Last week, I joined the Red Barons for some pre-air show aerobatics, and Thursday afternoon I hopped in the back seat of a modified Indy car for four laps around the Milwaukee Mile.
Interestingly enough, both trips topped out at about 140 mph, contorting my body at a rate of four g's. But in a way, the racecar ride-along felt much faster, more thrilling -- and far less nauseating.
I can thank driver Arie Luyendyk, Jr., for keeping me in one piece as we whipped around the short track at breakneck speed. I had actually met the Milwaukee native -- and son of an Indy 500 winner -- this spring, when he was offering short rides on a street-legal version of the car (it blew a seal that day, so I was unable to go for a spin, but Luyendyk more than made up for it Thursday).
The media ride-alongs this week, of course, are supporting the IRL IndyCar Series race at the Mile, Sunday at 12:45 p.m. And as someone who always thought auto racing was basically driving fast in a circle, I now have new-found respect for the sport -- trust me, the feeling couldn't be any more intense.
The whole experience actually went down rather quickly. After slipping into a fire retardant race suit and shoes (which were surprisingly comfy), I waited my turn for one of the two cars that was on the track. At the last moment, I slipped on the head sock, helmet and gloves and hopped into the backseat. The safety crew buckled me in, showed me the red button to press if I couldn't take it (no one presses it, they tell me) and snapped a collar to the car to keep me in place. Seconds later, we were off.
Now, understand that two-seat Indy cars don't really drive in races. But, other than the second seat, they're the real thing. Both of the two cars at the Mile Thursday were built and designed by Dallara Automobili of Melegari, Italy and operated by Sinden Racing Service. The only two ever produced, they sport 680 hp engines and sequential shift with six forward gears. They run on methanol and weigh 1,650 pounds. And oh yeah, they cost $650,000 per car (if you have means, I highly recommend one).
So no, this wasn't quite the real thing, but it was pretty close. Close enough for me, anyway.
As the car sped away -- and sped is an understatement to describe the phenomenal pickup -- I immediately noticed how low to the ground I was sitting, and how tightly I was strapped in. Though the car has two handles to hold onto, it hardly seemed necessary, since I could barely move. But as we accelerated quickly through the first turn, I held on for dear life. Maybe more tightly then I thought, in retrospect, since my hands are still a little sore, hours later.
After another turn, which felt incredibly fast, Luyendyk really stepped on it. The next three laps absolutely flew by, as we hugging the wall during the straighaways, diving tightly into the oval's sharp, unbanked turns.
It's at times like this when I try to remove myself from the moment a little and soak in the experience. And that's easier said than done in a race car. But I paid special attention to the sounds of the tires as we went around the turns (they barely squealed). I looked up to see how fast the houses that neighbor the track zipped by. I mentally compared the g-force pull to that of the Red Barons (it felt much less intense, but still dramatic). I tried to anticipate any sensation that we would spin out of control (which thankfully we didn't) and I focused on how quickly the driver braked from full-speed to downshifting into the last turn and finally into the pit.
Stepping out of the car, I noticed I was sweating like a teamster -- pretty much exactly how I felt after my plane ride last week. And though I was barely composed enough to smile for a photo -- much less talk to the promoters coherently enough to conduct a formal interview, it wasn't too bad.
According to the representatives from Canadian Club whisky, who sponsor the cars, we were driving about 135 miles per hour, though the car can do 200 plus. But the Indy Racing League's agreement with the track states that they will only drive at 75 percent of "pole speed," which at the Milwaukee Mile is 170.
For Luyendyk, 135-140 miles per hour is akin to a leisurely Sunday drive. But afterwards, he told me that he did "hustle it up" a bit, mostly because he enjoys racing on the short track. And even 75 percent, it was about as fast as I care to go. I can only imagine doing it again with a course filled with other speeding cars.
Then again, after this last week of thrilling rides on air and land, maybe I've tried enough.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.