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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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Indy Racing Experience at California Speedway

 

The differences between IRL cars, Champ Cars and even Formula 1 cars may seem subtle to the casual observer. What clearly stands out is that they are all fast, loud, open-wheeled race cars.

I once had the good fortune to drive a less powerful open-wheeled race car. It was a Formula Ford and I was a student at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, in Chandler, Arizona. Even though that experience was over ten years ago, I still remember it clearly. What a blast, zooming around a race track just inches from the ground. The handling seemed incredible, much like that of my old, tail happy 1978 Porsche 911 SC. Its direction was easily controllable by the gas pedal – too much throttle and it would spin, but with just the right amount of throttle it would drift beautifully around the turns.


Ticket to ride

I was very excited, therefore, to get an opportunity to once again experience an open-wheeled race car at speed on a race track. This time it was from the back seat of a special, two-seat, high performance IRL race car. The occasion was what is known as the “Indy Racing Experience.” I was at California Speedway on the Friday before the Toyota Indy 400 – the final race of the 2005 IRL season and, unfortunately, the last time the IRL cars were scheduled to race at California Speedway. They will not be back in 2006.

Here are the stats on the cars, from the promotional literature: They are real Indy Cars stretched to fit a passenger. They are powered by real Indy Car engines. They are driven by professionally licensed Indy Racing League drivers. The experience takes place on real race tracks. The Indy Racing League Safety Crew is at all experiences.

These cars are a lot faster than Formula Fords, and California Speedway provides a much quicker venue for racing than does the short, training race course at the Bondurant School.

 

Legal paperwork

I must say, the Indy Racing Experience does it right. First, of course, we basically had to sign our lives away – in case of an accident. The consent forms and liability releases were several pages long, so the lawyers must have been quite happy.


At speed

That out of the way, the next step was to wait with the others while watching those who were closer to the front of the line get their own high speed thrill rides. One after the other, they got into one of the pair of cars and roared off into the distance for two glorious laps around the track. Turning fast enough to take a decent picture of a car zooming by after its warm-up lap was a real challenge.

At some point while we waited, we suited up in racing suits. There’s nothing quite like wearing the equivalent of heavily insulated one-piece pajamas while standing in the heat of the day in Fontana, California. I can only imagine what it must be like for the drivers, who have to wear those suits for hours on end. However, nothing could take away from the anticipation of the excitement that was soon to come.


Author putting on helmet

Soon it was time to be fitted for a racing helmet. We were getting close.


Getting into the car

Finally it was my turn. Somewhat nervously I approached the car and followed the directions to get seated. Accommodations were tight. Then I was belted in. The last step was to start the engine.


Leaving the pits

Now we were off, heading along pit lane and onto the track. Acceleration was very strong. The experience wasn’t quite like actually driving the car, of course, but putting your life in the hands of a race car driver on a race track is also thrilling, but in a different way.

Visibility straight ahead was non-existent – there was a seat there. The side views were fine, however. Things were whizzing by at very high speed. I had an uncomfortable sensation of nausea in the high G-force, banked turns. I can only imagine what it must be like at full racing speed, on the edge.

The car’s grip on the road seemed very secure. Never once did I fear we might lose it and hit the wall. It was fun. Dicing with other cars must be an incredible rush.

Two laps end very quickly at these speeds. I would recommend the experience to anyone. As a matter of fact, I had to do just that to a woman who was very wary of taking her turn in the car.


The author and Michael Andretti

Later that day, there was a driver change. The driver? None other than Michael Andretti himself.

All in all, this was a wonderful experience. If it sounds like something that you’d like to try, or perhaps give to someone else as a very special gift, you can get more information on upcoming Indy Racing Experiences at other race tracks by going to www.sindenracing.com.

Oh yes, there was also an IRL race that weekend but that is another story for another time.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

Copyright © 2005,2006 Jan R. Wagner – #168r1 AutoMatters

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