Come Along for a Ride in an Indy Car!

May 24, 2008

This is totally off-topic but, since tomorrow is the Indy 500, I thought it might be fun to give you an idea of what it’s like to take laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an Indy car.  I wrote the following, titled For Want of a Go-Kart, in 2004 following my experience riding in one of the 2-seater Indy cars, a retirement gift from my wife.  It was never published, but I think you’ll enjoy it.  Come along for a ride!

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 For Want of a Go-Kart

Glancing around homeroom, I could see that most of the others were hard at work, probably rushing to finish an assignment neglected last night in favor of something more interesting, which was almost anything. Brother George, perched behind his elevated desk at the front of the class, also seemed lost in work. Being a warm day in early May, the windows were open and a breeze rustled papers on the desks, carrying with it the sounds of spring – birds singing, the coo of pigeons and the din of traffic on the street. Gradually, I became aware of another sound, emanating from miles away, faint but unmistakable, like a distant trumpet blast that rose and fell rhythmically. I recognized that sound instantly and my pulse began to quicken. A new Lotus Ford had taken to the track and all hope of concentration on my studies vanished with the distant whine of that engine.

 ***

Growing up in Indianapolis was a bit different from what other guys had experienced, at least in one respect, as I learned upon my arrival at Notre Dame in ’67 to begin my engineering studies. Conversations between new acquaintances generally followed a predictable pattern, focusing on home towns and high schools, major league teams and which was better – the Browns or the Bears, the Cubs or the Indians, and so on. But for me, it was a little different. My revelation that I hailed from Indianapolis was usually met with blank stares. “You know, the Indianapolis 500!” More blank stares. Or a polite “Oh, yeah, that’s great.” Then, back to pro sports. Without any professional franchise to claim as my own – not football, baseball, basketball or even hockey – I might as well have been from the moon.

 Sure, lots of kids from Indy were into sports and adopted some nearby city’s team as their own – usually a Chicago or Cincinnati team. Hailing from Joliet, my Dad was a fan of anything Chicago, but mostly the Cubs – “the poop-out Cubs,” he called them. The atmosphere in the station wagon would usually grow tense following the last out of the game. Dad would snap off the radio, make the same old comment about the “poop-out Cubs” and then mutter something under his breath about the manager. “Pete!” Mom would admonish him.

But I couldn’t get excited over any of this. My fantasies revolved around “the track.” My heroes wore racing helmets and faces blackened by track grime, save for white rings around their eyes, traced by their goggles, like the faces of raccoons viewed in negative.

It was sometime in the late ‘50s – I don’t recall the exact year – that my infatuation with Indy racing began. Until then, I was only vaguely aware that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even existed. Dad had no interest in it. But Uncle Everett, from Mishawaka, did. He arrived for a visit one Friday in May, with cousin Ricky in tow, and we made plans for our first visit to the track the following day to attend qualifications – the speed trials that would determine the placement of cars for the start of the Indy 500.

We rose early on Saturday. Mom packed a cooler, probably filled with something like egg-salad sandwiches and milk. Uncle Everett had his own cooler – mostly beer. We made our way west on 16th street and traffic bogged down at about the same point where the signage of buildings all seemed to adopt a checkered flag theme. We passed under a railroad overpass and then, upon emerging from the other side, there it was – the greatest race track in the world!

 ***

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of only ten “super speedways” in the world – oval tracks at least two miles in length – seven of which are located in the U.S. But, at the dawn of the twentieth century, there were none and the auto industry, centered in Indiana, was faced with a dilemma: public roads were so poor that they had no way to test the full capabilities of the new models under development. So, in 1909, a group of four businessmen financed and built an oval test track measuring 2-½ miles in length and “paved” it with crushed rock and tar.

But they envisioned something more than just a test track. Occasional race meets would be held – something to dazzle spectators and send them scurrying to their local automobile show-rooms. The very first of these meets – a short, two-lap, five-mile event – was a terrible disaster. The track surface broke up and six people were killed – two drivers, two mechanics and two spectators. Immediately, the track surface was repaved with 3.2 million bricks, inspiring the nickname “The Brickyard.”

Several three-day meets were held on this new surface in 1910, but attendance lagged expectations. Something big was needed to get people’s attention – something really big with a huge purse at stake. So, on Memorial Day, 1911, a grueling five hundred-mile race was held and the winner, Ray Harroun, driving a Marmon at an average speed of seventy-five miles per hour, collected his prize of ten thousand dollars. The race, the inaugural Indianapolis 500, was a huge success and, aside from the war years, has been staged every year since then.

