Never knew 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. Excitement. Something new 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 today wasn’t about watching; today I would actually see and feel what it was like to be in an Indy car, barreling around the track at speeds I’ve never experienced.
My warm-up 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 is 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 stands straight up on end, the G force plasters my body to the seat as we round the first turn. I’m forced to the right and stay stuck there until I’m 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 check book were fatter, I’d do something like this regularly, step outside my comfort zone, jump out of a plane like George Bush did every year on his birthday.
Experiences like this are available all over the country. The Richard Petty Driving Experience puts you in a NASCAR race car at more than 20 venues, including such celebrated tracks a Bristol, Daytona and Talladega. Or, you can do a ride-along. Prices range from $159 to $3,499, depending on the length and complexity of the driving experience.
At the Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon facility, prices range from $129 to $2,299. Prices at the NASCAR Racing Experience start at $129 for a NASCAR ride-along and go to $364.99 for driving a race car that had once been driven by such NASCAR favorites as Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr.
For speed lovers with big budgets, the Richard Petty Fantasy Racing Camp in Las Vegas (March 10-13, 2013) is four full days in Las Vegas; it starts with meeting Richard Petty and Dale Inman and includes getting behind the wheel of a 600 HP NASCAR race car, learning short track driving skills, road course driving skills and participating in a speedway challenge at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Spring Mountain Motorsports Racetrack Road Course. The price is $10,500, with a limit of 12 participants.
As for me, I’m back to just watching and driving with the flow – for now.
[Photo Credits: Lillian Africano]