INDIANAPOLIS — “Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe or you’ll tense up, and it won’t be fun.”
This is the final piece of advice I was given before climbing into the back of a two-seater race car for a 180 mph ride around the oval track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway two days before the Indy 500.
As someone who gets motion sick on public transportation, I was surprisingly calm while waiting in line for one of the several IndyCar-style cars driving people around the track. Actively concentrating on every deep inhale made me forget why I was wearing a flame-retardant suit and the waiver I signed minutes ago asked for my blood type.
The dozens in line ahead of me vanished, and I was up to jump in the back of whichever race car pulled on to pit road next. My heart pounded in the back of my throat, and I was no longer distracted by how tightly secured my helmet’s chinstrap was.
Wade Cunningham — a 32-year-old former IndyCar driver from New Zealand — pulled up in an Australian Gold-sponsored car. I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed I wasn’t paired with 77-year-old legend Mario Andretti, who was also giving rides.
Sliding my legs into the seat felt comparable to squeezing into one of those playground swings designed to keep toddlers from falling out. The straps were tightened across my lap and chest as if I was sitting in a fighter jet. I quickly became very aware of how hot my fire suit was.
Keep breathing, I remind myself.
We accelerated like a passenger car after the traffic light turns green. Then we took off. Instantly, the G-forces pushed me deeper into the backseat, kind of like in an ascending plane but wildly intensified.
Oh my god, this is fast. Then I realized we weren’t even off pit road yet.
I didn’t think it was possible, but once we hit the first straightaway after the initial turn, I was forced deeper into my seat, as if I had been buried under a weighted plate perfectly fitted to every inch of by body. I was fighting an invisible resistance band with even the slightest movement.
Topping out at 180 mph down the straightaway didn’t seem too different from pushing the speed limit on the highway, especially considering we were flying by the Brickyard Crossing golf course sandwiching both sides of the track. But it was more comparable to floating on a hoverboard than burning rubber on the ground.
Into the first real turn, Cunningham let off the throttle a bit — we didn’t crash, so he must have — although it certainly didn’t feel like it. The forces threw me to my right, making it impossible to readjust my head and face fully forward. This is why drivers’ necks are ridiculously strong.
Each turn was like being in a Hot Wheels car just released from a slingshot on a toy track. If I were a cartoon, my face would have been flattened against the imaginary car window.
The first lap lasted an eternity – the shock of the speed somehow altered my perception of time – and I remember thinking, I can’t believe we still have one more.
Each straightaway seemed faster, each turn harder.
It’s a 2.5-mile track, yet I was getting dizzy. I purposefully didn’t eat for (probably) more hours than necessary to ensure nothing could regurgitate, and I can’t imagine fighting these G-forces for hours with average speeds significantly higher than 200 miles per hour.
Before I knew it, we slowed down — that’s all relative — and pulled back into pit road for another passenger to rotate in for me.
Just like the seconds before my ride started, my adrenaline pumped as I climbed back out. But hints of fear weren’t enabling it – a sensational, thrilling high was, and that’s when it finally clicked.
I now have a significantly better appreciation for the love of speed that initially led so many drivers to this sport and the electrifying excitement they must feel after being the fastest car and crossing the finish line first.