LAKE BUENA VISTA
It wasn't fear of the wall that yellowed my belly; it was those merciless turns, all three of 'em, taunting me and my race car like asphalt bullies with a preternatural ability for sussing out the sissies from the studs.
Every time I swooped around the banks — just me and my machine, a steel feline that had been entered in two Indianapolis 500s — I'd instinctively take my boot off the throttle. Immediately, the sound of a sad exhaust, the sound of defeat (ploot, ploot, plap!) from the high-compression engine would sputter across Walt Disney World Speedway.
Go! Go! Go! my id would beg.
But alas, I was a plooter.
• • •
You've heard of the Brickyard? Welcome to "the Mickyard," the humbling Mouse House home of the Indy Racing Experience: where armchair speed merchants can recline fire-suited and steely behind the open wheel of a real Indy Racing League (IRL) car . . . where you can feel the thrust of an authentic champion-car powerplant, a modern miracle of fury capable of god-taunting speeds of 222 mph . . .
. . . and where, if you're a 6-foot-2, 230-pound chicken, you can instead go 67 mph around the milelong tri-oval — or 13 mph slower than my 1998 Mazda went on the trip up I-4.
I'm not a gearhead by any stretch, but I do like driving, and I do like driving fast. Or at least I thought I did. So when I was invited to command a single-seat, open-wheel Indy car as a preview of the upcoming Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, I immediately envisioned eating up the loop, toying with the sonic boom like a fatter, hairier Danica Patrick — Manica Patrick!
"It's going to feel faster than you're actually going," winked Ruthie Forbes, press liaison for the IRL. That's because (1) the cockpit is open to all that wind, all that intimidating, roaring NOISE, and (2) the car is so incredibly low to the ground, it's like you're luge-ing for crying out loud. The Richard Petty Driving Experience is also at the Disney track, but that's stock-car racing. For the sake of comparison, NASCAR is like driving a regular car; Indy is like steering a giant squid across the sea floor.
So I was told to "mash the gas." Don't fret about flipping, Ruthie said, as I signed and initialed three pages of death paperwork. ("I recognize that negligent conduct can cause property damage and personal injury including serious injury or death" — sweet!) "Mash the gas" was good advice, and as I took the quick course on driving a car in which the steering wheel costs $45,000 — "Here's the clutch, the brake, the throttle. Hit the gas leaving the pit. Okay, you ready?" — I had every intention of following those revvy instructions.
And I still did as I pulled on the fire suit — the most macho of black onesies — then the gloves and the headsock and the helmet, which felt heavy and otherworldly, like something you'd find in a NASA locker. The husky assistant beckoned me to the shiny yellow car, the one driven by former Indy stars Juan Pablo Montoya and Casey Mears. I could hear both my heavy breathing and my thick black boots crunching on the track. The guide car — the only other car on the track besides me — crept forward, ready. I wanted to cook.
I slid behind the wheel, which was no bigger than a side-order plate at KFC. "Just like sitting in a bathtub," the instructor said about the racing posture, and he was right. I was almost on my back. They buckled me every which way, a spiderweb of safety. I couldn't see the pedals, but I could feel them, small, stiff. I flicked the "on" switch and punched the ignition button and mashed the gas out of the pit, not even coming close to stalling. I had done everything right. I felt so incredibly, awesomely cool.
And that lasted for about 37 seconds. That first feel of open racetrack is so pure and exhilarating, the only other equivalent is inappropriate for a family newspaper. And I punished the throttle in the straightaway.
But then — then — despite my wide, thick racing slicks (that is, my wheels), I couldn't help myself once I hit those turns:
I was going about one-third of what this once-proud car did for a living, and it handled beautifully, doing whatever you wanted it to do. And yet the worrisome homunculus in my brain said, You're going to flip this race car if you don't lay off the gas.
The car itself probably felt like a broken-down thoroughbred, one giving rides at the county fair. No matter what I told myself, no matter what images I conjured — A.J. Foyt! Smokey and the Bandit! Smokey and the Bandit 2! — still I slowed around those godforsaken turns. I could take that car a few feet from the wall, the looming white barrier that had freaked out so many of the other amateurs. But those three banks — 10 degrees, 8.5 degrees, 7 degrees — turned my guts to quivery yellow Jell-O.
When I returned to the pit after six laps, no one made eye contact. Or maybe I imagined that. Maybe I was the one not making eye contact. "Did you have fun?" someone asked. "Hell yeah," I said, and I meant it. But I wanted to keep my helmet on anyway, for lots of reasons.
• • •
To be totally fair to myself, when the final lap times were handed out at the end of the day, there was an 81 mph that might have belonged to me. That's lame, yes. But it does beat 67 mph, which might have been another dude's time. The top "amateur" speed of the day was 103, but that was still more than 100 mph off of what pros do.
It took about an hour for the sheer, vein-buzzing thrill of driving an Indy car to wear off. It took a little longer to forgive myself for going so slow. By that time, I was already driving the Mazda home, going 85 mph down I-4, passing everybody in sight, no plooting to be heard.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.