During my long career, I have traveled all over the world, but one of my greatest adventures took place a half dozen years ago, right here in the United States. In Indianapolis.
Before I visited the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I never suspected I had a taste for speed. Never chewed up Jersey Turnpike miles singing “Born to Run,” never flipped the bird at the drivers I left in the dust. Nope. Though I drive a traffic-cop-magnet red car, I have never gotten a speeding ticket; I just go with the flow of traffic.
But something happened when I arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Anticipation. Something exciting was about to happen at this place where racing rules, where drivers and their zillion-dollar cars roar around the 253-acre oval, and where 40 million fans worldwide scream for their favorites. Yes, I’m one of those who love to watch, but this day wasn’t about watching; this day I would actually see and feel what it was like to be in an Indy car, barreling around the track at speeds I’d never experienced.
My warm-up, specially arranged for the group I was traveling with, would be a ride in an Indy pace car with superstar Sarah Fisher, who retired as a driver in 2010 after competing in her ninth and final Indy 500 – the most number of starts for a woman in the 94-year history of the event. To me, Fisher was an icon, the first and only female team owner in the IZOD IndyCar Series – and the first female team owner to win an IZOD IndyCar Series race.
My pulse quickened as I walked toward the pace car, a modified Chevy convertible. Introductions out of the way, I asked how fast we would go, hoping I didn’t sound too much like a wuss who feared getting car-sick. About 120-130 mph, she replied. This sounded, well, fast, for an open car. “Girls drive smoother than guys,” she said by way of reassurance. Okay, superstar driver trumps doubts.
I belted myself into the passenger seat. Removed scarf, jewelry, sunglasses – anything that could be whipped off my person. Engine starts, we peel out – and OMG, my hair stood straight up on end, the G force plastered my body to the seat as we rounded the first turn. I was forced to the right and stayed stuck there until I was pushed to the left. My eyes shut; my jaw clenched. But OK, the ride was smooth.
As we went round and round, I opened my eyes. Fisher was relaxed, smiling, enjoying the drive. And suddenly I was, too, energized by the experience of going really fast, yet feeling safe in her expert hands.
Still, when the ride was over, my legs wobbled a little as I got out of the car. I thanked Ms. Fisher for the experience. Yeah, it was really smooth, I said, and she smiled.
And then came the main event. For the Indy Racing Experience, I was going to climb into a two-seat IZOD Indy Car for the ride of my life. And “my” driver would be IndyCar Series veteran and two-time championship runner up, Davey Hamilton.
I’d had to sign a whole bunch of releases that said if something bad happened, it would be on me and not the track. Fair enough, though it did feel funny to give my medical information, the name of my doctor, the name of the person to be contacted in case of emergency. Then I had to suit up, just like the drivers do. I got myself into a way-too-big fire suit that wasn’t made for a small woman, but OK, it was protection. Fire gloves, too. My head was bound in a knit balaclava and on top of that came an enormous helmet with a face shield.
All this stuff was wearing me; I felt like the little kid in A Christmas Story who complained he couldn’t put his arms down. By the time I came face to face with Davey Hamilton, I couldn’t speak – and I couldn’t lower the big fat package I had become into the very skinny and low-slung seat. Someone’s arms lifted and pushed me into the car, strapped me into a harness so tight, I felt as if I had become part of the car. It was actually a good feeling – snug and secure with no room to move.
And then with a thunderous roar, the car shot forward and was soon hurtling around the track at 180 miles an hour. But this time I was one with the car, no shifting from side to side, no lurching stomach, no feeling the push and pull of G force as we rounded the oval.
Eyes wide open, I watched empty grandstands fly by, imagined them crowded with screaming people and pulsing with life on race day. I laughed aloud inside my face mask, high on the thrill of speed. So this was what it was all about. This is what makes professional drivers risk life and vehicle time and again, what makes crazy teenagers take crazy risks on hot summer nights at the Jersey Shore. This was a fantasy I’d never had, but living it felt great! And much too quickly it was over.
Drivers do 200 laps around this track during the Indy 500; the Indy Racing Experience, which I’d just sampled, costs $499 for a three-lap ride. The rides need to be booked months in advance as they’re offered only on select dates for people 18 years of age or older, under 6’5″ in height, and under 250 lbs.
Is the ride worth five hundred bucks? If you can afford it, hell, yes. If my checkbook were fatter, I’d do something like this regularly, step outside my comfort zone, jump out of a plane like the late President George H.W. Bush did on his birthday. But for now, I’m back to driving the speed limit on Jersey highways and occasionally remembering what it had been like to roar around the Indy oval at 180 mph–and loving every heart-stopping minute.