Sunday, August 20, 2006

Goin' 185 on my birthday!

Yesterday, August 19, 2006 I was able to experience a lifetime dream - a ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track in a 2-seater Indy car. For several years now, vendors have emerged who provide opportunities for paying enthusiasts to ride, and in some venues drive a real race car. In Indianapolis, we have such a company called Sinden Racing, which was formed in Indianapolis, on Gasoline Alley by two former Indy car pit crew members. This organization has been around since 1987, and has been sponsoring "Indy Racing Experience", a 2-seater Indy car ride which occurs several times a year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. My generous brother provided me a birthday present for an actual ride; ironically Sinden Racing was conducting a Indianapolis session on my actual birthday, which made it very special.

It was a beautiful day in Indy; about 100 people signed up for the event. Each participant receives a packet in the mail for a morning or afternoon session which includes the general time-frame for your ride. After checking-in at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, a van takes you to the pit area of the famed oval and you check-in once again; this time you get fitted with a full racing suit and racing shoes. It's becoming serious at this point! While suiting up in one of the Formula 1 garages, you can hear the cars screaming around the track!

After being fitted, you simply queue-up along the wall of the pits with about 6 other people. Sinden Racing has two cars going around the track; one car runs three laps and as they go by the pits and into the first turn on the third lap, the second car goes out. As the first car enters the pit, the next person gets inside, straps in and when the current hot car is on the third lap, you go out. The is really effecient; and they have a tent to stand under to keep cool due to the heat of the uniform. As you are standing in line at the pit-wall, you are fitted with a sock that goes over your head, a helmet and racing gloves.

When your turn comes, the crew members place a step for you to access the car so you don't step on the fuel tank; the crew is checking tire pressure, covering the engine area with wet towels because the constant starting and stopping makes the engine really hot. You are strapped in with full harness (very tightly I might add), and in a few minutes the driver peals out and you are racing down the famous pit row of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and onto the track. I have never experienced a rush like this in my entire life!

It seemed to me that by the time we were through the first turn and onto the short-chute we were up to speed; I simply could not believe how fast we were going. But, by the time we hit turn two, it was clear we were not even close to the speed we would be going.

Down the backstretch, the car just screams from engine noise and as you head into turn 3 from the backstretch it becomes surreal. How a car can possibly stay on the track at that speed in a turn is just mindboggling. Of course, intellectually I know that physics associated with the related down-force from the wings causes the car to stick to the track; but to experience this in a race car is surreal. It is inexplicable. I learned quickly that when you watch a car on TV during the race from the on-board camera, what you don't experience are the g-forces, the noise, the bumps, the jerks in the turn, it is absolutely unreal. The turns are banked at exactly the same 9 degrees and 12 minutes as they were during the first Indy 500 in 1911 - the only difference is that we were going over 100 mph faster than the first 500!

I also thought of Ray Harroun in his #32 Marmon Wasp running at an average speed of 74.6 mph around the same track to win his first Indy 500 in 1911 in 6 hours, 42 minutes and 8 seconds. The experience of being on the track with the tradition, history, fame, and the emotion of growing up in Indy and seeing the evolution from front-engine roadsters, to the NOVI, the Lotus, side-turbine, wedge-turbine and now the current down-force cars was truly a very, very special day.

The two drivers for the day were Davey Hamilton and Stephan Gregoire. I had Stephan Gregoire and after a memorable ride, I shook his hand and told him it was a great ride on my birthday - he gave me a thumbs-up as he raised his visor and waited for another rider to accompany him on what probably seemed to him like a Sunday afternoon drive. We averaged 185 mph, and pulled 2 g's in the turns.

Sinden Racing also has a program at Indianapolis Raceway Park, now called O'Reilly Raceway Park, where you can take a class and then drive 8 full laps in an actual Indy car by yourself while a seasoned driver leads you in another car. Every car used actually raced in an Indy 500.

Can you guess what I am doing next summer?