Ride Of A Lifetime

My dream came true Wednesday afternoon. Sort of.

As a boy growing up in central Indiana, I always wanted to either play basketball for Indiana University or drive a race car.

I soon realized I was probably too short to play for Bob Knight, or any other basketball coach for that matter. Living in the shadows of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing eventually became my goal.

That was 15 years ago or more.

Wednesday afternoon at the new Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., I finally climbed into the cockpit of an Indy car. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be driving, just riding along in a two-seat Indy Racing Northern Light Series car as part of the Indy Racing Experience.

It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

With open-wheel driver J.J. Yeley at the controls of the IRE car, I was taken on a high-speed tour of Chicagoland’s 1.5-mile, high-banked oval. It lasted just three laps, but it was the most intense two minutes of my life.

But, let’s back up to the beginning.

After viewing an informational video detailing the Indy Racing Experience, I was led to the equipment area. That’s where I pulled on a bright-red driver's suit that was way too big for my 5-foot, 4-inch frame. (Could I really be too small to drive a race car, too?)

Next up were the Simpson shoes. They’re tight, and my pair was bright blue. With my wardrobe complete, I thought I looked the part. In reality, all I needed was a plastic pumpkin, and I could pass for a 12-year-old dressed as his favorite driver on Halloween.

The experience really starts to kick in when you pull on the headgear. The fire sock was no problem, but the helmet was another story. It’s fairly heavy and limits your field of vision pretty dramatically.

As I waited to climb into the tiny cockpit directly behind Yeley, I began to realize what it’s like to be a driver. The suit and helmet are hot. It was hard to hear and see. Thinking about the task at hand was much harder with all of these other sensations bombarding my body.

“Are you ready?” I barely heard the words, and it took me a second to realize it was my turn.

“We have a little one,” one crew member said. I soon found out that was a good thing because the cockpit is confining. I stepped into the car and wriggled my way into the seat. It was so low I felt as though I was sitting on the ground.

“Keep going,” a crew member said. I squirmed some more and maneuvered myself even lower into the cockpit. At this point, my head is at the level of the team member’s knees.

Once into place, crew members buckled me in. I always wondered why race car drivers never buckled their own belts. The truth is, they can’t. With the helmet on and the tight quarters of the cockpit, it’s impossible to look down or move your arms into position to do much of anything but grip the steering wheel.

When the headrest is put into place, it’s even harder to move your head.

Finally, it's time to go. I tugged on my belts to be sure they were secure. I checked the chin strap on my helmet. Then I flipped down my visor. Now I’m feeling confident, because I see drivers do this before they leave the pits all the time. At least I’m thinking straight, I thought to myself.

Then, the starter engages the engine and Yeley steps on the gas, leaving my confidence behind.

We reached 100 mph in about four to five seconds. It’s like the fastest roller coaster you’ve ever ridden.

Before I even realize it, we were on the 18-degree banking in Turn 2. The angle is incredible. Television can’t convey how steep the turns really are.

As we head out of Turn 2, we pick up speed. In just a few seconds we covered the 1,700-foot backstretch.

This isn’t so bad, I thought. Entering Turn 3 at more than 150 mph is like being blindsided by a Mack truck. The G Forces pushed me into the right side of the cockpit. Suddenly, I feel dizzy and lightheaded. I briefly feel as though I’m going to pass out. (Now I know how the CART drivers felt on Texas Motor Speedway’s high banks at 230 mph.)

“Great, I’m going to black out and not be able to enjoy this,” I'm thinking.

When we get onto the frontstretch, I’m feeling better. Still, my heart’s racing and I’m breathing awkwardly. For a brief moment, my helmet’s visor begins to fog up.

We cross the finish line, and I realize that was only the warm-up lap.

Yeley keeps his foot in the gas through the D-curve of the frontstretch and we barrel into Turn 1 again. This time I’m able to think clearly, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

At the speed we’re going, I’m sure we’re going to hit the wall. With the G Forces pushing at several times the force of gravity, there's no way he can hold onto this car, I thought. In the middle of the turn, I glance down at the front wheels. They don’t even appear to be turning to the left.

Soon enough, we’re back onto the backstretch. By the time we reach Turn 3 again, I’m fully adjusted. We glide through the sweeping turn and head out of Turn 4 toward the frontstretch again. I’m told we reached about 170 mph.

The cool-down lap may be called that because it gives drivers a chance to slow the cars, but for me it was an opportunity to compose myself before I had to step out of the car and speak coherently.

Yeley steers the car onto pit road and brings it to a stop. Hands reach in at every angle and unbuckle my belts and remove the fake steering wheel. I’m hoisted out of the cockpit and back on the ground. When I take my first step, however, I feel as though I’m going to float away. I’m still lightheaded from the dizzying speeds and mind-altering G Forces.

But, I want to do it all over again. Suddenly, I know why drivers risk their lives on a daily basis and why people who have never experienced anything like it don't understand it.

Race Center

Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
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