World War I forced the closure of the track in 1917 and 1918, but it reopened in 1919 and the winner, Howdy Wilcox, became the first driver to break the 100 mph barrier. In 1927, the track was sold to a group led by WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who had actually driven in the Indianapolis 500 before he ever learned to fly a plane.

During the early 1930’s, the death toll rose dramatically as the brick surface was no longer suited to the ever-increasing speeds, now above 120 mph. So, in 1936, the rougher portions of the track were asphalted and, by 1941, only a section of bricks in the main straight-away remained. Today, three feet of brick surface remains visible at the finish line, a nostalgic reminder of the track’s past.

World War II closed down the track once again in 1941. By the end of the war, it was dilapidated and overgrown with weeds. Rickenbacker sold the track to Tony Hulman, who pumped millions of dollars into the speedway and oversaw its operation for over thirty years until his death in 1977. The speedway remains in the care of the Hulman family to this day, under the leadership of his grandson, Tony George.

In 1962, Parnelli Jones, at the wheel of an Offenhauser-powered roadster, finally broke the 150 mph barrier, and the racing world fretted that speeds were reaching unsafe levels. Three years later, the venerable old roadsters were consigned to history with the arrival of Jim Clark from England with his Lotus Ford, forever changing the design of Indy cars to the rear-engine configuration used to this day.

In 1977, Tom Sneva became the first driver to turn a lap above 200 mph in his Cosworth-powered McLaren. In 1996, Arie Luyendyk recorded the fastest-ever four-lap qualifying speed of 237 mph. However, even the most seasoned drivers were leery of such high speeds. Since then, rule changes were implemented to hold speeds down and today most cars qualify for the Indy 500 with four-lap average speeds in the range of 220-230 mph.

Although safety has improved dramatically over the years, make no mistake – racing at Indianapolis is dangerous business. Of approximately 712 drivers who have participated in the Indy 500 since it’s inception, 41 have lost their lives there. In addition, 24 mechanics and track workers have been killed along with eight spectators. These figures do not even include the six people who died during that short 1909 race.

 ***

Dad parked in a lot just across the street from the main straight-away. I climbed from the car and gazed at the back side of grandstands that seemed to stretch forever in both directions. The track had just opened for practice and a car roared to life, unseen behind those grandstands. It was probably at that very moment that neurons began linking together in a pattern that would define the brain of a mechanical engineer. My heart quickened and goose bumps rose on my arms. I could hear the car roar off to my right, the tone of the engine rising and falling as it shifted into higher gears, then fading as it entered the first turn and sped into the distance. A minute later, as we made our way toward an opening in the grandstands, my ears were assaulted by a thunderous roar – sounding almost like a sonic boom – gone as quickly as it had come. It was one of those things that makes you instinctively duck your head. Ricky and I looked at each other and all we could say was “Wow!”

As we emerged from that tunnel through the stands, my eyes were greeted by the most fantastic panorama I had ever seen – a canyon of grandstands that extended for half of a mile in either direction, teeming with over a hundred thousand people. Through the middle of the canyon ran a stream of asphalt, and down this stream thundered beautiful, sleek roadsters, their booming Offenhauser engines echoing off the canyon walls.

I was hooked – big time! We spent the entire day and I couldn’t get enough – the cars, the noise, the drivers – a feast for my senses. From that day on, while other kids fantasized about gridiron or baseball diamond glory, my fantasy was at that track, hurtling down the straight-away, flying past other cars and winning the Indianapolis 500!

 ***

It was at about this same point in life when I first climbed behind the wheel of a go-kart at one of those tracks where you pay a few bucks to drive a few laps. Aside from my bike, I had never driven anything before and I was startled by the quickness of the steering. I found myself alternately whacking the barriers on either side of the track. But once I got the hang of the steering, I began to get a feel for the handling of the car – setting myself up on the outside while approaching a turn, diving low, and then hammering the gas pedal and sliding in a perfect four-wheel drift as I exited the turn. What a blast!

“Dad, can I have a go-kart?” I asked on the way home. Hey, it was worth a shot, but the reply was predictable. It was Mom who answered, in a tone that made it clear my request was over-the-top. “No, you’re not getting a go-kart!” And that was that. The reason was two-fold, but unspoken: the danger and the cost. Later, upon checking ads in magazines, I learned why. They were at least a couple hundred bucks, more than I could ever hope to save with my paper route money and an order of magnitude more costly than any gift I had ever received for Christmas. Still, my go-karting experience only deepened my fascination with cars and fed my Indy driving fantasy.

