Hello, Hoosiers: My Father-Daughter Trip to the Indy Racing Experience

by Chris on July 26, 2011

My father-daughter trip to the Indy Racing Experience.
Father daughter trips At the 1982 Indy 500 with dad and my great-uncle

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.

A black-and-white checkered flag at the Indy Racing Experience

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.

Back home in Indiana

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.

Dad and I at the Indy Racing Experience

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).

Indy Racing Experience

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.

Getting into the car at the Indy Racing Experience
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.

Indy Racing Experience

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 at the Indy Racing Experience

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! 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Bly July 26, 2011 at 7:21 am

“If speed is a drug, then I’m a potential addict…” You GO, girl! What a great story :-)

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Thanks, lady! Means a lot coming from you.

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Kent @ No Vacation Required July 26, 2011 at 7:45 am

Awww… That is so cool. And that picture from 1982 = priceless.

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Ha! I debated running it, but it represented a part of my childhood so vividly that I had to do it. :)

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Sarah Lahey July 26, 2011 at 9:55 am

Great story! Brings back memories of my Hoosier days, cutting finals at IU to camp out in the infield the night before the Indy 500. Picture 50,000 college kids drunk on sloe gin and gas fumes. Can’t remember ever actually seeing the race….

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Sarah, you are about the LAST person I’d expect to see out in the infield! :) And I mean that as a compliment.

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patty white July 26, 2011 at 10:40 am

Your Dad and I went to high school together. He has always had a love for cars and speed. What a fun event for you two.

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Patty – Thanks for reading. I knew that his love for cars started early, but I didn’t know that he was allowed to drive hundreds of miles on his own in high school to go to the race. Different times… :)

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Kara @ The Vacation Gals July 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Adore! Those are memories both of you will cherish forever. Love the smiles on your faces in all the photos!

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Kara – One of the best things about doing what we do is that we can sometimes share it with others. We’re so lucky :)

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Cailin July 26, 2011 at 8:16 pm

oh wow! that gave me gosebumps!
What an awesome thing to not only do but to also get to share that with your father and for it to make him so happy!
Now to find something like that that will relate to my father… hmmm :)

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Chris July 26, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Thanks, Cailin! You don’t hear much about father-daughter trips…everything is mother-daughter or father-son. It’s great to find something that your dad loves and share that with him.

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Camels & Chocolate July 27, 2011 at 8:37 am

SO cool! You know, I grew up in the South within close distance to both Bristol and Talledega, and no one in my family had ever been to a race until I went to the Grand Prix–in Macau of all places–a few years back. Now, my sister is dating Richard Petty’s grandson (and Kyle’s nephew) so she travels with the Petty camp to a lot of the races. During her very first one in Charlotte last year, Richard Sr. asked her: “Child, where did you grow up? ALASKA?” when he heard she’d never been to the raceway before!

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Jenn July 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm

What a great story!! The memories you share with your Dad are simply priceless!

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