.

She realized her mistake before I got out of the car and was devastated at what she had done. She told me what had happened as we got in the car to drive over to the museum and gift shop. She felt so bad I couldn’t even fuss at her. It didn’t ruin the moment or the memories, but it would have been nice to have a little more video of me driving.

Within thirty minutes of climbing out of the cockpit, my out-of-shape neck started getting sore. The next day, it was really sore. That tells me what athletes these men and women are. If my neck was that sore after three laps at such a relatively slow speed, how on earth do the real drivers do it for two-hundred laps at almost twice the speed?

Here is a five-minute video I put together with Susan’s footage of my day at IMS on October 3, 2008. It may not look exciting, but it sure makes me smile to think about it.

If you want to give a gift of a lifetime or treat yourself – this is the ultimate gift for a die-hard IndyCar fan. Keep in mind, it isn’t cheap. When I did it, those three laps cost my brothers a total of $400. Since then, it has gone up to $1,000. I don’t know this, but my guess is that insurance costs have increased considerably. A few years after I did my drive, a twenty-four year-old woman lost her life in a similar experience at Fontana. She hit the wall at a high rate of speed and flipped. Tragedies like that tend to send insurance costs soaring.

The costs and the potential danger is not for everyone. Quite honestly, I could not afford to do it again on my salary. Well I guess I could always charge it, but I think slamming into the wall would be more pleasant than what Susan’s reaction would be if I did that. But if you have the means to do it, then do it. The Indy Racing Experience will absolutely give you the thrill of a lifetime. It’s been over eight years since I did mine and as you can tell – I remember it like it happened this past weekend.

If you don’t want to drive and go even faster – like around 185 mph – they also offer the two-seater, which is also exhilarating. But there is something about piloting your own race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that is unforgettable. For more information on the Indy Racing Experience, go to their website here.

So, thanks to Ron Ford for reminding me what a memory that was. It was truly a memory for a lifetime.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “A Memory For A Lifetime”

  1. JP in Colorado Springs Says:

    George, great piece. The racecar drive at IMS was truly a great memory, but I was really taken by all the other experiences you listed previously to the part about your driving the Indycar. Wow! I’m glad you have kept those things in a thankful place in your heart. I sure would have loved to do half of what you listed here. Well done. Many of us are envious……..

    • That’s why I hesitated to even list them. I don’t want anyone to be envious to the point to think that I’m bragging. But I was trying to illustrate just how special the memory of my IndyCar drive actually was. It was made even more special by the fact that it was a gift from my brothers, who knew how much I would appreciate it. – GP

  2. George’s experience mirrors mine in almost every way, right down to a video mishap. My son left the video camera on while we were walking to the race car, so my video begins with about 10 minutes of gravel driveway footage. I remarked to my son at the time that the engine sounded like a motorcycle engine, but I did not learn that until George told me at some later date. I have never told anyone since that I drove a car at the Speedway with a motorcycle engine and I don’t plan to. I was hoping for something more Offy or Novi sounding. Like George, I also remember that when approaching the track I could feel every pebble on the approach drive. I could not help but remember where Vuky crashed because our family was watching the race from directly across the track next to the infield fence when that happened. My three laps cost $500. I was not aware until now that it now costs $1000. A bit pricey perhaps, but I would still pay it. And I would also call “rent-a-crowd” to fill the stands across from my photo. I have also been able to run my Chrysler Town and Country around the Milwaukee Mile as fast as common sense and the rules would allow. I suspect that A.J. could have put that thing on the pole.

  3. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’ve also been fortunate enough to do the two-seater and the single-seater at IMS. If you are a devoted fan of the Indy 500, the single-seater is worth the price of admission at least once in your life. There’s simply nothing else like it.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Sounds like an amazing experience, and reading about it reminds me of one of many things I really like about auto racing, that I can’t do it.

    I could play in an NBA basketball game. Not successfully, of course, but I could run around the court for 30 minutes and get dunked on and chuck up a couple of bad shots if one of my teammates drew a double team and passed the ball to me. I could not race a car at significant speed against other folks without spinning or slowing to crawl and yelling “get me outta here!” over the radio.

  5. Brian McKay Says:

    Thanks for blogging. I have remembered sporadically your mentions of your IndyCar laps in your first years of blogging.

  6. Pretty cool, Mr. Phillips. Not sure I would have the nerve. Maybe the two-seater someday. Thanks for sharing the video.

  7. Doug Benefiel Says:

    Great read. I too have been fortunate enough to experience both the 2-seater and the single seater. I agree, the sensation of speed in the 2-seater is fantastic but the thrill of actually driving truly was something I had dreamt of my entire life. The feeling I had that first lap coming out of 4 and looking down the front stretch at speed was something I’ll never forget. Thanks for putting it into words. Keep up the blog…it’s something I look forward to reading at each post.

  8. What an awesome blog post! I enjoyed reading this so much. You had so many details of that day. I took my husband out there for a surprise gift just recently and posted it on my blog. I am not much a writer, but I did take lots of photos and videos. Too much to blog in one post. After that day, i can definitely say it was a once in a lifetime experience. Just incredible!

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