Speedway, INDIANA --
Instead of sporting femme fatale attire like in Thelma and Louise we’re decked out in sponsor-ladened fire-retardant coveralls, balaclava, gloves and shoes. With a blonde helming the steering wheel on a mid-western fall day sun overhead, Speedway Indiana never looked better.
Shoe-horned in a purpose-built two-seater racing car, sitting behind Indy 500 darling Sarah Fisher, I was ready to hit the world’s most famous racetrack, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Who said chicks can’t drive?
The youngest female to make Indy history at the age of 19, Sarah, now 28, holds the record for fastest qualification lap at 229.675 m.p.h. by a woman, won the Indy Car series most popular driver award three years in a row and keeps adding accolades to her records list.
A squealing whine of an Indy race car pierces inside my helmet as a Honda-powered Dallara full throttles by faster than a speeding bullet. What was I getting myself into? One guy was happier than a pig in mud because for his 10th anniversary his wife surprised him with this two-seater gift. “You know growing up I lived four blocks by the Speedway but have never been in one of these cars. It’s always been a dream,” says a beaming Ray Bische, 39, who now lives eight miles from his beloved brickyard.
Long time Indy reveller Scott Jasek and two buddies: Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the Indy Racing Experience in 2001. People thought they were crazy. “How do I convince a privately run company like the IMS to put these cars with people inside and offer them high speed rides? It’s a dangerous experience but we make it safe.” He did. The likes of Morgan Freeman, Angie Everhart, and Hilary Duff have been some of the celeb passengers. To boot, the company over the years has featured an A-list of drivers like Indy car legends Al Unser Sr., Mario and Michael Andretti and two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk.
“We supply safety crew members at the track and we outfit our riders and drivers in authentic fire suits, fireproof headsocks, gloves and shoes, and racing helmets. Perhaps most importantly, we do not leave the pits unless the rider is comfortable,” adds Jeff Smith, Indy Racing Experience’s PR rep.
Next up was moi.
I shimmy inside the Italian-manufactured Dallara and cram inside the claustrophobic cockpit. “Make sure your legs are as far down as you can get them,” says a muffled voice from the pit as he buckles me into a five-point racing harness.
Panicked, I know there’s nowhere to go but full speed ahead. He slams my helmet visor down. Then with a thumbs up and in a soothing mid-west lilt smiles, “Go ahead and have some fun.”
An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I’m pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward like bad plastic surgery, saliva dries, eyes stuck wide-eyed; then, drunken giddiness takes over.
Turn one approaches at 175 m.p.h. The car remains on the outer lane near the famous wall that has seen many a spectacular crash over the years. In a stream of consciousness I see memories as a kid. My dad had me on his lap, my younger brother at his feet sitting cross-legged. Glued to the old Zenith, we watched the famous Indy 500 race, screaming at every turn to the excited staccato commentary of Jim McKay.
Dad was a race car nut. He has many trophies to prove it. When Jimmy Clark won the ’65 Indy 500, that year dad won the ¼ mile drag race in Deseronto, Ontario. “I made a high 15.9 second win in my ‘63 Fairlane,” he chaffs.
In a tribute I dedicated this three-lap ride of a lifetime to him. Over to turn two, three and four then it’s the final straightaway past the line-up of the next contenders. I imagine them as fans waving, clapping with some whistling from the sidelines. Cacked into a hypnotic state, I couldn’t hear anything but the supersonic engine clocking 180 mph.
Much has changed in the 100 years since the oval first opened to automobiles in 1909. The 2.5 mile track made from crushed rock and tar was so bad the races went from bad to worse. The final day’s 300-mile race had to be cut short to 235-miles. The guys who watched the green flag fall through the humid heartland air never knew what hit them. They motored in primitive vehicles at now pablum speeds averaging 55 mph, wore thick sweaters to shield them from torpedoing stones all of which was done to introduce America to the automobile.
“The organizers didn’t know they would have these problems. They intended on running several times a year and all of that had to come to a screeching halt,” said Donald Davidson, the world's only full-time racetrack historian describing the harrowing weekend of August 19-21, 1909.
An entrepreneur and promotional genius, founder Carl Fisher went back to the drawing board and drummed up a plan. He hauled in by rail 3.2 million Indiana-made bricks to pave over the Oval’s macadam track and the race was to become an annual event. Dubbed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the Indianapolis 500 was born on May 30, 1911. Over 80,000 spectators paid a US$1 admission to watch Ray Harroun in his self-designed single-seater the Marmon Wasp win the 500 mile race at 74 mph. “The organizers wanted to fill in a seven or eight hour day of programming so figured 500 miles ought to do it,” said Mr. Davidson.
The Indy 500 was such a gallant pageant with a bevy of wide-hatted ladies in long dresses many of whom arrived by train from New York City to see the newest spectacle. “It was very much an upper society affair,” he notes. Tycoons and industrialists of the day arrived to farm country.
Today, the track is dubbed the Brickyard and 3-feet of original bricks remain at the famous start/finish line. Over the years, the track has remained as a one-family affair and locals proudly wave the flag and declare, “The owners have kept it private and have never asked for a cent of tax payer’s money even though the state has offered support.”
Tony Hulman Jr., the son of a grocery magnate owner, purchased the tumble-weed ridden track abandoned after World War II for US$750,000 and made his hobby into an institution. Now a third generation Hulman, Tony George is the CEO of the Speedway and founder of the IndyCar Series. He’s renovated the property, revamped the golf course and last year merged the rival open-wheel race companies: The IndyCar Series with the Champ Car World Series under one banner, the IRL IndyCar Series. Sarah Fisher is one of the Indy 500 favourites. Not just because she’s a woman either.
Last year Sarah’s primary sponsor bailed. Most people would have thrown in the towel but the first female owner/driver in IndyCar Series history propelled forward. Fans pulled money out of their wallets and helped save the day.
Now she’s backed by the largest discount retailer in the U.S., Dollar General. Some pundits call her the comeback girl. She calls herself the girl next door. “I drive because it’s what I’ve known all my life,” says the petite, soft-spoken dynamo whose been smitten by speed since the age of five when her parents put her on a quarter-midget and she won.
So move over boys. The 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for May 24, 2009 at 1PM EST, and out of the 33 racers there will be a female trio: Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick and Milka Duno. It’s, “Ladies and gentlemen start your engines.”