INDIANAPOLIS - I’m no speed demon … I’m not even a car fan. But I’ve been promised the “ride of my life” at the Indy Racing Experience, so I’m donning a race suit, helmet and gloves and climbing into a super-fast race car at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Experience is the brainchild of three guys, who first dreamed of giving car enthusiasts the chance to pilot an IndyCar around the legendary track back in 2001. (The ride is also offered at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.)
The sleek car I’m going to drive is no ordinary vehicle. Juan Pablo Montoya drove it for 90 laps during practice for the 2000 Indy 500, and the next year Casey Mears took it for 129 practice laps before hitting the wall on the track’s infamous Turn 1.
About 100 car buffs per day sign up the Indy Experience. On this day, 70-year-old Joyce is coming along for the ride.
I ask why her husband, who’s standing behind her, isn’t joining her.
“He’s too chicken,” she scoffs.
Before I have time for second thoughts about what I’m about to do, I’m whisked into a trailer where I slip into a red-and-white Izod racing suit and directed to a classroom with six other people for a pre-race driving lesson.
My nerves are eased a bit when the instructor says it takes little more than common sense to pilot an Indy race car and that the cars share many similarities with passenger cars — manual transmissions, brakes and throttle — but that they drive like an automatic.
“Driving an Indy car is like lying in a bathtub,” says instructor Jeff Smith. “In a passenger car, you sit higher and can see around you. In an Indy car, you’re only a few inches off the ground, and your sight line is lower, making it tough to see outside the two front tires.”
Indy cars reach a top speed of 160 km/h, says Jeff, but you never really know how fast you’re going because there’s no speedometer.
Jeff tells us to be aggressive and “completely trust the car; you can floor it all the way, even on the turns. You’re about to drive a car on the Indy 500 track, which is pretty special.”
Jeff adds that we’ll be led by a car that shows us the fastest, best line on the course, but we’ll be free to set our own pace.
“The only ‘right’ turn is a left turn,” Jeff says. “Make 12 lefts and zero rights and you’ll be forever in our graces.”
Left: Walt showing off the cars. Right: The simulator shows tourists what its like to be inside an indy car.
I give a shaky thumbs up, squeeze into the driver’s seat and pray I don’t stall or hit a squirrel (a definite possibility on this track surrounded by wildlife).
I’m more excited than nervous. I’m determined to push the pedal to the metal. A flame-retardant mask and helmet are whipped over my head, making me look like a Power Ranger. My pit crew slips pads behind my back and head, secures my seatbelt and lowers my steering wheel.
There’s a slight delay: a squirrel (told you!) has been spotted on the track and action halts for a few minutes. Then I get the all clear and the pit crew starts pushing me. I ease my foot off the clutch, engage the throttle and then I’m flying!
I play chicken and stay in the middle of the track, even though the lead car wants me to bank the turns.
I’m “what-iffing” too much in my head to be a true daredevil, but I’m having a blast. I slow down a bit on the turns, but I floor it several times on the straightaways.
The speed is frightening, but exhilarating.
Before I know it, my three laps are over. The pit crew waves me in and I manoeuvre the car smoothly back into the pit.
Then I get to ride with professional driver Davey Hamilton (I’m the back-seat driver) and he hits speeds well over 200 km/h. The track’s just a blur.
My cheeks feel plastered to my face bones under the pressure of the G-Forces. Just as I’m getting used to it, the ride ends.
I’m giddy as I step out of the car, and as I exit the track, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve missed my true calling in life.
• You can “ride” three laps with a pro driver for $499 (U.S.); drive three laps for $1,000, or do the Ultimate Indy Racing Experience and drive three laps followed by riding two laps for $1,200.
• For more information, visit www.indyracingexperience.com or call 888-357-5002.