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Road Rush

Think racing looks like fun? It's not. Add to ...

My bucket list has been coming along pretty well - I've looped an airplane, driven the autobahn, and seen a shark underwater. Then came another lifelong fantasy: driving an open-wheel race car like the ones you'll see at the Toronto Indy this weekend.

I thought it would be fun. It wasn't. Going fast in a race car calls for a certain type of person - the kind that enjoys being strapped into a straitjacket, roasted alive, and occasionally smashed into a concrete wall at three times the speed limit.

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"It's not for everybody," Indy racer Paul Tracy once told me. "Looking at it and doing it are two different things."

He had that right. A few days ago, I climbed into a two-seat Indy car for a few laps around the Toronto course. Wedging myself into the cockpit was like inserting a python into a garden hose, but I figured it would be better once I was inside. No such luck - my shoulders were jammed between the solid carbon sidewalls and the safety harness pinioned me like a trussed hog.

The steering wheel resembled a leather-wrapped dessert plate. The howl of the engine bored into my skull. The cockpit was so tight that I could barely move my hands and feet, and it was hot. Really hot. I felt like I was being buried alive in a charcoal roasting pit.

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I headed out on to the Indy course. Maybe the speed would make things better. It didn't. The racing suspension was tuned for handling, not comfort - the ride made me think of a stagecoach hurtling down a rock-strewn dirt road.

I zoomed past the grandstand toward the Princes' Gate. At this point, a professional racer like Dario Franchitti would be focused on going as fast as possible. I was focused on keeping my teeth in my skull. I recalled the words of professional race driver and coach Carroll Smith: "Whether through cause or effect," he wrote in one of his instructional books, "successful drivers are very hard men."

I learned why many years ago, when I enrolled in race-driving school. My ride was a Formula 2000 car, an open-wheel race car that serves as a stepping stone to Indy or Formula One.

I was realizing a lifelong fantasy. And, at least for a while, the thrill allowed me to ignore the underlying pain. Compared to a street vehicle, the F2000 car was like a supercharged gecko. I arced through corners, amazed at the car's grip. It stopped so fast that it was like hitting a wall.

But there was a steep price: within a few laps, my shoulders were bruised from banging against the close-fitting metal frame rails. My feet hit the sides of the car's tiny nose cone, and the bare-metal shifter wore the skin off my fingers. As I was learning, the ideal race driver is only slightly larger than a thoroughbred horse jockey. Unfortunately, I was six feet tall, and nearly 200 pounds.

For the first day or so, I lapped the track at a comfortable pace, honing my skills. Now it was time to up the pace, and see if I could clock some competitive lap times. I tried following Richard Spenard, a racer known for his speed and finesse. It didn't take long to see that he inhabited a different universe than my own - you may think you're a fast driver, but chasing a pro will change your mind.

Many expert drivers refer to speed ranges in tenths. At eight-tenths, for example, they are going 20 per cent slower than their fastest lap. And the pros try to keep something in reserve. Unless they're forced to do otherwise, race drivers lap at eight tenths or so, reducing the risks of a crash or mechanical failure.

"You don't have to go as fast as possible," one racer told me. "You just have to go faster than everyone else."

But for most of us, a professional's eight-tenths feels impossibly fast - as it did to me as I chased Spenard in the F2000 car. Tailing him through a series of corners, I realized my car was clinging to the track by the barest of margins, like a mountain climber hanging off a cliff by a fingernail or two. I wondered if Spenard had different tires (he didn't).

For a minute or so, I kept up. And then it was over - heading into a corner at more than 200 km/h, I felt the back tires breaking loose. I tried to finesse the wheel, but it was too late - I was spinning out of control. When I came to rest, a tornado of dust rose around my car, and Spenard was long gone.

I drove back to the pits and unbuckled. I was soaked in sweat. My arms ached from the unassisted steering, and the endless G-forces had inflamed my neck muscles so badly that my head now felt like a cast-iron weight. I needed a bottle of Advil.

I'd dreamed of being a race driver since I was a little boy. Now I had been given a brief foray into the high-speed world of the pros. And I wasn't sure if I could live there. It was humbling. So was my ride in the two-seat Indy car last week - it reminded me of how tough the racing game really is.

When we watch the Toronto Indy race this weekend, the pros will make it look easy. But it isn't. Not even for them. The pros' limits are higher than ours, but they still push against them, and it can be scary. As the legendary Mario Andretti once said: "If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."

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