Finding My Inner Speed Demon At Indy

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]

Superbowl 2012 travel trends

indianapolis superbowl 2012For football fans, next weekend is the penultimate match up between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. What does that mean for travelers? Stay the heck away from Indianapolis!

Kayak just released data showing that searches from New England to Indianapolis saw an increase of 28 times the average immediately following the Pats/Ravens game. New York Giants fans accounted for a flight search increase to Indianapolis of 38 times the average.

Hotel searches for Indianapolis on January 22 were seven times the average hotel search share of the first two Sundays of the month.

Of course, that means hotels are raising prices accordingly – Staybridge Suites Indianapolis- Airport hotel is showing a rate of $312 and the Residence Inn Indianapolis Fishers is offering a rate of $179. Both are a 20 to 30-minute drive away.
Hotels up to 10 miles from the stadium are already beginning to sell out, if they haven’t done so already.

Of course, if you want to go luxe, you certainly can. Jetsetter is offering three packages for the game, which include overnight accommodations, VIP game passes and party access. Of course, the price goes along with the exclusivity – the most expensive package is $20,000 for two.

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[Flickr via indywriter]

Photo of the day – Pink haze in Indianapolis

pink haze indianapolis

A pink haze at the Indianapolis International Airport? Sort of.

We love the incidentals of travel at Gadling. We love airport lounges, departure boards, ticket stubs, in-flight magazines, even cute salt and pepper shakers — really anything that speaks to travel in all of its extraordinary or completely banal glory.

Today’s Photo of the Day, by Flickr user davitydave, captures one such piece of travel: an airport walkway at the Indianapolis International Airport, bathed in pink lights.

Got a photo on your hard drive that beautifully depicts a travel incidental? Upload it to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. You might end up seeing it here on Gadling as a future Photo of the Day.

Getting drunk: Twenty cities that don’t know how to handle their liquor

California loves to get wasted! San Diego and San Jose are the top two cities that drink stupidly, according to a survey by Insurance.com. They lead the country in alcohol-related driving violations, a dubious distinction to say the least. So, if you step into the crosswalk in these two spots, take an extra second to look both ways.

The reasons for hitting this list vary and include proximity to colleges and nightlife, and the presence of stringent enforcement may play a key role, the survey finds. If you think a lack of enforcement puts a city at the top of the list, remember that slapping the cuffs on a lot of people increases the instances of drunk driving, which actually pushes it up. Insurance.com explains:

San Diego most likely tops the list because its police departments are aggressive in making DUI arrests, and officers there arrest lots of drunk drivers, says Mark McCullough, a San Diego police department spokesperson specializing in DUI issues.

To pull the list of 20 drunk driving metropolitan areas together, according to Insurance Networking News, Insurance.com analyzed “percentage of its car insurance online quote requests for which users reported alcohol-related driving violations.”

So, who made the top 20? Take a look below:

  1. San Diego, CA
  2. San Jose, CA
  3. Charlotte, NC
  4. Phoenix, AZ
  5. Columbus, OH
  6. Indianapolis, IN
  7. Los Angeles, CA
  8. San Francisco, CA
  9. Austin, TX
  10. Jacksonville, FL
  11. San Antonio, TX
  12. Dallas, TX
  13. Houston, TX
  14. Fort Worth, TX
  15. Memphis, TN
  16. Philadelphia, PA
  17. New York, NY
  18. Baltimore, MD
  19. Chicago, IL
  20. Detroit, MI

Boston got lucky on this one. It was excluded because of a lack of data – not because the drivers there are absolutely nuts.

Disclosure: I learned how to drive in Boston.

[Via Insurance Networking News, photo by davidsonscott15 via Flickr]

Flight attendant: Packing heat was a mistake

Let’s be clear: Amber Robillard said she didn’t mean to put a loaded handgun into her carry-on bag. The flight attendant – keeper of order, safety and beverage cart service … not to mention explainer of the rules – says she accidentally packed heat, without a license, when she went to Indianapolis International Airport.

It’s all a big mistake.

On June 4, Robillard was charged with carrying a handgun without a license, in addition to “entering a controlled area in an airport with a weapon,” according to the Associated Press. The AP further explains:

Court records say the 39-year-old told police she mistakenly picked up a bag containing her gun during a trip to Indianapolis. Inspectors found the gun in her bag when she arrived at the city’s airport to work on a Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta.

Yeah, she took her gun to work – with an airline. Genius. Next time this flight attendant tells you to turn off your Kindle or BlackBerry, how much credibility will she have?