It’s difficult to describe Mario Andretti’s car racing career without getting caught up in egregious understatements. The guy won everything and, sort of like Bo Jackson, he wasn’t limited to a single discipline.
Even if you, like me, know relatively little about the different kinds of racing, the three things you’ve probably heard of are Formula One, the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Well guess what? Andretti won all that shit.
Here he is in the Brawner-Ford ‘Hawk’ backup car with which he won Indy—by two laps—in 1969.
So while I was pretty stoked in general when the good people of IndyCar invited me to the recent ABC Supply 500 to meet some drivers, get a look behind the scenes and witness the race, the activity that most excited me in their initial email was a mention of “lapping the track in the backseat of an IndyCar two-seater, driven by no less than Mario Andretti!”
And God bless ’em, they delivered. This past Saturday afternoon, I found myself at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway, suiting up in a fireproof onesy and mentally preparing to go close to 200 miles per hour around the “Tricky Triangle” with the legendary driver. OK, 180 mph.
For context, that’s about the same as Will Power’s average speed in winning the rain-delayed ABC Supply 500 a couple days later, It’s also about 40 mph below what the fastest racers did in qualifying—and about 23 mph more than Andretti’s average speed in the 1969 Indy 500.
As we zip down the final straight, I think about navigating this 2.5-mile track—surrounded by 21 other aggressive drivers—oh, 200 times. And suddenly I have a whole new level of respect for Mario Andretti and everyone else who has made a living from this badass job.
Then, and I can’t help saying this, it all happened so fast. One moment I was out on the track watching the Indy Racing Experience two-seaters zip around at ludicrous speeds and fiddling with a pair of gloves and a head sock. The next, I was strapping on a helmet and hustling toward my ride. The attendants fitted me with a HANS device, helped me drop into the bucket behind Mr. Andretti and of course made sure I fastened my seat belt.
Just as I was trying to yell to him that—like Lady Gaga before me—I’m part Italian and he should go easy on me, he got the go signal and we were off. And…
That’s the only thing you can think when you go from zero to 100 mph in less than three seconds. And then you’re not really thinking at all, just bracing for impact as you fly toward the first-turn wall at well over that speed.
Of course, Andretti isn’t having this same experience. He’s doing something he’s done literally thousands of times, so I can only imagine that he cruises into these life-or-death turns as casually as he strolls through a vineyard at his Napa Valley winery.
That notion calmed me down just a bit as we careened around the track, with the roar of the engine thick in my skull and the distinct feeling of g-forces attempting to pry my helmet right off my precious noggin.
I attempted to reach up and do I don’t know what, exactly (adjust it?), but that was a lost cause. I could barely lift my damn hands, and I’m just sitting there. That 76-year-old dude up ahead of me was shifting gears and steering.
As we head into the second and final lap, I finally settle down a bit. I savor the unholy speed. I relish the wind rushing all around our open cockpit. I embrace the g-forces. I think, hell yeah, I could get into this.
Then, as we zip down the final straight, I think about navigating this 2.5-mile track—at even faster speeds, surrounded by 21 other drivers—oh, 200 times.
And suddenly I have a whole new level of respect for Mario Andretti and everyone else who has made a living from this badass job.
Note: This video is shot—in 360 degrees!—on a street course rather than an oval, but it gives you a pretty good feel for the experience.
One final highlight? After the ride, I got a moment to chat with Andretti while we posed for a photo. And I just had to ask: “What’s your number one driving tip?”
He took a moment to ponder, and then looked at me sincerely and said something that seemed surprising at the time, but in retrospect jibes pretty well with the notion that when elite athletes are at their best, everything slows down. “Don’t rush it,” he said. “Take your time. Let it come to you.”
Damn good advice for the highway—and life, too.