The Terrifyingly Wonderful Day I Drove an Indy Car


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First, a confession: One day, on a business trip some years ago, I drove my rental car through an open gate at NASCAR’s Charlotte Motor Speedway and took a couple laps as fast as I dared. I wanted to see what it was like and no one said I couldn’t.

There have been reports of speeding tickets in Missouri and Iowa and, perhaps, California. A family spokesman would neither confirm nor deny.

I’ve always been a curious fellow. My wife introduces me with the warning: “This is Andrew. He asks a lot of questions.”

Well, that’s what I’ve done for more than 60 years in journalism that took me to many interesting places, including NFL playoff locker rooms, aerial iceberg patrols over the Titanic, NHL team road trips, an iron-ore boat voyage in midwinter, and frigid night flights with a Canadian bush pilot ferrying 20 tons of fuel oil to drilling rigs suspended on ice over 5,000 feet of Arctic Ocean. 

The runway lights were bulbs in juice cans.

Those times made up for some of those dreary late nights at Brooklyn Board of Education meetings at the start of my newspaper career. Think of them all as collecting myriad stories for these occasional Memory posts at RedState. (Links to the others are below.)

I trace this auto-racing interest to Memorial Days working outside with my father, who was intrigued by it. Therefore, I was intrigued by it.

We always had the Indianapolis 500 on the radio and marveled at the speed, courage, and skills of those drivers.

Years later, I bought front straightaway tickets to the Indy race to share yet another experience with Dad and my first son around the Indy 500. 

The scale of spectacle there is hard to describe: a quarter-million fans around and within a 2.5-mile track. And men in machines going by at nearly 220 miles an hour. 

The pre-race drama and anticipation are glorious and intense. Then, “Drivers, start your engines!” What a joy after all those years of listening to see Dad’s face when 33 700-horsepower engines erupted into life together and that roar ruffled our shirts.

Over the years, I’ve taken my family to local stock-car tracks on Saturday nights where regular guys duke it out for trophies and maybe $200. Once, we bought a set of tires for a local racer. He painted our name on the car. 

But it’s the thunder that grabs me.

The best was at the Talladega Superspeedway a couple years ago. You can hear the engines a mile away screaming, getting closer and closer. And louder. Then, all within two seconds, 44 cars flash by at 194 miles an hour. You can hardly make out the shapes.

Watching on TV does not do the experience justice. I was 25 rows up from the fence and still felt the blasts. I’ll leave a video below (Sound Up) that gives you a sense of the speeds. Remind yourself there’s someone inside each blur.

So, it probably shouldn’t have been surprising what happened on a business trip to Las Vegas some years ago. I happened to see an ad for the Mario Andretti Racing School. I happened to call. They happened to have an opening the next day.

Numerous professional drivers run “racing experiences” at speedways these days. You can ride along and/or drive yourself. It’s not cheap.

When I awoke that day, I was unsure if I’d go through with it. I was not seeking an alternative career. Honestly, the new roller coasters even make me dizzy. And they only go, what, 60?

But unquenched curiosity is a terrible thing with me. I knew I’d always regret not going. 

So, I went.

An hour in the classroom, then we donned fire retardant suits. I didn’t dwell on why. I just put it on.

First up was a ride-along in a two-seater Indy car. The driver’s hands, at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, barely moved as he eased the open-wheeled race car around the mile-and-a-half track.

From the passenger’s seat, it looked rather easy and simple. Easy-peasy. I wasn’t really that dumb. He had done it thousands of times. Me, never.

He accelerated. And accelerated. And accelerated. And accelerated some more.

When I got out, I asked how fast we’d gone. 190 miles an hour, he said.

So, did I want to try some laps by myself?

It was not like me to say Yes without knowing pretty much everything that required. But “Yes!” is what I said with no further questions.

My entire career I had been a spectator, a fascinated one, at many events. But actually doing it myself launched an emotional tsunami I did not expect.

It wasn’t fear so much as it was the most intense, serious anticipation I could imagine. Squeezing the helmet on was like a vise. Closing the visor made things very warm. Claustrophobia was new to me.

You don’t get into those machines. They envelope you. The cockpit lip goes over your shoulders. I was half-reclining. Only my toes reached the pedals.

The process of strapping into an 1800-pound, open-wheeled race car on a 118-inch wheelbase with 8 cylinders generating 600 horsepower took several minutes and several re-tightenings of straps across every part of my body.

They were so tight I literally could move nothing but my lower legs and forearms, sort of.

Something came up in my throat. The cart will push you on the pit road, they said. When the instructor passes, pop the clutch and follow. Six car-lengths behind.

He passed going 100. Just blur to the side. I was six lengths back before starting. I gave it gas. The engine roared. That was good. And powerful.

But I was way behind. More gas. More roar. Closing. Faster. Taking notes has always been a refuge. I’m in control then. This was so much more. I was in control, but there were consequences to losing it. Intense. No more mere witnessing.

I was more focused on this even than that first high school strip-tease show. So busy, steering, accelerating, tracking the lead car, down low into turns, out high at the end, close to the blurred wall.

I heard the engine. That’s all. I felt every little bump three inches beneath my butt. At one point, I was out of breath. I’d forgotten. 

I don’t recall ever having such intense focus before. Or since. All else squeezed from my mind. Only now, only this. Mind connected directly to hands. Hands to steering wheel. Each twitch brought big changes.

Everything was so fast. No idea where I was on the track. Can’t imagine this with 32 other Indy cars or 43 NASCARs inches away. I know they’ve done this since their teens. My appreciation grew. 

And there was no other car on the track! 

The instructor pulled ahead. I caught up. More ahead. More catch-up.

Then, he slowed. Into the pits. And everything stopped. Every cell in my body was tingling. I had never felt so alive. I had to sit a bit. I get why they do this.

And the money.

When the helmet came off, loud sounds of the world resumed. I winced.

The 10 laps went quickly. It was so much more than I expected on so many more levels than I knew.

The coach gave me a printout of my run. “Not bad,” he said.

My average speed was 150. That’s what NASCAR drivers do when they slow down. 

For the Daytona 500 the other day, drivers went in the 190s to qualify. The open-wheel season starts March 10. For the Indy 500 in May, they’ll need to average in the 220s just to enter the field.

I, uh, won’t be competing this year. But I’ll be watching and listening.

And remembering my high-speed day in an Indy car.

This is the 13th in an occasional series of personal Memory posts. The others are below. I hope they trigger your own memories to share in the Comments.

When I Went on Henry Kissinger’s Honeymoon

When Grandma Arrived for That Holiday Visit

Practicing Journalism the Old-Fashioned Way

When Hal Holbrook Took a Day to Tutor a Teen on Art

The Night I Met Saturn That Changed My Life

High School Was Hard for Me, Until That One Evening

When Dad Died, He left a Haunting Message That Reemerged Just Now

My Father’s Sly Trick About Smoking That Saved My Life

Encounters with Fame 2.0

His Name Was Edgar. Not Ed. Not Eddie. But Edgar.

My Encounters With Famous People and Someone Else

The July 4th I Saw More Fireworks Than Anyone Ever

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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