He's too good to crash, right?
By Sean Evans/The Drive
This article was originally published on The Drive on May 27, 2016. Check out thedrive.com for everything cars, culture and the people who made both.
Mario Andretti is 76 years old. As the greatest living racer of our generation nears octogenarian status, he shows zero indication that he’s willing to slow down. I know this because the man expertly whipped me around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this month at speeds more than double his age. And he would’ve gone faster, were we not constrained to the road course. “On the oval, Mario’ll hit 200 miles an hour easy,” Scott Jasek says. “He’s always looking for more speed.”
Jasek, along with partners Jeff Sinden and Joe Kennedy, co-own the Indy Racing Experience, a company that puts you in a two-seater Dallara, just behind Andretti and a few other race phenoms, for two hot laps you will never forget. The chassis are original, and purpose-built, as compared to lesser competitor offerings which are welded together from two donor cars. That difference is key because the rigidity allows Andretti to get that Honda 3.5-liter V-6 twin turbo fully cranking. That powerplant, the same found in any other Honda-powered Indy car, generates 700 horsepower and is mated to an Emco six-speed tranny, also found in any Indy car. “The only difference between this and what you’ll see in the 500 this weekend is that extra seat,” Jasek says.
After signing many release forms, which ask for your primary physician’s contact information and your blood type, you tug on a race suit, head sock and helmet and queue up while Andretti and a team run through a final once-over of the car. When the crew chief beckons, you climb in and let the team make sure you’re fastened securely. Less than a minute later, the car thunders to life and away you go. Over the next four minutes, the time it takes Andretti to complete two passes on the road course, a slew of thoughts will fly around your head. Below, a collection of some of mine.
1) “This open cockpit makes everything feel much faster.”
By the time we’re halfway down pit lane, we barely hit 100 in there, though the forces pulling on your body are enough to lift your helmet up. That lifting sensation is so strong, I inadvertently feel myself white-knuckling the hand grips.
2) “I can’t see anything. Just the top of Andretti’s head and the front tires.”
You’re crammed right behind Andretti, with your legs essentially on either side of his body. Andretti knows when he’s going to turn, so he’s bracing for it. Thus, his head never moves. You have no idea when a turn is coming, so when it happens, your head ends up banging against the sides of the car.
3) “Mario may be trying to kill me in the brake zones.”
When the guy wants to scrub his speed, he stomps on the brakes so hard, you’re sure the four point harness is going to snap your collar bone.
4) “What’s this button back here?”
Between the handles you’ll be squeezing the bejesus out of, there’s a small red button. No one explained what it was before we left, though Jasek later informs me it’s a panic button. Hit it and “PANIC” literally appears on Andretti’s wheel. “No one’s ever hit that in the 15 years we’ve been doing this,” Jasek says.
5) “We’re sliding, we’re sliding. Oh shit, we’re sliding.”
As Andretti gooses it through Turn 6, I can feel the back end get a little squirrely. I remember our chat before the drive, where Andretti estimated he’s driven more than 100,000 miles on at this very track and try to calm down.
6) “Is my weight affecting the handling?”
Turns out, it’s not. They don’t adjust for the plus one, and Andretti will just punch the gas harder if the passenger is heavier than 200 pounds. Two of the newer chassis are built to accommodate a guest up to 300 pounds.7) “This costs $125 a minute.”
For the layperson to sign up for this thrill, it’s $500 for the two laps. Divided by the approximately four minutes, and you’re looking at a hefty per-minute fee, though it’s well worth the cost of admission.
8) “The straight is going to suck me out of this car.”
Coming out of Turn 14 which dumps you into the front straight, Andretti drops the hammer and we’re doing 170 in short order. My helmet feels like it wants to fly away and take my head with it. Later, I learn that we’re pulling 2gs while an Indy racer would typically experience double that during a real race.
9) “My entire body is tense.”
As we start the second lap, I realize I’m aching all over because I’m so rigid from trying to hold on and brace myself for turns and brake zones that I can’t anticipate.
10) “Are we getting closer to the wall?”
When you exit the road course onto the front straight, the wall is just to your left. It comes up blisteringly quick, though on our first lap we didn’t get as close. Our second lap, I could tell Andretti was feeling more comfortable and pushing it more. The engine was revving higher and louder, we seemed to be going faster (though Andretti would have no way of knowing since he can only see his RPMs and not his speed while in the car), and that wall drew nearer.
11) “Oh my god. Mario just hit the wall.”
I wasn’t in the car when this happened. I was watching from the Pagoda, and it was about an hour and a half after my laps had finished. Andretti came hauling through that same spot though, really trying to find the limit, when suddenly the car careened into the wall and bounced off. They kept going and completed the second lap. “Mario white walled the tires for us,” Jasek laughed, adding that’s the first time in 15 years Andretti had ever done had a mishap like that. “Mario came into the trailer, laughing, asking if we saw. He thought it was funny. To him, it’s just a part of racing.”
Watch footage of my laps with Andretti here.