 ***

Beginning with that first visit, the track became a ritual in the month of May. I was there any chance I could get. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I actually attended my first race. Although admission to qualifications was relatively cheap, race tickets were not. Finally, sometime in the early ‘60s, Dad was offered two free tickets at the last minute, the night before the race. We took our seats at almost the same spot in the grandstands where we sat years before on that first day of qualifications. Now, I got a real taste of what the Indy 500 was all about, as the green flag dropped and thirty three cars roared past together. Like others seeing their first Indy 500, I now understood why it was called the “Greatest Spectacle in Sports.”

I’ve only seen the actual race in person perhaps twice since then. I actually found it more enjoyable to hang out at the track on a weekday early in the month of May, when crowds were thin and I could move about the track, sitting wherever I pleased, getting up close to the pits, cruising the fence line of “Gasoline Alley” and watching the preparations of the race teams. The actual race would last only three hours but, on a practice day, I could spend the whole day drinking in the experience.

As the years wore on, beginning with my enrollment at Notre Dame, it became impossible to return to the track often. The month of May was always tied up with exams. Looking back, it may explain why my grades were never better than they were. Finals were always in May and my head was always somewhere else – back at The Brickyard.

College was followed by the Navy, which was followed by a career that, as fate would have it, would never take me back to Indianapolis. Sure, my family was still there and my wife and kids and I would return for visits but, even if those visits happened to be in May, we were usually too busy to carve out a whole day at the track.

As the years wore on, boyhood fantasies got pushed aside, and the demands of everyday life took over – earning a living, raising the kids, and so on. Yet, every Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I’d make it a point to return home from church early to catch the race on TV. Jim Nabors would sing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Old Mary Hulman, Tony’s widow, would give the command “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Thirty three cars would shriek to life. The goose bumps returned and my pulse would begin to race once more!

On Tuesday morning following Memorial Day, I’d ask other guys at work “Did you catch the race on Sunday?” With few exceptions, no one did. Some were aware of who had won, but the conversation quickly turned to something else. Few had ever been to an automotive race of any kind and, so, just couldn’t relate. It was lonely being from Indianapolis.

 ***

 It was a Monday morning, early in May of 2004, when the phone rang at work. It was my boss – the new one – the one who had just taken over as part of the company reorganization – the one who was named to push aside my old boss by some guy who had recently pushed aside his boss, and so on. He wanted to have a few words with me in his office. It wasn’t hard to see where this was going. It was a good thing – really. I was eligible for full retirement anyway, and the severance package only helped to grease the skids. Following that brief meeting, as I walked toward my car, I thought of that animated Disney feature, “The Song of the South.” Upon being snatched up by Br’er Fox, Br’er Rabbit, with a twinkle in his eye, begged him “please – whatever you do – don’t throw me in that briar patch!” I had just landed in the briar patch and, like ol’ Br’er Rabbit, now wore a grin from ear to ear!

So it’s only natural that, during that Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, just two days after my last day of work, I was lost in thought as I mowed the lawn. From the corner of my eye I saw Mike, my neighbor, emerge from his garage. “Hey” he hollered over, “what’d you think of that race?”

I was dumbfounded. Someone finally wanted to discuss the race with me, and I was the one who didn’t know what had happened. I had completely forgotten about it for the first time since that trip to qualifications with Dad, Uncle Everett and Ricky. I shut off the mower, went into the house and turned on the television, hoping for at least a re-cap of what I had missed.

Exactly one week later, my family gathered for a little retirement celebration. Each had a small gift for me. My wife’s was last and, upon opening the small box, I found only an envelope inside. As I unfolded her letter, the words practically leapt from the page: “…July 17th … 3 laps … the Indianapolis Motor Speedway… 180mph!” All I could say was “Oh, my God!”

My wife, searching for a really special retirement gift, began asking around about racing experiences, starting with my sister in Indianapolis. My sister called the speedway and learned that, in fact, only a couple of years before, a company called Sinden Racing, headquartered at the speedway and operating various ventures in IRL (Indy Racing League) racing, had begun offering rides in specially-built Indy cars. My wife gave them a call.

Not a waking hour passed during the next six weeks when I didn’t try to imagine what this ride would be like. I had driven fast before. Back in ‘74, with a long stretch of deserted highway ahead, I finally summoned the courage to test the top speed of my Corvette. But I caught up to traffic at 125 mph, backed off the throttle and never tried it again. It was a bit unnerving. Everything was vibrating and the car began to feel as though it was floating. If that’s the way 125 mph was, what would 180 mph feel like, especially in an open-cockpit, open-wheeled car riding at about the same height above the ground as that go-kart decades ago?

