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Archive for Friday, September 30, 2005

Commentary: IRL offers the ride of a lifetime

September 30, 2005

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— Cale Yarborough once said the reason there are race car drivers is because there's a class of people who are too lazy to work and too nervous to steal.

The former NASCAR great omitted one detail: they're also CRAZY!

So what does that make me, choosing to ride around the historic Watkins Glen International road course in a two-seat Indy Racing League car at nearly race speed?

Alive and well, still. And a bit loco, too, I guess.

Over the years, this writer has tried an assortment of rides on the edge, one in an aerobatics plane and most of the rest on ice and snow. The mile-long bobsled ride on the old track at Lake Placid had proved to be the "Champagne of Thrills" as promised, so the thought of zooming around the 11-turn, 2.45-mile short course at The Glen, the same one Jeff Gordon and NASCAR compete on, really didn't faze me too much.

Actually, I couldn't wait.

That's the feeling Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden were anticipating when they came up with the idea of the two-seater.

"I envisioned putting in a second seat," said Jasek, a wannabe racer who apparently didn't have the requisite skills but still wanted to ride in an Indy car. "Then I could experience everything and I wouldn't have to worry. Then we started talking, drew it up and presented it to (IRL president) Tony George in 1999. He thought the idea was good as long as the cars were real."

My enthusiasm abated a bit once I began to read the release form for the "Ride of a Lifetime!!" I never before had to fill out my health care provider, or the name of my doctor for that matter.

When I finished the paperwork, Jasek explained what was next. He pointed to a rack of fire suits, booties and racing gloves and then I was off to change in a tent. Lockers are provided to stash your belongings, and then you're fitted for a helmet.

With a fire-retardant head sock underneath, the fit of the Bell helmet was snug - or so I thought. Jasek explained that there were two handles to hold inside the rear cockpit, and a red button to press if I wanted the ride to stop.

Since the two-seaters began running regularly in 2001, thousands of people have taken rides - and Jasek says the button only has been pushed once, by a woman who then decided she wanted to continue.

"We don't talk anybody into taking a ride," Jasek said. "She did one lap, hit the red button, came in, wanted to go back out. That's when we made it the policy - if you hit the red button, you don't go back out."

The line for rides is long, but the pair of two-seaters keep it moving at a fast pace.

Every time the cars return to pit road, a big towel dripping with water is tossed over the cowling behind the passenger seat to prevent the paint from bubbling from the intense heat of the engine.

It's my turn at last, and judging by the reaction of those who have gone before me I expect to be smiling from ear to ear very soon. The first passenger of the day gave the thumbs-up every time he sped down the frontstretch on the three laps he ran.

The blue No. 17 Menards car pulls up and I hop in. Within seconds, I'm strapped in so tightly that I literally cannot move. Then down goes the face shield on my helmet, and I'm in my own little world. We sit there for only a few seconds, but it seems like an eternity.

Soon, I'm taking very deep breaths and my visibility shrinks as the shield steams up. It almost feels like I'm going through an MRI, and I don't know anybody who likes that feeling.

At last, we start to move and my anxiety disappears in a flash, as does the moisture on the shield. Alas, my driver stalls the car, and we have to be pushed back for a restart.

Maybe this isn't such a bright idea.

There isn't much to an Indy car. A carbon-fiber shell, no fenders, no windshield, a cockpit barely big enough for 100-pound Danica Patrick, and a 650-horsepower, methanol-burning engine for power. One of the primary sponsors of my car is Johns Manville insulation; hopefully, there are a few layers of that between my back and that roaring engine.

And I never even asked who was driving.

Too late!

Having seen Patrick and others test here in June, I anticipated that turn one - a 90-degree right-hander - might offer the biggest thrill because the drivers were shifting into high gear down the frontstretch only a second or two before they had to brake hard.

It didn't.

Accelerating at full throttle out of that turn and around turn two, about a 45-degree right-hander, and uphill through the Esses was remarkable. As the engine screeched at 9,200 rpms and we reached speeds approaching 170 mph along the backstretch, I started wondering if I missed a line on the form that asked what funeral parlor would be handling the arrangements.

Suddenly, a series of signs appeared in a flash on the right, alerting my driver how many feet until the start of the chicane, or Inner Loop.

Remember when I said my helmet was snug? As we streaked through the four turns, I felt like I was in the ring with Muhammad Ali - left, right, left, right. By the time we approached the next turn, a sweeping right-hander, my helmet was sitting so cockeyed on my head I could barely see out.

All of a sudden we were screaming down the frontstretch for the final lap. I managed to give a thumbs-up as we sped by, and just like that the ride was over. That's when I found out the guy in the front cockpit was former IRL driver Davey Hamilton and the other pilot was current IRL driver Bryan Herta.

"I didn't want to scare all you guys, but it's my first day ever on the track," the 43-year-old Hamilton said, smiling broadly. "But fortunately, I've raced all my life. It's comfortable, it feels good. People get out and say, 'How do you go so fast?' It makes you remember your first time in these cars. I thought the same thing.

"Sometimes, we lose sight of reality, how fast we were really going, because we're used to it. It's just another day at the office."

Can I come back?

Please!

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