By Lee Foster
As we roared at 180 miles per hour around the Indianapolis 500 track, I was pleased that Davey Hamilton was driving the race car.
Seated behind him, clothed in my fire-protection suit, head sock, and helmet, I could see that the slightest touch on the wheel produced an immense effect on the car’s lateral direction. The walls were only a few feet to my right and left.
I was confident that Davey would get us around the track safely, and I had signed five pages of disclaimers that put all risk for the venture on me. My ride was for two laps around the fabled track with a 750-horsepower engine propelling our little rocket of a car.
Davey had driven in 12 Indy 500 races, and during those races he routinely hit speeds of 230 mph. So perhaps our mere 180 mph seemed slow to him. The car I rode in had been an actual contestant car in an earlier Indy 500 race, but had been modified to be a two-seater for guest rides.
As we made the five left-hand turns on the classic 2.5 mile track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the three G’s of gravitational force pushed my body to the right side of the seat. I didn’t go far, however, because I was thoroughly strapped in with a body harness from which only a team of skilled attendants could liberate me.
On this day there were only two cars whizzing around the track, both carrying special guests. On the actual race day, late each May, Davey Hamilton competes against 32 other drivers, each intent on passing him. A slight error by anyone can be fatal to unintended victims.
The actual race day for the Indy 500 is a wondrous sporting phenomenon of worldwide significance. I have never seen such elaborate bleachers for a sporting contest. There is seating for 256,000 on-site fans, and it is said that the bleachers are full. The “infield” covers 253 acres. The worldwide TV audience extends the race to roughly 300 million people, making the Indy 500 the most popular single-day worldwide sporting event.
Anyone in the public with a spare $500 and the desire to experience Indy-level speed can replicate my experience. There are a few openings slots on about 20 days through the long “off season” for guests to be paired up with actual Indy drivers for a couple of spins around the track.
Prior to the ride, I did a tour, which is also open daily to everyone, at the Dallara IndyCar Factory race car manufacturing facility on the edge of the elaborate Indianapolis Motor Speedway grounds. This is where many of today’s Indy cars are built, made in America, though some cars are also built at Dallara’s facility in Italy. Only Dallara is allowed to build Indy 500 cars.
It’s fascinating to tour Dallara to see how modern carbon-fiber technology allows the cars to be ultra light and yet super strong. Each carbon-fiber body part and each metal component for the cars is manufactured by hand. All the cars are made exactly alike, creating a situation where the winning variables are the engine, the skill of the driver and crew, the strategy for the race, and luck. The cars are built with safety in mind, but all the best technology can’t factor in driver error. The engines can be made only by Honda, Chevrolet, and Lotus. Much proprietary secrecy surrounds the engines.
As part of a Dallara tour, it is possible to put on a helmet and slip into a street-legal two-seater to zip around the block a couple of times with an experienced driver in the front seat. You can also have your picture taken with the latest Dallara car, the DW 12.
On race day, the driver skills and crew teamwork are paramount. Davey Hamilton and his people debate these matters endlessly. The Firestone tires take such a beating at high speed that they must be changed every 32 laps or so. When should we change the tires? About 4,900 tires are needed for the big annual race. The 19 gallon fuel bladder, which rests right behind the driver, will only suffice for a short time because an Indy car gets about 3 miles per gallon. When a car drives in for a pit stop for four new tires and a gas fill, everything needs to be accomplished in perhaps 8 seconds.
America invented the automobile, and Indianapolis perfected the thrill of an extremely fast ride.
Indianapolis: If You Go
The website for Indianapolis tourism is www.visitIndy.com.
The more specialized INDYCAR Experience ride that I experienced can be seen at www.indyracingexperience.com.
For more information on the Dallara IndyCar Factory, see www.indycarfactory.com.
Indianapolis Beyond the Speedway: Addenda
The thick texture of a travel experience to this 12th largest American city is considerable, far beyond the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There’s plenty to explore here. In a few days, I sampled a part of it. Here are my recommended experiences:
*Ballooning. I lifted off with Midwest Balloon Rides (www.midwestballoonrides.com) at dawn from the White River Park, only a short walk from my downtown lodging at the JW, currently the largest and most luxurious property of the Marriott brand. We drifted northeast with the winds for an hour to a small private airport, giving me a perspective on this park-like city, with its orderly layout.
*Craving a steak? Is there a hunger for the perfect steak? Go the St. Elmo Steak House (www.stelmos.com), where they have been perfecting the dry-aged steak since 1902. Start with their signature World Famous St. Elmo Shrimp Cocktail and proceed to their 28-ounce Porterhouse Steak (the ounce weight includes a sizeable bone, so you will not be overwhelmed). St. Elmo Steak house is a classic and classy mid-American eatery, a favorite for tycoons, politicians, sports stars, and celebrities who find themselves in Indianapolis.
*Monuments. The pride of Indiana’s contribution to the nation in times of need, from the Civil War to 9-11 and beyond, is much in evidence. Indiana patriots always gave more help than was requested. Start with the Indiana War Memorial, where you can see regimental flags from the Civil War, and be sure to see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the 9-11 Memorial. Only DC has more monuments and memorials than you will find in Indianapolis. The American Legion’s national headquarters is here because Indianapolis was a train hub when the decision had to be made, in the 1920s, about where in the USA to house the organization. The walkable downtown, complete with a man-made canal, is spotlessly clean and free of graffiti, suggesting a social cohesiveness that few urban areas equal.
*Museums. An impressive amount of mid-America wealth and cultural energy, inspired by companies such as Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals, has gone into the local museums. Start at the Indiana Museum of Art to see the earliest self-portrait of the young Rembrandt. Outside the museum is Robert Indiana’s original LOVE sculpture. The Children’s Museum (http://www.childrensmuseum.org/), said to be the world’s largest, shows America’s favorite toys, such as G I Joe, and some impressive new dinosaur discoveries, which children are encourage to touch.
*The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Hall of Champions (http://www.ncaahallofchampions.org) is an intriguing institution celebrating all collegiate sports. There you can see a sculpture of the famous Flying Wedge, a football formation that was so powerful and caused so many player deaths and injuries that football came close to being outlawed. The Flying Wedge was introduced in 1892 by Harvard in a game against Yale, but was later deemed illegal. Public outrage at player injuries and deaths was enormous. President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene to allow the game of college football to continue to be played. The Flying Wedge formation was banned forever. The word “gridiron” arose because the original football fields had both vertical and horizontal stripes, make it a grid.
*Getting to Indianapolis can be part of the fun. Of course, many travelers will want to drop in out of the sky in an airplane. But for this heartland destination, I decided to make a partial cross-country trip. I drove the 10-hour trek, in two days, from Washington DC to Indianapolis, passing first through the rolling hills of Virginia, then the hardwood forests in the mountains of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. After the forests, I emerged onto the Ohio and Indiana grasslands, now corn and soybean fields. Driving along the heartland artery, Interstate 70, you get a sense of the enormous productivity of America, as you watch an endless parade of 18-wheel big rigs carrying manufactured goods and food products across the country. It’s an exhilarating road trip to consider.