Terrifying bliss: my two laps in an IndyCar

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How muscular is Mario Andretti’s neck? Did he have to do some special driver workout to keep it in shape? I mean, he retired a while ago, so does he still do it now?

These are the thoughts passing through my mind as I hurtle down the backstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 180 miles per hour, cradled above the blurring asphalt by a few inches of carbon fiber, cloth, and a fire suit. I’m buckled snugly into the back half of one of the special two-seater cars that IndyCar uses to thrill anyone with a few hundred dollars to burn. A Honda engine howls just inches behind me, and in front is the man with arguably the most famous name in motorsports history.

For Mario Andretti, this is just another Wednesday

I’m lucky enough to be here on assignment, marking what will surely be my most exciting Wednesday morning ever. For Mario Andretti, 45 years my senior, this is just another day — wake up, drink some coffee, head to the track, and drive a few suckers around until their heads spin.

At three times the speed limit, Indy’s straightaways put me in a state of almost fearless euphoria. But that all goes to shit in the turns, where the centrifugal forces send my breakfast flying up into the right side of my ribcage. I spend the first lap trying to fight the overwhelming forces imposed by the big, sweeping, 9-degree banked turns, but by the second lap I’ve given up. My head flails helplessly in the wind. I just grin and bear it, enjoying what little time I have left on the famous 2.5-mile oval.

IndyCar Indy racing experience

As much as I’ve dreamt of driving a race car as a kid, I’m suddenly realizing there’s a better chance of us finding alien life in our solar system than there is of me lasting through 200 laps of the abuse I’m taking.

I came to Indianapolis because I want to learn a little bit more about what it’s like to drive an IndyCar. Having grown up down the hill from an asphalt track that features its own special breed of open-wheel racing, I’ve followed the sport for most of my life. I feel close to it in a way that I can never feel for its rowdier stock car cousin, NASCAR.

IndyCar has run five races so far this year, but the season symbolically begins in earnest this Sunday with the 99th running of the Indy 500. And on the cusp of its centennial, IndyCar — like other major motorsports — is facing unprecedented uncertainty.

All those other race series have implemented some rather radical changes over the last decade as they try to maintain old fans and attract new ones, all while our internet-addled attention spans winnow. But nothing is working particularly well. NASCAR introduced its own version of "playoffs" in 2004 and hasn’t stopped toying with the format since. The series also introduced a rear wing on its cars in 2007, which it removed three seasons later. More recently, Formula One dropped its engines from eight cylinders to six in 2014, the sound of which still irks longtime fans.

IndyCar has also made its fair share of changes. This season, the series introduced wild-looking modular aerodynamics packages for both its road and oval courses, modifying a new chassis adopted in 2012 that has been criticized as "cookie-cutter." The series is also working on rolling out LED panels on the cars that display the drivers’ positions in real time. (They were supposed to be implemented in time for the Indy 500, but have since been delayed.)

IndyCar practice Indy 500

With most of its races happening on Sundays, IndyCar is locked in a weekly ratings battle with the likes of NASCAR. Both series are often relegated to sports channels like Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network, and the conclusions of their seasons bump up against the behemoth NFL. The rivalry runs deeper than just ratings; a few years ago, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and IndyCar Driver Tony Kanaan traded barbs over which series draws more fans. They can jab all they want, but the reality is that both series have seen attendance struggles.

Last year’s 500 — aired on ABC — drew the race’s third-lowest television audience ever. But this year’s race will likely draw more, because those new aerodynamic kits have the cars going faster. In the earliest practices last week, drivers were reaching such incredible speeds that many thought Arie Luyendyk’s 20-year-old track record of 237.498 miles per hour was in danger.

Luyendyk can rest easy, though, because IndyCar effectively limited the cars’ qualifying power after a series of increasingly spectacular wrecks during Indy 500 practice and qualifying. Hours after my ride in the two-seater, Helio Castroneves — who was turning the fastest laps of the day at the time — slammed into the wall exiting turn one, spun around backwards, and flew a few hundred feet down the track upside-down. (Fortunately, he was uninjured.) One day later, Josef Newgarden hit and flipped in a similar fashion, and a few days after that Ed Carpenter did the same. This week, James Hinchcliffe went airborne when a suspension part broke on his car. While the other drivers walked away, Hinchcliffe landed in an Indianapolis operating room. If high speeds are increasing the excitement, they’re also magnifying the danger.

IndyCar indy 500

The Penske Racing team watches the first replay of Helio Castroneves' wild crash.

The wrecks at Indy have drawn a lot of attention, but these accidents aren’t any different from ones we’ve seen in the past. Despite the gruesome injury Hinchcliffe suffered, the cars — and especially the drivers’ cockpits — are much safer now than they were when Dan Wheldon died in a horrific multi-car accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway back in 2011. If the new aero kits present any problem, it’s likely a much different one; at the sport’s opening event in St. Petersburg, Florida, one of the many pieces on the extraordinarily complex road kit flew off and struck a spectator, fracturing her skull. (A lawsuit has been filed.)

But at speed, drivers can’t afford existential crises about the future of their sport — they’ve got other things to worry about. It’s always been easy to recognize the extreme danger that any type of open wheel racing presents from your couch, but it’s hard to fully understand the brutal forces they’re dealing with. Until my two laps around the track, I thought I had at least some idea. I was wrong.

I’m still wondering how my legendary driver, at 74 years young so effortlessly manages the forces that would wither my 29-year-old frame. I never got a good look at that neck of his, because as soon as my ride was done, the next poor sap hopped in the two-seater. His visor flipped down, Andretti kicked the throttle, spun the tires, and off they drove.

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