Growing up, I was a Daddy’s Girl. Not in that saccharine bat-your-eyelashes way that many people interpret the phrase. Southern belles don’t spring from western Pennsylvania roots; God knows I’ve never been a flirt.
No, our family’s version of Daddy’s Girl meant packing the cooler with cold cuts and sandwiches so Dad and I could rise at dawn to go on another road trip. It meant arguing that Spam wasn’t a food and taking sips from ice-cold beers that I knew I shouldn’t tell Mom about. It meant tucking my hair underneath a trucker hat and watching the radar detector for speed traps. And it meant watching Dad in his element: the race track.
So when I had a chance to try the Indy Racing Experience – where a real race car driver takes you around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 180 mph – there was no question who I’d ask. I knew Dad would want to go, even figured that he had it on his bucket list. I didn’t know that I’d come away from the trip with a new appreciation for my childhood and a father who taught me early on that passions were worth pursuing.
Entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway felt like stepping into a time machine. The buzz of the motors, the smell of rubber and gasoline, the sight of the famed finish line tower – all evoked memories of coming with Dad to the Big Race.
The Indy Racing Experience has been around since 2001, when Gasoline Alley veterans Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden teamed up with exec Scott Jasek. Wouldn’t it be cool, they thought, to allow racing fans to experience the 2.5 mile track in the same way that the drivers do?
To make it possible, the team took an Indy car and extended the body to make it a two-seater. The concept proved to be such a hit that another Indy Racing Experience opened at the Walt Disney World Speedway in 2008. Even at $499 for three laps, the Experience sells out early for the entire summer (it’s a limited schedule, as the Experience works around Speedway activities).
You can also opt to drive an Indy car yourself, also $499. After a brief training session, you’re allowed to take real cars that were entered in Indy races on the track at speeds up to 90 mph.
Dad wasn’t impressed. “I can do that on the highway,” he sniffed.
The emails started the week before we left. Dad had decided that scanning old photographs would be his Summer 2011 project, and with our Indy trip on the horizon, he found some pictures of the Gray homestead in Hancock County, Indiana, where apparently the family love of cars all began.
“I didn’t know grandpa liked the races too,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. He listened to them on the radio,” Dad said. “He was at my first race. Although we didn’t go together.”
Huh? Turns out Dad drove to the Indy 500 for the first time with a friend – when he was 16. From Western Pennsylvania. In a car that sounded like it might break down. And his parents not only endorsed the idea, his father drove out separately – and didn’t check up on him.
“If I would have known that, I would have tried to get away with a lot more,” I told him.
The disclaimer forms seemed deceptively simple, considering what we were about to do. We filled them out and were fitted for fire-proof racing suits. The jumpsuits felt hot on a sultry July afternoon; I’m glad I wore a T-shirt and nothing else underneath.
We joined the other riders lining up in Gasoline Alley. Not surprisingly, most were men, many older than my father. One man came out in a walker, the glee on his face negating his difficulty moving. Many riders brought family members along to watch and record the experience. A 12-year-old boy stared at the track sullenly; kids under 18 aren’t allowed to ride.
“Most of the people who come say that it’s a bucket list experience,” founder Scott Jasek told me. Judging by the enthusiasm on the sidelines, the Experience is also keeping a love of Indy racing alive (because for those in the know, NASCAR just isn’t the same).
Before I knew it, my turn came. I donned a hood, then a heavy helmet and was led out to the car. The pit crew strapped me into the car behind the driver, where I scootched out my legs, almost like I was sitting in a kayak. Driver Davey Hamilton revved the engines and we pulled out of Gasoline Alley.
The car hurtled into top speed almost instantly.The corner came up quickly and the G forces struck. Though my head was strapped in, my neck felt the force and I had some trouble keeping it straight. I thought I’d be scared, but I laughed uncontrollably as we went into the back straightaway and the speed picked up to 18o mph.
Round we went. It felt like an amusement park ride, only more thrilling. From my perch behind the driver, I could see the stands whip by in my peripheral vision. We leaned into the corners, the car going up, up, up toward the wall’s edge – yet always remaining in control. The straightaways produced almost a Zen feeling; I wanted to keep going, faster and faster. If speed is a drug, then I’m a potential addict.
All too soon, the three laps passed, and we pulled past the Tower for the last time. As we entered Gasoline Alley, I raised my hands and clapped, still laughing. The Racing Experience is one of my favorite adventures I’ve done in recent years, and I could only hope that Dad felt the same way.
I shouldn’t have worried. Dad had been on the track right behind me, only it seemed like he had been worrying about his driver’s skill far more than I was. “When we went into those turns, I didn’t think he could hold it,” he said, shaking his head. “I thought we’d flip.”
Well. Glad I wasn’t thinking that much.
As he signed autographs for fans, Davey Hamilton spent time talking to Dad. At 50, Hamilton is somewhat of a legend in Indy car circles. In 2001, he crashed in a serious accident at the Texas Motor Speedway and underwent 21 operations to reconstruct his feet. Recovery took two years, much of which he spent in a wheelchair.
The 500 has not been good to Hamilton, who retired from the 2010 race after the first lap. Yet Indy’s oldest driver is planning to try again next year, “sponsors willing,” as he told Dad.
Dad could have spent another hour or so watching the cars, but we had an appointment with track historian Donald Davidson at the Auto Racing Hall of Fame. Yet I could see that even our brief ride had changed him. With his jumpsuit tied around his waist – “like all the racers do,” he told me – he walked taller, seemed happier and back in touch with his recently dormant passion for fast cars and racing.
“The trip made feel 20 years younger,” he wrote me in an email last week. “I think I’m going to buy another Corvette.”
Thanks to Visit Indy for providing my trip to Indianapolis!