And I had seen many accidents at the speedway over the years, even during practice with only one car on the track. It wasn’t likely to happen to a car running well below its maximum capability, but anything is possible. A simple mechanical failure or tire blow-out could send a car careening into the wall. But safety is engineered into every aspect of these cars and they’re designed to take incredible punishment. In October of 2003, racing in the final IRL event of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, Swedish driver Kenny Brack’s car tangled with another and was launched skyward at over 200 mph. It struck the fence high above the outer wall. The front of the car snagged a fence pole and the car spun wildly as it flew through the air, grinding against the fence and being ripped to shreds before coming to rest several hundred yards down the track. Although the front of the chassis had sheared away, leaving Brack’s legs exposed, the bulk of the cockpit survived largely intact. No one who saw that accident believed that Brack could survive but, thanks to the strength of that carbon fiber chassis, he did, albeit with serious injuries from which he continues his recovery today.

 ***

 My family and I arrived in Indy on Friday, July 16th and spent the night at Mom’s house. We met up with my sister and her family the following morning and headed for the track. We passed under that same railroad overpass on 16th street, just as Dad, Uncle Everett, Ricky and I had nearly fifty years before. As we emerged on the other side and pulled alongside the south end of the track, our ears were greeted by the scream of a car rocketing through the short chute between turns one and two. My pulse was racing once more!

At Sinden’s sign-in desk in the lobby of the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame Museum, located in the track’s infield, I proceeded to sign numerous forms, holding Sinden harmless in the event of an accident. I really didn’t read the forms and didn’t care what they said. It didn’t matter. Nothing could have dissuaded me from what I was about to do! From there, we were transported to the grandstands along the pit area, located in the center of the main straight-away. Below the stands, I checked in at Sinden’s booth and then headed for the pits.

With a group of other riders, I followed Sinden’s crew chief through an opening in the pit wall and we gathered around a sleek, red and white Indy car. There, he gave us some indoctrination into the world of Indy car racing. He began by explaining that IRL racing is dominated by two chassis designs – the Dallara and the G-Force. The chassis of the car before us was designed and built by Dallara of Italy at a cost of $450,000. It was powered by Chevy’s Indy V8 engine, built at a cost of $200,000. Like all IRL cars, the engine is electronically rev-limited to 10,300 rpm to prevent shrapnel from being scattered over the track by over-zealous drivers, revving their machines beyond their limits. Power is transferred to the rear wheels via a six-speed transmission.

Aside from being thirty inches longer to accommodate a passenger directly behind the driver and just in front of the engine, he explained, these cars (they operate two of them) are identical to other IRL racers in every respect – not tamed in any way. They can accelerate from 0-100 mph in less than three seconds, reach a top speed of almost 240 mph, and were fully capable of turning laps in the 220 mph range!

One of the more prominent features of these cars is the pair of wings mounted at the front and rear. These, the crew chief explained, are much like those used on aircraft but inverted, so that the “lift” is actually directed downward, generating over 5,000 pounds of down-force. Since the car itself weighs only 1,525 pounds, this down-force would actually keep the car pressed firmly to the track even if the track was inverted and the car ran upside-down! It’s this down-force that allows the car to sustain incredible speed in the turns, generating up to four Gs (four times the force of gravity) of lateral force in the turns. To put this into perspective, an Indy car can handle turns at twice the speed of the best sports cars in the world. If a Ferrari could negotiate the turns at Indy at 100mph, then an Indy car can take the same turn at 200mph. Resisting this incredible lateral force is the job of the Firestone Firehawk tires. Although these tires look beefy, the tread is a mere one tenth of an inch thick and, when up to speed, the rubber heats up to a tar-like consistency. As a result, the tires must be replaced every seventy miles at a cost of $2700.

He then demonstrated how to enter the car and showed us the location of the hand-holds (like a mock steering wheel), the button for notifying the driver if we need to stop, and the engine kill switch. “Stay away from that one” he warned. He also gave us some reassuring words about the strength of this car. “The carbon fiber chassis is so strong,” he said, “it’s literally bullet-proof.”

“How fast will we go?” I asked, hoping to hear that we may hit 200 mph in the straight-away. He explained that, to satisfy the concerns of their lawyers and insurance company, they must limit the speed to seventy-five percent of the maximum speed ever run at the track. This meant that we would run at 180 mph.

