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Feature: Taking the backseat in an IndyCar two-seater

Each IndyCar weekend a few lucky people get to take a ride around the track in a specially-designed two-seater open wheel car. On a Saturday evening in early July, I was one of those lucky people.

The Fastest Seat in Sports is the name given to the honorary ride around the track ahead of each IndyCar race. The experience uses a custom-built Dallara chassis that is modeled after the current generation of IndyCar and has been extended to hold two people instead of the usual one.  The carbon fibre body, the push-rod suspension, and the downforce-generating wings are all real, and there is no mistaking it for anything other than a race car. 

While covering the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, I was offered a ride in one of Indy Racing Experience’s two-seater cars.  There was no way I was going to pass up such a unique opportunity, so I quickly made my interest known and before I knew it, the promotor of the event, Green Savoree Racing Promotions, had me on the list.  I could barely concentrate on my media duties for the rest of the day, finding myself dreaming of what that evening was going to hold.

An hour before my scheduled ride time, I walked over to the east side of the paddock and found the group of specially-designed cars warming up in the parking lot.  The wonderful smell of ethanol exhaust greeted me as I filled out the slightly daunting paperwork on a folding table nearby.  After that, a quick trip into the trailer to change into a fire suit and drop off my hat, and I was ready to go.

The legend killing time while everyone prepared for the afternoon runs.

Before long, the cars were rolled down to the track, which had just finished hosting its last racing event of the day, and we were herded onto the pit lane entrance.  We were given very brief instructions about what was about to happen, but by and large the experienced crew would be taking care of all our safety needs.  There were about 40 of us total, and I was surely not alone in thinking about how much this reminded me of the thrill of waiting in line to ride a new roller coaster in my younger years.

After watching a few other lucky passengers complete their lap, it was my turn.  Each of the four cars was piloted by an experienced IndyCar driver.  The legend himself Mario Andretti drove the lead car, Juan Piedrahita and Gabby Chaves followed, and my chauffer for the afternoon was Davey Hamilton.  The tenured CART and IndyCar driver, and veteran of 11 Indy 500s, was going to drive me around the track in a car with an Arrow McLaren SP livery.  There was no time to think about it all in the moment, but there’s no mistaking that this was the setup for one of the best experiences of my life.

Even though I was not given much instruction about how to climb into the car, the expert crew had me ready to go in no time.  Five-point harness: secured.  Foam headrest: installed.  Visor: snapped shut.  A quick thumbs up, a tap on the helmet, and I was away.

The roller coaster thoughts came back again as we accelerated down the front stretch.  My body wasn’t sure if it was dizzy, sick, panicked, or something in between.  Luckily, by time we reached the first turn, a high-speed 90-degree left hander, my body calmed down and I was able to fully enjoy myself.  As many people note, the braking power of an open wheel car with loads of downforce was truly amazing.  The short distance needed to slow down for the Keyhole was one of the more unexpected parts of the entire experience.

Some cars had the Ruoff Mortgage sponsorship, while others sported the bold AMSP livery.

The acceleration coming out of the turn was also fantastic, and the roaring engine just behind my back rocketed us up to our top speed of roughly 170 MPH.  On account of the car being designed for just this situation, I didn’t really get the sensation of intense speed I was expecting as we flew down the almost 3,000-foot long backstretch, but the rush of air jostling my helmet around as I looked side to side was a clue.  The Indy Lights cars that were on track just a couple hours before top out at about the same speed as we achieved, just a hair slower than a full blown IndyCar.

The only piece of the experience that I wish was different was my forward sight, though it is not something that could be helped.  Having the driver directly in front of me meant that I had to look slightly to the side to view the world speeding past, and I could not see the upcoming braking points very well.  The setup worked well as we entered the winding section of the track, however.  I could see the other cars snaking ahead of us, and I could feel Hamilton utilizing every bit of downforce we had to easily get through the tricky turns.

One last speedy trip through Thunder Valley and a final hard deceleration into turn 11, and the experience was over.  2.258 miles never went by so quickly.  I was deftly released from my confines by the support crew, climbed out of the car, quickly thanked my driver, and walked on shaky legs to return my safety gear.

Just another day in the office for Davey Hamilton, but a great experience for this author.

I said there was only one piece of the experience I would change, but that’s not quite true.  I wish also that I could have stayed on track for much longer than one lap, and that I could keep riding around at incredible speeds until the sun went down.  Indy Racing Experience bills their experiences as the ‘Ride of a Lifetime,’ and I would not disagree one bit.

The whole setup travels with the IndyCar series to every track and offers guests a chance to get as close to the action as possible.  Where else are fans able to watch top-level athletes compete at the top of their game, and then hours later have a veteran of the discipline place you into the action on the very same track?

The next time the guest of honor is shown cruising around the track courtesy of Mario Andretti ahead of the field, know that there is more than just a photo opportunity in that ride.  It truly is an exhilarating experience, and I can assure you there is a large smile inside both helmets.

Full disclosure: I was offered this experience by American Honda while covering the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.  Thanks goes out to them as well as Indy Racing Experience and Green Savoree Racing Promotions for arranging this unique opportunity.

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