One of the great perks of sportswriting, along with free notepads and virtually unlimited access to popcorn, is the occasional speedway fast lap.
I have taken laps in an IndyCar, a NASCAR stock car and a pace car at Sonoma Raceway. The various series arrange it, I assume, to give writers a feel for what the drivers experience, and to generate a little publicity. I rarely say no to these, because they are awesome. I mean, you’re an adult and you get to dress up a fire suit and a helmet.
No, you don’t get to drive. You sit alongside a professional driver in a custom two-seater, and you hang on for dear life. The first question most people ask is How fast did you go? The answer here in Sonoma is somewhere around 125 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound anxiety-provoking fast. And honestly, the straightaways are cool but not entirely memorable.
It’s the curves that get you. The first time one of these guys accelerates from the start line and heads into a couple turns, you think you’re going to die. There is no way a car can negotiate a curve at this rate. No way. We’re going to flip. We’re going to spin out. But the driver isn’t even working up a sweat as he moves you left and right at a ridiculous speed. And the acceleration out of the turns is improbable.
Before I took fast laps, I don’t think I saw race drivers as athletes. It’s a time-honored debate in the world of sports. How can you call someone an athlete when he or she basically sits down for two hours inside of an expensive machine? Now I feel differently. Just riding along as a passenger for a single lap has a physical edge. The downforce and the lateral jostling are unlike anything I’ve experienced. You are buckled in tightly in a five-point harness, and still your head and internal organs get tossed around. Plus, it was hot on Thursday when I took rode in a McLaren sports car, the kind that races in the Pirelli World Challenge series. One lap, and I was pouring sweat inside the fire suit.
I honestly can’t imagine taking 85 laps on a Sunday afternoon. And I can’t begin to conceive of doing it with 24 other cars on the track. Maybe these drivers are athletes, maybe they’re not. But they are definitely badasses.