Sports Business

SPORTS: 'Slow' ride 'round oval makes your heart race

May 30, 2005

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:

In the forest one day, two turtles were involved in a head-on collision. The only witness was a snail. When the forest police arrived to investigate the accident, they asked the snail to describe what he had seen.

"I can't," said the snail. "It all happened too fast."

Speed is a relative thing. And, like the snail, that's my challenge in recounting my recent experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which involved three laps around the 2-1/2 mile oval as a passenger in the 650-horsepower, Chevy-Dallara Indy Racing Experience "twoseater."

It all happened too fast. Way too fast. But what an incredible thrill to be strapped into a rocket-on-wheels and make 175-mph left turns on the most famous racetrack in the world.

The theme for the 500 Festival this month has been "Accelerate Your Senses." Mine were accelerated, all right. From the moment driver Jeret Schroeder (who has had three Indy 500 starts) pulled away from the last pit at the south end of the track, my senses were all about the sensation of the down force that glued the car to the track, the 3.5-G forces that pulled us toward the wall in each corner, and the sheer speed that made those 5/8th-mile IMS straightaways seem about the length of my driveway.

After our group of about 30 passengers signed a multitude of liability waivers, Scott Jasek, co-owner (with Jeff Sinden and Joe Kennedy) of the Indy Racing Experience for Indianapolis-based Sinden Racing Services, told us our experience would begin with a "warm-up" lap. Hardly.

As soon as Schroeder was given the OK to pull away, he stood on the throttle-the acceleration jammed my back against the cushion-and by the time we hit the pit exit coming out of Turn Two, we were flying.

Actually, drivers are instructed to hold to a steady 9,500 rpms, which, at Indy and depending on atmospheric and track conditions, usually results in laps in the 170-mph to 180-mph range, according to Jasek. Those speeds are easily safe enough for an experienced driver such as Shroeder, but more than fast enough to give the passenger at least a partial answer to the question posed in the title of the Mario Andretti book "What's It Like Out There?"

Certainly, during the ride, there was no time to smell the roses, or the methanol. The grandstands went by in a blur. Besides, I was too preoccupied with the sensation that we're going to spin out in every corner to think about taking in the scenery.

Vision is somewhat limited, anyway. Straight ahead, all I could see was Schroeder's helmet. Mostly, I focused just above the left-front tire, although I couldn't help but notice the rapid arrival of the wall as we exited each turn.

It was all over in a blink. Even the fourth turn of the last lap was at speed, but we slowed sharply as we crossed the yard of bricks. Moments later, I exited the car, posed for a picture, shook Schroeder's hand, and said a sincere "thanks." After all, my well-being rested with his skills.

Actually, the operation couldn't be much safer. You're outfitted with a driver's suit, shoes, gloves, Nomex hood and a helmet. IRL safety crews are stationed in the pit and around the track, just as they would be on any practice day. The cars are submitted to the same checks, inspections and meticulous attention as the IRL machines. And to the drivers-Schroeder, Davey Hamilton, Arie Luyendyk Jr., occasionally Al Unser Sr. and Michael Andretti and, on this day because of a special sponsor arrangement, pole-sitter Tony Kanaan-175-mph laps are like a stroll in the park.

This is the fourth year the Indy Racing Experience has had the two two-seaters, which are designed and constructed-at a cost of roughly $650,000 per-for this purpose. Sponsorships from Menard's and Jim Beam have helped offset the costs.

The Experience follows the IRL from track to track, offering rides for $475 to $750, depending on the track. Rides at Indy in the month of May average $600. There is no shortage of customers. Jasek estimates his crew will have hosted about 400 rides in May at Indy, and another thousand over the course of the IRL season.

Other than the sensory rush, my lasting impression is huge appreciation for the IRL drivers. I simply can't imagine the physical and mental demands of driving 220 miles per hour-with as many as 32 cars around you-for 200 laps.

Let there be no doubt: Drivers are athletes.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go change my underwear.



Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to bbenner@ibj.com.
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