The driver of my car was Sarah Fisher, now twenty-three years old, only the third woman to ever drive in the Indy 500. In 1999, at the age of eighteen, she was also the youngest person ever to drive in an IRL event. The following May she competed in her first Indy 500.

How does one become an Indy driver? Drivers’ careers take various paths but, in Sarah’s case, she began at the age of five driving quarter-midgets. Two years later, she began racing go-karts and, from 1991 to 1994, she won four consecutive World Karting Association Grand National Championships. In 1995 she moved up to the wild “World of Outlaws” sprint car racing and was honored as “rookie of the year.” After sprint cars, Indy racing was the next logical step.

With the indoctrination completed, I retreated behind the pit wall to a room where I zipped into a fire resistant Nomex® driving suit, including boots and gloves. I then returned to the pit area where I received a Nomex® head sock – something akin to a ski mask – and was fitted with a helmet.

At last, the time had come – the moment I had fantasized about for nearly five decades – a time I never dreamed could actually arrive. No video arcade racing simulations here! This was real! How many people actually get to live out such a fantasy? How many football fans will actually strap on a helmet and step onto the gridiron with an NFL team? How many baseball fans will ever step to the plate and take pitches from a major leaguer? That’s what this was, a big-time fantasy come true!

The crew positioned a small platform beside the car, enabling me to easily step over the car’s side pod, which houses one of the methanol fuel tanks and encloses additional roll bars, designed to shield the driver and passenger from impact in an accident. I stepped into the car, grabbed the roll bar behind Sarah’s head, and eased myself down into the seat. Crewmen on either side worked quickly, strapping me into the seat with a five-point safety harness – belts over both shoulders, across my lap and between my legs. They clipped a piece of removable cowling into position behind me, effectively cradling my helmet and limiting movement of my head. My first impression was how solid this car seemed, in contrast to its outward, rather flimsy appearance. So hard was the interior of the cockpit, I felt as though I was seated in a tub of concrete. As I sat there, my head barely higher than the knees of the pit crew, I felt completely safe. My clothing was fire resistant, my driver a professional, my car one of the finest racing machines ever built. My anxiety melted away.

“You ready?” asks one of the crew, his head near my helmet so that I can hear. “I was born ready!” I shout back. He lowers the visor on my helmet and snaps it into place. The crew step away and the chief shouts “Clear!” The crewman behind the car engages the starter and seven hundred horsepower roars to life only inches behind me. I wave to my family. Sarah puts the car in gear and feathers the clutch as the crew shove the car from the pit. I’m pinned to the back of the seat! The engine builds to a scream. Sarah shifts into second and accelerates harder!

Upon reaching the point where the pit lane curves to the left, paralleling the track but not joining it until reaching the back stretch, it’s almost as though Sarah’s thinking to herself “They told me I can’t go faster than 180, but they didn’t say how fast I could get there!” Contrary to my expectation that she would coast through these pit lane turns, she reaches for third and really pours it on! I thought I was prepared for the acceleration and the G-forces, but this is well beyond what I had imagined. While simultaneously pinned to the back of the seat and slammed to the side of the car, I think to myself “my God, we’re not even on the track yet!” It was as though she was hell-bent to overtake the leader of the Indy 500 down the backstretch.

We emerge from the pit lane onto the backstretch, already approaching the maximum speed of 180mph! Having trouble seeing, I realize that the wind is lifting my helmet! With one hand, I grasp the chin of the helmet and pull it back down. Then, sitting up as straight as I can, I can just see over the top of Sarah’s helmet. At this point, everything is flying by at an incredible speed. Traveling at one quarter the speed of sound, even the scream of the engine is having trouble keeping up. It takes on a more raspy, metallic sound – like that of a coarse file raked quickly over the edge of a piece of sheet metal.

Yet, it feels right. It isn’t scary. The car seems glued to the track. The tires and wheels must be balanced with incredible precision because there’s virtually no vibration. This car clearly wants to go faster! We’re going 180 mph, but it’s obvious that Sarah’s holding back. She’s just coasting.

Turn three comes up quickly. Sarah backs off the throttle slightly, dives into the turn, and I’m slammed to the side of the car with six hundred pounds of force, approaching that experienced by astronauts during lift-off of the space shuttle. With my head pinned to the right side of the cowling, my field of view is now dominated by two things – the right front wheel and the outside retaining wall. I try to imagine what it would be like if the tires lost their grip, but quickly push that thought from my mind.

