I’ve never really been one for the vicarious frights of horror movies. Roller coasters are fun as long as the tracks ahead are visible. But racing cars have intrigued me since childhood Memorial Days. On those inevitably sunny Midwest mornings Dad and I would decorate my bike with crepe paper and flags for the local parade as the garage radio broadcast the thrills and chills of the Indianapolis 500.
Those were innocent days long before the race became, like all major sporting events now, a production by and for television. So we could only eavesdrop and imagine what the ovaled spectacle must look like. And, oh, how we imagined! Every year the morning would come, and my dad would get the radio. I’d get my bike. We’d monitor the big event together from within the familiar garage. And imagine.
Many years later I fulfilled a delicious, private vow, taking my father to witness an actual Indianapolis race to reciprocate the shared excitement he’d given me over years. Dad never left his race seat. Race is, by the way, way too small a word to describe the enveloping experience of being among 300,000 or more people near 33 of those 700-horsepower engines when they light up and start to move. Yelling just seemed like the thing to do right about then.
As a reporter and writer most of my working life, I’ve been trained to detachment. No cheering in the press box. Get close to see what’s going on. Curiosity drove me to witness and inquire about many things. I often imagined what it felt like to go very fast within a race car’s metal cocoon. But I settled for the in-car cameras of Fox Sports or IMAX.
Not long ago, while I was in Las Vegas on business, I happened upon an ad for the Mario Andretti Racing School. Impulsively, I phoned the track and made a reservation for the next day.
Wait one minute! What was I doing? Well, they have two-seater, open-wheeled Indy cars for ride-alongs, which I promptly signed up for because that’s up close and I can be a good spectator.
And, the woman inquired, did you want to try a few laps in a car by yourself?
Oh, uh, I don’t know, I said, looking around my empty hotel room as if someone might hear. Um, I really don’t know. That might be more than I’m up for.
But I did know. I started the process. And sat back for the ride.
Unless I’m living to 124, 62 is long past midlife. I felt no crisis. But I did feel a clock ticking. After 60, it seems, others show a deference to an age you don’t yet feel. A week before that Las Vegas trip, I’d have laughed out loud at the thought of donning a fire-resistant jumpsuit and a helmet that felt like a vise with a visor that shuts off fresh air and then voluntarily climbing into an 1,800-pound race car with four open wheels and 8-cylinders generating 600-horsepower from a small-block Chevy with a 118-inch wheelbase. Then I would’ve choked.
Because I’d seen how fast those cars look when they’re going slow. And not even the speeding ticket in Missouri nor the ones in Iowa had ever come anywhere near the velocities those Indy cars go when they’re merely warming up. Driving at a speed in the three-digits was something for me to watch in awe from behind a thick fence or in front of a huge TV screen. With popcorn.
Can you know two contradictory things at the same time? The next morning I knew in my head I was going to chicken out on driving an Indy car on a major speedway. And I knew in my heart that I would do it. It was crazy. What, after all, was the point? I was afraid right then of taking control of a lethal machine at that speed and I was afraid of how I’d feel for a lot longer if I didn’t. Unquenched curiosity is most uncomfortable. It’s been a driving force since my teen years. How often, after all, does someone offer to let you try their Indy racing car?
The Andretti racing people were very friendly at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Like a number of driving schools carrying famous drivers’ names, they rent that track and several others around the country several times a year, push out their cars, provide an hour or so of classroom training and guide eager pupils through their chosen level of experience.
We toured the track by van. A speedway looks large even at 60 miles an hour, especially without other cars on this chilled, sunny autumn morning. First up were ride-alongs. One by one we were tightly strapped behind a helmeted professional, a visored stranger we knew nothing of, not even his or her name. Suddenly we’re pulling from the pits onto an empty track and accelerating. And accelerating. And accelerating. And accelerating.
We were, I learned later, eventually going about 190 miles an hour, faster than a 747 coming or going. As a passenger inside a race car’s straps, there’s not much to do but experience the moments—the intense, rapid acceleration, the centrifugal force, the signs flying by faster and faster. Things moved quickly. A lot faster than L.A. traffic, even on Sunday mornings. The closer the wall the faster life went. As did my heart. And the noise was considerable. The engine, not my heart. And exciting. If my mouth hadn’t been helmeted shut, it would have fallen open.
The driver didn’t struggle at all. In fact, he or she didn’t seem to do much of anything. No movement of note. Just the head wobbling tightly like mine. The hands at 10 and 2 twisting ever so slightly.
Hey, how hard could this high-speed driving be?
The classroom instruction sounded simple. Follow your instructor’s car path six car lengths behind. If he accelerates, you accelerate. The helmet seemed tighter this time. And quieter. You don’t get into these cars; they envelope you. The cockpit lip goes over your shoulders. You’re half-reclining. The five-point harnesses are tight. Very tight. Only your toes reach the pedals. Only your hands and forearms can move.
One moment, honestly, I almost bailed. Something rose in my throat. My breaths were short. The helmet, the cockpit, the straps, the car were so tight. Fortunately, the assistant could not hear my muffled plaint. I swallowed hard. Bump. The pit cart started me moving. Hold the clutch down till the green light ahead. Then pop it and go, Go, GO!!
Seemed easy in class. Just as I neared the green light something happened. An indistinct color flashed by on the right. Very close. Very noisy. Very fast. The instructor’s car at 100 mph. Me, at 40. I floored it.
Note-taking has always been a refuge. I’m in control recording the words, the pace. No note-taking at 65, 85, 95. I have no idea. How fast do 600 horses jump to speed on a 1.5 mile tri-oval? From behind, an instructor’s car looks very small. Focus on six lengths. Follow his path on the straights. The turns. He pulls ahead. I catch up. He pulls. I catch.
Nothing was happening. But it was happening very fast. Sensory overload. I felt every bump. I steered. Little movements caused large changes. I had no idea where I was on the track, except six lengths behind. I pushed the gas farther and farther. The engine responded deeply. The wall flew past. He pulled ahead. I caught up.
Even without other cars, I felt extremely busy. Doing but three things—steering, pushing the gas, gauging six lengths. Nothing else. Oh, and breathing. I forgot that a while. I may have been talking, too. I’m unsure. I wasn’t listening. I do not remember such intense focus ever anywhere. All else squeezed from my mind. There was only now, only this. Mind connected directly to hands. Hands to steering wheel. Steering wheel to tires on the pavement three inches beneath my backside.
Twelve miles on the Las Vegas Speedway go by faster than on Interstate 5. In, what, five minutes, six, the instructor slowed. So did I. We pulled into the pits. He flashed ahead to pick up the next student. I slowed. I stopped. I sat.
Suddenly everything moved slowly. The assistant moved slo-mo to the car, to unbuckle me. My hands, arms, then shoulders felt like lead. They responded the same. I stood, slowly, stepped out, slowly, and walked away, slowly. I muscled the helmet off and BAM! was assaulted by the motorized sounds around me. I did not try to talk in coherent sentences for minutes. I leaned on the fence, casually. Every cell in my being tingled. I felt so alive.
Driving fast in a machine and place made for it was so much more than I expected, than the speed, than those few minutes. And deeper than any intellectual exercise. Would I drive a 600-horsepower car at 150 miles an hour a second time? Probably. But the truth is, I still haven’t stopped living the first time.
Andrew H. Malcolm, a veteran newspaper correspondent and author, is a frequent contributor to this magazine. His other car is a 2000 Buick Regal with 112,000 miles.