Lapping Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Tristan Vautier

For as long as I can recall, every Memorial Day weekend I’ve watched the Indy 500. At its best, the race is where ingenious innovation meets courageous competition. For me, Indy’s race teams and drivers embody an entrepreneurial, just-do-it spirit which is just plain inspiring. Sports can bring out the best in humanity; the alliance of people and technology competing at the Indy 500 makes it a living, breathing exemplar of my favorite maxim: don’t get ready, get started.

I visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 2016, joining 350,000 other fans to celebrate the 100th running of the Indy 500. For me this was a peak life experience… I’ll never forget that electric thrill I felt walking past the famous Pagoda and arriving at the hallowed yard of bricks on the front straight. Here’s a photo of me at the head of the grid on race day — you can just feel the pulsing, contagious energy that is Indy!:

Even better, the day before this photo was taken I found myself at the same spot on the track — only this time in a screaming two-seater IndyCar! Sporting my own metacool racing helmet and a loaner fire suit (so large it could have accommodated two Diego’s), I was extremely fortunate to experience two laps around the Speedway behind driving ace Tristan Vautier. Here’s a video of my ride:

So how did it feel to speed across the same tarmac graced by legends like Hanks, Mears, Clark, Sullivan, Franchitti, Foyt, de Ferran, Andretti, and Gurney?

It felt awesome!

It was:

LOUD!: as you can hear, I had a big Honda V-6 whirring away a few inches behind my spine. It’s a scintillating noise, but it certainly gets inside of your skull! And at higher track speeds so much air is rushing by your helmet (and trying to lift it off your head) that the wind almost downs out the sound of the motor.

Warp-speedy: Tristan really put his foot in it leaving the pits, so the acceleration we felt was, ahem, slightly more robust than what I encounter in my daily driver Honda Accord. I was pinned backward, doing my best to keep my helmet from bobble-heading to the right as we navigated the long left arc of the lane that popped us out at the exit of Turn 1. As it turns out, my neck muscles aren’t quite up to the standard of the tree trunk that props up Fernando Alonso’s noggin… I definitely felt those g-forces! Two other big impressions of speed: First, at only 46 feet wide, the track seems much tighter in person than it does on TV. And from the cockpit of a car at speed, it feels even narrower… as we were circling I kept thinking “How on earth do these drivers go three-wide into Turn 1 at over 220 mph?”. I still don’t know. My second vivid memory of Indy speed: entering Turns 1 and 3 there are “3… 2… 1…” sign markers along the fence, counting down in hundred-foot increments to the beginning of the corner. These sped by so quickly that I couldn’t quite process their blur!

Serene: between Tristan’s gentle control inputs and the seamless —even glassy — quality of the track surface, the rest of my ride can best be described as smooth and… relaxing. Really. It felt as if we were wafting along on a magic carpet. It was beautiful. I spent my time enjoying my unique view of the Pagoda and the grandstands. I could have stayed in the car for a whole hour.

So, did we go fast?

Yes. And no.

Yes, it was fast. At least by everyday standards. Those of you with a stopwatch will note that we lapped the track at a tick under 60 seconds. Indianapolis Motor Speedway measures 2.50 miles in length, so our average speed was a bit more than 150 mph (240 km/h). That’s not slow at all: it’s the takeoff speed of a Boeing 737, and it’s more than double the speed limit of a California highway. It’s even fast in the context of the 101-year history of the Indy 500: if Tristan and I had run our lap in 1962, we could have qualified on pole ahead of the legendary Parnelli Jones, the first driver to ever break the 150 mph barrier at Indy.

But on the other hand, it wasn’t that fast. IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand qualified for this weekend’s Indy 500 with a 230.889 mph run, just under a 40 second lap. Put another way, when Tristan and I are exiting Turn 3 in the video above, JR is so far ahead of us on track that he’s already flashing across the start/finish line. And when he arrives at Turn 1, he’s hurtling forward at an astounding 238 mph (383 km/h), almost 90 mph more than us. Visualize the fury of a train passing you at 90 mph — that’s one mighty speed differential. For the gearheads among us, at top speed JR’s car packs 250% more kinetic energy than does my car. And upon entering Turn 1, he experiences exactly 745% of my baseline pucker factor.

My biggest takeaway from lapping the Speedway? That the athleticism, courage, and skill required to race an IndyCar at speed is almost beyond comprehension.

What these men and women do is truly remarkable.

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