Almost as quickly as Sarah backed off the throttle, she’s back on it again, the engine screaming and propelling the car through the short chute, drifting toward the wall, setting up for turn four. She eases off the throttle, ducks into the turn, hammers the throttle again and I’m nailed to the back of my seat. As we exit the turn and drift toward the outer retaining wall, that great grandstand canyon comes into view, the scene that so gripped my imagination in my childhood. Here I am, blazing down the main straight-away at Indianapolis at 180 mph! It doesn’t seem real. It’s like a dream. I’m experiencing something that only a relative handful of people have ever done – racing pioneers like Ray Harroun in 1911, Eddie Rickenbacker and Barney Oldfield, auto industry pioneer Louis Chevrolet, whose namesake engine now screams behind my head, and great racing champions like A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock, Arie Luyendyck and so many others.

Here, on this long straight-away, the experience is much like I’ve heard drivers describe in interviews – it’s easy, a time to relax. There are no G-forces. There’s actually a little time to look around and enjoy the view which, of course, is all a blur. I look ahead to my left for my family waiting at the pit wall. I can see the crowd but we’re going much too fast to pick out any one individual. I give them a “thumbs up” as we scream past. Seconds later, Sarah dives into turn one and I’m thrown violently against the side of the cockpit once again. I realize that I have a “death grip” on the hand-holds and that every muscle in my body is tensed, bracing myself against the force. I try to relax and not fight it, and continue to pull down my helmet, which must be a little too large and loose, and stretch to see over Sarah‘s helmet.

With each turn, I am still stunned by the G-forces. Before taking this ride, I expected that, once it was over, I would tell my friends in a cocky fashion “Yeah, I think I could do this.” But this experience was beyond what I had imagined. It gave me a lot of respect for the abilities of these drivers – pushing their cars into turns at speeds that seem to defy the laws of physics. And, I remember that we’re doing this at a relatively slow speed and with no traffic around us. What must it be like to drive in the actual race? I’m doing well to overcome three Gs of force trying to rip my arms from the hand-holds. A driver, on the other hand, must overcome four Gs and maintain his grip on the wheel but, at the same time, twitch it delicately enough to negotiate traffic without throwing the car into a slide – and must handle this for eight hundred turns during a race! I can now begin to appreciate what it takes to be an Indy driver!

During the next two laps, I try to burn the experience into my memory so that I can recall every bit of it, a difficult task when your senses are all overwhelmed with extreme inputs – the speed, the G-forces, the scream of the engine.

It was all over in four minutes. We made three passes down the main straightaway, requiring four laps from pit-to-pit. Sarah backed off the throttle in turn four one last time and dropped down into the pit lane. As we coasted in, she revved the engine and it shrieked loudly, almost as if in triumph. Her crew guided her to a stop and quickly went to work changing tires.

The crew unbuckled me and I climbed from the cockpit, waving off the crewman who was there to help me, pumping my fists in the air and letting out a whoop! I hugged my wife waiting at the pit wall. This was the most wonderful gift she could ever have given me. I did it! I lived out that fantasy that had replayed in my mind for the better part of fifty years! I spent a few minutes in a completely different world – a world of speed, sound, horsepower and forces far beyond the realm of mere mortals.

I rejoined my family behind the pit wall and tried to share with them the experience, but words weren’t adequate. It’s one of those things that defies description. It must be experienced to be comprehended.

How I’d love to do this again! How I’d love to actually get behind the wheel and try my hand at it! Could I do it? Could I bring myself to push a car into a turn at twice the speed that seems possible? Alas, I doubt that my body could handle such punishment for long. A.J. Foyt was the oldest driver to ever participate in an Indy 500 at the age of fifty seven. I’m now fifty five.

What if I could do it all over again? Suppose Dad caved in and let me have that go-kart. Would I have raced it? Moved up to sprint cars? Made the leap to Indy cars? Would my image now be immortalized on the Borg Warner trophy? Or would I have met the same unfortunate fate as those forty-one drivers who drew their last breath on the track at Indy? One thing I’m sure of – I’d have loved every minute of it!

 ***

Someday, I’ll find myself sitting with a bunch of guys and the conversation will turn to cars. Inevitably, someone will ask “What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone in a car?” Boy, do I have a story to tell!

And, perhaps, someday, if I have a little grandson, he may come running to me after returning from the go-kart track. “Grandpa, it was so cool! I asked Dad if I could have a go-kart, and he said maybe I should talk to you about that!”

I hope his Mom will forgive me!