July 29 (Bloomberg) -- There is a popular TV commercial airing where Mario Andretti races down the track in his two-seat Indy car with a guest in the back.
In one frame Andretti, in slow motion, scans flowers in the infield and makes eye contact with a beautiful woman in the grandstands as soothing opera music plays in the background.
In the next frame the car, in real time, shrieks down the front straight with the passenger screaming, scared out of his mind. The ad, appropriately enough, is called “Perspectives.”
When I first saw it, I chuckled. I also knew I wanted to try the ride-along. But to be the lucky passenger, one normally must enter Honda’s “Fastest Seat in Sports” sweepstakes with thousands of other contestants. Only one person is chosen for each of IZOD IndyCar’s 18 annual races, so the chances of winning are what, less than zero?
Earlier this summer, Andretti had the two-seater at Pocono Raceway, a large tri-oval in rural Pennsylvania regularly visited by NASCAR drivers. The NASCAR lap record there is 179.958 mph, set by Joey Logano in 2012, just after the track was repaved. In other words, Pocono is a fast place.
This year marked IndyCar’s return after a quarter of a century. As Indy cars are faster than stock cars, Marco Andretti, Mario’s grandson, promptly blistered a record top lap of 221.273 mph, making NASCAR’s speeds seem like child’s play.
Pocono has its own special meaning for me. In 1978, I attended my first Indy race there and watched from the grandstands as Al Unser, Sr. won what was to be the second leg of his historic Triple Crown of Auto Racing: Indianapolis, Pocono and California.
Now, 35 years later, I was at Pocono as an accredited journalist. Early on Sunday morning, July 7, I heard -- then saw -- the two-seater screaming around the track. I inquired at the media center and was told that, indeed, it was Mario taking a few VIPs out for “hot laps.”
Hot is an understatement. Andretti was getting around the 2.5-mile course, known as the “tricky triangle” because of its three unique turns, in less than a minute, while the high-pitched whine of the car echoed eerily off the grandstands starting to fill with spectators. IndyCar public relations executives told me they would see what they could do about getting me a ride, but made no promises.
Andretti, of course, has a CV that reads like a “who’s who” in auto racing. He has won big events across all major venues including Formula One (1978). He has also won at Pocono in 1986, so he knows his way around the track.
Before I knew it, I was being hustled to the end of pit lane and stuffed into a tight driving suit with a crash helmet. What was I thinking while waiting my turn?
On one hand, I was about to experience the thrill of what the world’s best drivers endure in terms of G forces, speed and acceleration. On the other, I would have absolutely no control over the car. Sure I would be in the hands of a legend, but what would happen if a tire blew or the engine suddenly seized and we spun into the concrete retaining wall?
I stepped forward when my number was called, posed for a few photos with Mario and then was belted into the car.
It didn’t take long to figure out why that TV-ad passenger was screaming. Right off, Andretti accelerated at a breakneck pace into turn one banked at 14 degrees. By the time we were in the short chute between turns one and two, the car was above 120 mph. As our speed increased through turn two (eight degrees), I really began to feel the G’s as my torso crushed against the right side of the car.
Down the back straight we accelerated to 160 mph, and I braced for turn three (six degrees). My teeth rattled and my head felt like it was about to fly off in the open-cockpit car. After turn three came the real terror, as we flashed down the 3,740-foot front straight in excess of 180 mph.
When I tried to raise my head for a better view of the grandstands, the wind got underneath my helmet and snapped it back. I had to use my hand to pull the helmet back down!
After another thrilling lap, we pulled into pit lane. I was shaking and excited. The entire ride, a full five miles, had taken less than two minutes!
Later that day, I met team owner Roger Penske, four-time Indy 500 champ Rick Mears and IndyCar points leader (and “Dancing with the Stars” winner) Helio Castroneves. I even watched New Zealand’s Scott Dixon move from his starting position of 17th to take the checkered flag.
I will never forget those laps with Andretti. Afterward, the 73-year-old told me we had run at 185 mph -- the gent has still got it.
Hey, that’s faster than the NASCAR boys, and that’s good enough for me!
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Jeremy Gerard on theater.
To contact the writer of this column: James M. Clash at Jamesmclash@gmail.com
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