Friday, September 9, 2016

When I drove an Indy Race car

I cashed in my gift certificate yesterday to the Mario Andretti Racing Experience. It was at Kentucky Speedway. The weather was perfect, sunny and temps in the high 70s for my slot with the 10 a.m. group. I had eight minutes of driving time. Details after the video; the camera was a GoPro (model unknown) mounted just aft the top of my head:

Okay, here is some information you will want to know before you decide to buy. They will tell you all this in your pre-drive class, but it's good to know ahead of time:
  1. This is, just as advertised, a real race car. It had slight mods for use by the non-professionals who will be driving it, but otherwise, it's the same as the cars you see every Memorial Sunday at the Brickyard. 
    1. One of the mods is that you do not shift gears. The instructor explained that the transmissions are four-speed but they have fixed them in fourth gear because they got tired of repairing transmissions. So when they start your car they push you from the rear with a large ATV while you push the clutch pedal to the floor. When your driving controller, speaking to you by radio, tells you to let off the clutch and give it some gas, the motor engages and off you go. 
    2. There is an RPM limiter that kicks in at 5,000 RPM. I think this is track specific, though. The instructor explained that maximum power and speed will be achieved just below that. I am pretty sure the reason for it is so that the car won't spin out in the curves. The instructor said several times, "Do not back off the throttle when you enter a curve. You cannot drive fast enough on this track to make the car spin on a curve, so maintain speed." I found this to be true.
    3. You do not have either a speedometer or a tachometer, although for all I know neither do the racing versions. The controller is always telling you (and race drivers) info about speed anyway, so there really is no need for either.
  2. There are three cars on the track at one time plus a dual-cockpit car for people who just want the speed sensation without driving. These are driven by professional drivers and will stay and the outside of the track. Trust me, they will also pass everyone else. 
  3. You paid-for time includes all the time your car is in motion, which includes the time you spend on the apron exiting pit row, which takes a half lap, and the time you spend returning there at the end, which is another half lap. Altogether, this will come to 1.5-2.0 minutes so frankly, if you do only the five-minute event, you won't do much driving at speed. 
  4. While driving, your controller will tell you when to merge onto the track when starting off and when to exit back to the apron to wrap it up. He will also tell you what pace to drive starting out, which will not be fast because he will not turn you loose until he knows you're not going to do something stupid and will follow directions. This is important: with other cars entering the track or exiting all the time, you may pass other cars only (a) on a straightaway and (b) when the controller says so. Screw this up and he may kill your engine remotely. 
  5. Speaking of the radio-connected controller, they really need to consider what in my military career were called "pro-words," or procedure words. I learned that the controller used the same terms to say that I was about to be passed or could pass (or not) someone else. This was very confusing and they seriously need to have different phrases for one and the other. Another example is how air traffic controllers and pilots talk; their phrasing is very exact and terms are very specific. When I was flying I was taught that I would be "cleared" only for takeoffs, never for landings or taxiing or anything else. So, as once happened to me, when you are short final to land and you hear the controller say, "static you are cleared for static" you know he's not talking to you and you'd better start looking for an airplane trying to take off on the same runway you have already been given permission to land! At the race track, audio you get in your headphones is not crystal clear anyway, so single-meaning words and short phrases would be a big help.
  6. These cars steering response is very sensitive. There is no need to turn the wheel more than a little bit. The faster you go, the more the car sticks to the track; it's actually more secure to go through the curves faster than slower. Also, the track's banking and leveling work very well to keep the car on course. 
  7. When they say, repeatedly, to stay at least five feet above the solid yellow line marking the beginning of the apron, they mean it. No driver in my group failed to do this, but the instructors were very clear: in an Indy car, if your wheel touches that line, you will wreck. The Indy car is very rigid and unforgiving of such. 
  8. When the controller tells you that you can open it up, go right ahead. The car is very powerful (duh) and will burst forward. Because you are siting so close to the track's surface, you will think you are going faster than you are, so if you feel confident, push it. Remember, the car is stabler faster. (This is my one regret, that I didn't push it as much as I retrospectively wish I had.) 
All this being said, it was a great experience, one like I've never had before, even when driving about that fast on the Autobahn in Germany.

I can also understand why there were so many repeat drivers in my group. One time does not give you enough familiarity with the car to really get up to high speed. So maybe there's another drive coming sometime in the future.

It was definitely fun, although not a passive kind of fun. This is not a passive experience at all! It's kind of like going on an extreme roller coaster, and discovering that you're not merely riding you're also having to drive it and you don't know which curves may throw you off the track if you take them at the wrong speed or wrong angle.

But yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat! Here are a few photos:

Pit row
Waiting to go.

I am in the red car, center. The cockpit is pretty tight to get into since the top opening is smaller than the interior. You don't have any spare room once positioned, but you do have enough. You are actually mostly lying down; legs straight in front and back angle well off vertical. 

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