One year ago today, one of our favorite local motorsports writers, Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press, published an excellent story about driving an open-wheeler at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
We’ve reprinted the story below. Enjoy your ride with Mike! And enjoy this year’s Indy 500, set to kick off at 1 p.m., next Sunday, May 25.
May 16, 2007
INDIANAPOLIS - In racing terms, I climbed Mt. Everest on Tuesday.
I might not have made it to the summit - perhaps base camp at best - but it was exhilarating, for a moment or two frightening, and joyously fun.
I drove four laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Drove. Lapped. Roared over the Yard of Bricks and past the giant scoring pylon.
I was Walter Mitty and A.J. Foyt rolled into one.
I won't start the race May 27 because they don't let 57-year-old writers who fancy they can drive a bit into the greatest motorsports event in the world. But they can't ever take away the fact that I ran an Indy car at the speedway, joining the all-time greats like Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Foyt, and Rick Mears.
Thanks to the Indy Racing Experience, I got the chance of a lifetime to shadow Stephan Gregoire of France around the giant 2 1/2 -mile oval in a ride-and-follow exercise. He was at the wheel of a two-seater Indy car in which professional drivers spirit a passenger around the track.
But Gregoire, who will attempt this weekend to qualify for the 500, checked out. While I was warming my tires by weaving back and forth, he was off to the races, leaving me in his dust.
Didn't matter. Once I'd taken a deep breath and gotten my pulse rate under control, I mashed the gas and began to explore the driving line.
Tucked into an open-wheel car, you're almost lying on your back, the cockpit like a cocoon. Your feet search for the clutch, brake, and gas pedals because you can't see anything but the top half of your body once you're belted in.
The Indy Racing Experience folks make sure everything is right before you hit the starter button, the engine coming alive as you dump the clutch and push on the accelerator pedal. You don't want to stall and make a jerk of yourself.
Someone up there was looking over me. The car rolled away with a sputter and a pop, and I felt a huge load off my shoulders.
With Gregoire in the distance, I merged on the back straight, the golf course to my right, Turn 3 looming, and thoughts of spinning on cold tires and whacking the SAFER Barrier large in my mind.
But thanks to a well-worn groove around the track, I picked up the line, planted my right foot, and attempted to make some gains on Gregoire, who has made seven starts at Indy, his best finish eighth in 2000.
Gregoire was high-tailing it down the short chute between Turns 3 and 4, and I was losing ground fast.
Coming out of Turn 4, I looked up at the wall, then down the track as far as I could, the tires bouncing up and down, the wind trying to rip the helmet from my head.
Here we go - down the main straight at 200 m.p.h., past the media center, the Bombardier Pagoda, into Turn 1, and immortality.
Hold up: I'd like to be running 200, but I know I'm not remotely near it. The Indy Racing Experience limits the speeds.
It doesn't really matter anyhow. While there's no speedometer in an open-wheel car, I've got the gas pedal buried and it feels like I'm a real racer.
By Lap 3, I'm in the zone. The tires are hot and nice and sticky. The engine sounds right. I'm in heaven.
One lap left and Gregoire is in Ft. Wayne, but I make the most of it, knowing it's my last chance.
When I ease to a stop in the pits, I look up at the stands, imagining what it would be like to be here racing in front of 300,000 people.
I unbuckle, climb out of the car and leave my helmet on a while, savoring the experience.
I'm sure the ghosts of Eddie Sachs, Gordon Smiley and Scott Brayton would approve.
Contact MIKE BRUDENELL at 313-222-2115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photos courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway; words courtesy of the Detroit Free Press)