Speed Freak: The Indy Racing Experience 

A trepidatious Kate before her Indy Racing Experience.
  • A trepidatious Kate before her Indy Racing Experience.
Last Saturday marked the 36th annual Mini-Marathon, a 13.1-mile foot race organized by the 500 Festival to kick off the month of May in Indianapolis. I, along with 31,128 other people, was a proud finisher.

I'm not sure I'd say I "ran" the race, but I did cover the distance in an ambulatory fashion. Frankly, given the humidity, I was just grateful to not be among the 240 participants who required medical assistance - the highest number in the race's history.

For many participants, myself included, the high point of the Mini (aside from the part where you get to stop running and kindly volunteers congratulate you and give you cookies) is the part where you run a complete lap around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Yes, it's hot. Yes, it's crowded. Yes, it takes an interminably long time to get all the way around (in my case, somewhere in the vicinity of 28 minutes). But it's the Speedway. It's the closest thing this city has to hallowed ground.

On Wednesday, I experienced the Speedway in a totally different way: as a passenger in an IndyCar two-seater, which is basically identical to a regular IndyCar except that the Dallara chassis features a second seat, behind the driver.

Before I could ride, I of course had to sign various legal documents to release the operator of the two-seaters, The Indy Racing Experience, of all liability in the event of some catastrophe, and to provide my health insurance and emergency contact information. I tried not to overthink this.

Then, it was time to suit up. I stepped into a very smart firesuit, swapped my Converse high tops for fireproof booties, and slipped a flame-resistant balaclava over my head, capped by a full-face helmet. I was ready.

I discovered that my pilot would be Stéphan Grégoire. Grégoire, who hails from France but now lives in Carmel, started 44 IndyCar races between 1996 and 2001, and has run the Indy 500 six times. He was all business - very Stig-like in the front cockpit. I'm not sure his gaze ever shifted from its forward trajectory as I clambered into the back seat.

I sank down into the tub, one leg to each side of the driver's seat. Mechanics on either side of me went to work, adjusting the straps of the five-point harness and buckling me in. I'm not so great with small spaces, but before I could discuss my rising panic with the crew, Grégoire punched the accelerator, and we were off.

They say Inuits have dozens of words for "snow." What I'd like is, more words for "fast." Because somehow, "speedy," "brisk," "hasty," "snappy," "fleet," and "lickety-split" don't quite cut it. I propose something like "hhhhooooooollllllyyyyyssssshhhhhiiiitttttttttttttt!!!!!!!!" which was pretty much what I screamed the entire ride - three laps in all.

Words cannot describe what it feels like to hurtle down the front stretch at IMS, swallowing up the grandstands, the yard of bricks, and the scoring pylon, plunging into turn one, at 180+ miles per hour.

And the wall - as you come out of each turn, it's RIGHT THERE. I swear, you could reach out and touch it. Also, the force involved - it practically reorganizes your internal organs. And yet, somehow, there's no real sense that death is imminent. The way the car sticks to the ground - it's like God playing Hot Wheels.

All too soon, the ride was over. Grégoire angled the car into Pit Lane, cutting the engine as we approached the crew. We coasted to a stop and the guys were upon me, unbuckling my harness and pulling me out of the car. It took me a while to do the math, but eventually I figured out that our fast lap - the middle of the three - took roughly 50 seconds.

To put that perspective, consider this: Had I completed the Mini-Marathon in a vehicular rather than ambulatory fashion, "running" it in the two-seater, I would have been done in less than four and a half minutes.

Something to think about for next year... .

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Kate Shoup

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