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]

Lazy rivers: The best U.S. float trips

Paddling through serene wilderness or idyllic farmland is a relaxing way to spend time with friends and family, or to reconnect with yourself. Float trips are ideal for those who don’t wish to brave the uncertainty of rapids and like to stay close to home.

The U.S. has millions of miles of flowing water -why not float along a few? In the early days of settlement, towns sprang up on the shores of these water ways to support commerce. Odds are good that you live near one since so many major U.S. cities sprouted on river fronts.

Snake River, Wyoming
The Snake River meanders through what is arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of land in the lower 48. An easy day outing from Jackson allows paddlers to get a close-up view of the Grand Teton range. Bald eagle, moose, and elk are often spotted on the rugged banks of the Snake. Lost Creek Ranch offers early morning float trips that give visitors a better chance to catch wildlife in action.

Caney Fork, Tennessee
Trout are the reason most come to the Caney. But paddlers will enjoy the relaxing feel of this slow river as it slips through limestone canyons and open farmland. The Caney boasts a multitude of access points used for put-ins and take-outs. Middle Tennessee Fly Fishers offers trout fishing classes and outings for all skill levels.Missouri River, Montana
Follow in the paddle strokes of Lewis and Clark on the longest river in the states. The Missouri has several excellent flat water sections that provide good paddling. For unmatched scenic beauty, take to the water in Montana to see big sky country at it’s best.

Hoh River, Washington

Ancient majestic spruce, world-class fishing, and the lush Hoh rain forest are all part of the Hoh river experience. On this float it will seem like you are tucked into a remote corner of Alaska, but after the paddle you can still get to the nearest Starbucks by late afternoon.

Blue River, Indiana
Family fun is the secret of the Blue River’s popularity. Easy access and proximity to major cities make the Blue a refreshing way to cool off during a mid-summer heat wave. Cave Country Canoes has several options and can accommodate large groups.

Rio Grande, Texas
Straddling the border of Mexico and the US is the Rio Grande or “big river.” This river offers phenomenal views of the canyons in Big Bend National Park. Floats can range in length from 1/2 day excursions to 7-day expedition style trips.

Green River, Kentucky
As the Green drains the south central region of Kentucky it flows through Mammoth Cave National Park. This section is heavily paddled in summer months when the water takes on a bright green color from the limestone in the area. The Green River is also well known for it’s healthy population of freshwater mussels and fish.

Alagnak River, Alaska
The Alagnak was the first river to receive “wild and scenic river” status. Salmon fishing reins supreme on the Alagnak in summer and fall. Humans aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the salmon run though. Be prepared to see both grizzly and black bear in large number on this northern treat. Stay out of the canyon section if you want to keep the paddling to Class I.

Hocking River, Ohio
The Hocking River is geographically centered among several metro areas. The proximity to population hubs and the ease of paddling make for a popular weekend escape for beginner paddlers. Hocking Hills Canoe Livery offers scenic floats through the hilly farmland of Ohio all summer long.

Tarpon Bay Mangroves, Florida
For year-round paddling weather try Sanibel Island off the west coast of Florida. This warm-weather paddling mecca is home to Tarpon Bay. The bay harbors a a mangrove swamp which provides beautiful water paths and tunnels for secluded kayaking. Wildlife is abundant and visitors often see a wide variety of birds and can even spot the occasional manatee.

No matter what state you live in there is flowing water. Taking time to enjoy the peace of these rivers and will refresh and reinvigorate even the most weary of us.

Budget Summer destination from Chicago – Indianapolis

If you are still looking for an affordable Summer destination from Chicago, and don’t want to spend too long on the road, then Indianapolis may be just what you need.

Indianapolis is a strange city – it is quite large (14th largest city in the US), but rarely do you hear much about it.

The city certainly isn’t very high on the list of destinations for people to fly to, and I doubt you’ll ever hear anyone in New York or Los Angeles talking about spending their Summer vacation in Indy.

Despite this, the city has quite a lot to offer, though maybe not enough to spend a week in the area, there is plenty to do on a long weekend.

How to get there

Getting to Indianapolis from Chicago is simple – though it can be rather time consuming. With bad traffic in the Chicago area, you could spend 3 hours just trying to leave the city.

The drive is about 180 miles, and will take about 4 hours (with no bad traffic). Of course, if you hate driving, you can also fly, but the total time and cost involved with that trip really does not make sense.

Alternatively, you could consider Amtrak. At just $38 per round trip, the train is a very affordable option. Sadly, the Amtrak schedule to Indianapolis is quite useless, and most of the trains involve either a very late arrival into the city, or a very early departure back home.

Finally, for an even cheaper way to get into Indianapolis, you can reserve a seat on Megabus. Seats on the bus start at just $1, and the trip takes just over 4 hours.

Where to stay

There are 100’s of places to stay in Indianapolis – varying from upscale downtown hotels to the many chain hotels located around the city.

A convenient location to spend the night is the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites Indianapolis East.

This location is just 10 minutes from the Children’s Museum, and its location means you can drive clear from any traffic heading to the racetrack.

Rooms at this hotel start at just $89, and the rate includes free breakfast and Internet Access.

The hotel is right off the highway, and the vicinity is home to loads of restaurants and other facilities.

What to do

Indianapolis is home to the largest children’s museum in the world – though when I visited the museum, I was not terribly impressed with the number of “hands on” attractions available for kids.

Admission to the museum is $14 for adults and $9 for children, which means a family of 4 will spend close to $50 just to get in.

The Indianapolis Children’s museum does not participate in any reciprocal admission programs and some of the exhibits cost extra, in addition to your entry fee.

Of course, nothing says Indianapolis more than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Speedway itself is actually in Speedway, Indiana and the entire area around the complex is a great place to spend some time.

Unless you love being stuck in traffic and paying $10 for a drink, I recommend staying clear of this area on race days (the schedule can be found here).

The Motor Speedway Museum is open every day of the year (except Christmas), and admission is just $3. A lap on the actual track is an additional $3.

When you leave Indianapolis, be sure to leave early enough to take advantage of 2 great attractions on the way home. About 70 miles outside Indy (between Lafayette and Merillville) is the Fair Oaks dairy farm. This massive multiple farm dairy facility has a modern visitors center with various indoor and outdoor attractions. The highlights of the facility are the “birthing barn” and a bus tour through an actual working dairy farm.

The birthing barn is quite amazing, and several times a day you can sit behind a large glass wall and watch the resident vet assist with the birth of a baby. Of course, you’ll need a bit of a strong stomach, as this is a real birth, not a video tape with edits. Outside the birthing barn is a traffic light, showing whether a birth is in progress.

The dairy farm tour takes about 45 minutes, and drives to one of the Fair Oaks farms a mile from the visitor center. The tour takes your around the barns (each housing 1400 cows), and then drops visitors off at the milking parlor, where you can watch from a viewing room and see 100’s of cows being milked on the massive carousel.

Before you leave, you can buy some fresh milk, ice cream or cheese from the Fair Oaks store/restaurant. With over 20 different varieties of cheese, you are bound to find something you like. Samples are handed out all the time, so even if you don’t leave with a bag full of cheese, you’ll be able to taste their products.

The next attraction on the way home is the Albanese candy factory and outlet store. This may sound like your average candy store, but it is in fact one of the largest candy outlets in the world.

The store sells thousands of different varieties of candy, nuts and snacks. During the week, the facility offers tours, but you are also free to stand and watch their massive chocolate fountain (think Willy Wonka massive!).

So there you have it – a budget friendly destination from the Chicagoland area. Be sure to check out our other budget friendly summer vacation destinations!