Ride Of A Lifetime

What are the most famous words in racing? While some might hold that “Gentleman, start your engines” takes the top spot, I’ve got a new opinion. “Strap in. Shut up. Hold on.”

Those words are solid advice for anyone brave enough (or is it dumb enough?) to agree to some laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with NBC Mountain Dew Dodge Intrepid driver Wally Dallenbach. When asked by NBC if I’d like to turn a few laps as a passenger in the car, I jumped at the chance. As is sometimes the case, I opened my mouth before engaging my brain.

Reality set in, however, when I met the NBC people at the Brickyard. They explained that Helio Castroneves would run some laps first so they could film the “Wally’s World” segment for the pre-race show. When that was complete, they anticipated having more track time, and that’s when I would get my shot.

Then my mind started racing as fast as the car. Have I written anything too critical of Wally? Have I written anything too harsh of his NBC/TNT brethren who would now see this as the ultimate option for revenge? Had NBC fitted the car with the new roof escape hatch and would they use me as a guinea pig to see if their ejection seat was working properly?

My mind was put at ease somewhat when I found out I would have all of the required safety equipment. Firesuit, helmet, Hutchens device, and more seat belts than I ever dreamed of.

Then Wally showed up and took far too much glee in grabbing my Hutchens device, smelling it briefly, and asking Kurt Roberts and his other crew members, “Did you guys get all of the gas out of this from last week?” He followed that up with a laugh that sounded way too legit for my tastes.

Then I started to really get worried when feature producer Jamie Horowitz started rattling off past comments that I made about NBC’s coverage. A few weren’t so flattering, which really made me wonder if this was all a setup for the ultimate revenge.

My suspicions were further heightened when they handed me a clipboard with a release form on it. “Just sign here,” I was told. The text basically told me that there was a chance I might not live, but my heirs wouldn’t get a plug nickel in compensation, that no one could sue GE, and that Dick Ebersol and Bob Wright would still get to keep their homes in The Hamptons.

Then it was time for the moment of truth. No, not getting in the car and taking some laps. The real challenge was revealed when they handed me Marty Snider’s firesuit and told me that I had to squeeze into it.

Huh? Don’t you have the Jimmy Spencer or Benny Parsons model? Marty is tall and in shape. I’m short and not so in shape.

How bad did I look in the firesuit? Well, once one of the NBC crew members saw me in Marty’s uniform, he came over and actually put a piece of duct tape over Marty’s name. That was his subtle way of telling me that Marty and the whole NBC family would be really embarrassed to be associated with me if anyone sees how I look in this thing.

My horrors were brought to new heights when I was told the passenger change from Helio Castroneves to Mike McCarthy would take place on the track at the famed yard of bricks. That’s right, the overweight guy who could barely breathe in a far-too-snug firesuit would have to climb through that tiny opening in the car in front of the entire crowd at the Brickyard.

I could hear it now. Famed public address announcer Tom Carnegie saying, “It’s a new track record. Just look at that goof trying to climb into the car at the yard of bricks. No one has taken so long or looked so bad in the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

Thankfully, however, the climb in the car went surprisingly smoothly. Getting strapped into the seat did not.

Everything in the passenger seat was set and sized for Helio Castroneves. Since the right half of my body weighs the same as all of Helio, some major adjustments had to be made.

I quickly learned how hot it is in the car. The outside temperature wasn’t bad, but Wally’s first words to me were, “Welcome to my sauna.” It took almost five minutes to get all of the belts set right, put my helmet on, and the Hutchens device connected. I was dripping wet in sweat, as was Wally.

Then I reflected on what a challenge this is. I was exhausted after simply wearing a firesuit and sitting in a car for five minutes. While that may be a reflection of the lack of my physical conditioning, it also gave me a new appreciation for the environment these drivers sit in for almost four hours on a Sunday afternoon.

The Hutchens device and seat belts made it impossible to move anything but my arms and hands. While it all provides for maximum safety, it still amazes me that these drivers are so restricted in their movements and can handle a car so well at 200 mph.

As soon as I was all set, Wally mashed on the gas and we were heading into Turn 1 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I had about three-tenths of a second to reflect on the history of the moment, then I quickly found myself confused about when we were actually going to slow down. That bright shiny white wall was fast approaching and Wally still had his foot on that other pedal.

Then, just as I was wondering if my wife would find a loving father for our three kids after the funeral, Wally hit the brakes just enough to start us through the corner and hopefully safely into the short chute.

While going fast on the straightaway at maximum speed is a major adrenaline rush, it pales in comparison to the fast ride through the corners. The G forces are absolutely amazing. My body had the constant sensation that it was going to thwart all safety devices and fly right out the window.

The other sensation in the corners is looking out the front of the car and wondering how in the world this car stays gripped to the track. It seemingly breaks all laws of physics by not breaking loose and flying up into the wall. I still don’t understand it.

Next, when we were coming out of the short chute, Wally drove up real close to the wall and then jerked the car quickly to the left to get the best line through the corner and then down the straightaway. On TV, that action looks a lot smoother than it feels in the race car.

Another action that surprised me was how much Wally was apparently fighting the steering wheel through all of the corners. I mistakenly assumed that the Brickyard would make for some smooth turning, but that was not the case at all. He was fighting that wheel the whole way.

One other thing jumped out at me as I was along for the ride in Wally’s World. Yes, the track paints over the wall where a driver hits so there is no evidence of a crash. It’s returned to its pristine condition. But there are skid marks all over the track that make a straight line right into the wall. While I felt safe, those rubber marks were a vicious reminder of what happens when something goes wrong.

The four laps went by far too quickly though. Once I started to really enjoy the ride, it was over.

When we pulled to a stop, Wally was almost as disappointed to be getting out of the car as I was. When the engine shut off, he sounded like a little kid who was told by his parents that his day at the Camelot Fun Park was over.

“Man, I love this place,” he exclaimed. “It just kills me not to be able to race here.” Those words weren’t some staged quotes for a story. They came from the heart.

The final truth that I walked away with is that I became even more amazed at the skill level these drivers have. Not only can they hold on to the car, they’re out there with 42 other drivers just inches away from them. It’s incredible. Are race car drivers athletes? You betcha.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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