Instead of conjuring images of Thelma and Louise, we're decked out in sponsor-laden, fire-retardant coveralls, balaclava, gloves and shoes. With a blonde at the wheel and the Midwestern sun overhead, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway never looked better.
Shoehorned in a purpose-built two-seater racing car, sitting behind Indy 500 darling Sarah Fisher, I'm ready to hit the world's most famous racetrack. Who said women can't race?
The youngest female to make Indy history at the age of 19, Fisher, now 28, holds the record for fastest qualification lap by a woman at 229.675 miles per hour - that's 369.626 kilometres per hour - and won the IndyCar Series's most popular driver award three years in a row.
The squealing whine of an Indy racecar pierces my helmet as a Honda-powered Dallara throttles by faster than a speeding bullet. Celebrity passengers Morgan Freeman, Angie Everhart and Hilary Duff have shared the thrill of torpedoing around the speedway with Indy Racing Experience, with A-list Indy legends Al Unser Sr., Mario and Michael Andretti and two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk at the helm.
When long-time Indy revellers Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the company in 2001, people thought they were crazy. "How do I convince a privately run company like the [Indianapolis Motor Speedway]to put these cars with people inside and offer them high-speed rides?" Jasek asks.
"It's a dangerous experience, but we make it safe."
The company supplies safety crew members at the track, and outfits riders and drivers in authentic fire suits, fireproof head socks, gloves, shoes and racing helmets. "Perhaps most importantly, we do not leave the pits unless the rider is comfortable," adds Jeff Smith of Indy Racing Experience.
Comfort is not the word that comes to mind as I cram my frame inside the claustrophobic cockpit of the Italian-made Dallara.
"Make sure your legs are as far down as you can get them," says a muffled voice from the pit as a member of the crew buckles me into a five-point racing harness.
Panicking, I know there's nowhere to go but full speed ahead. He slams my helmet visor down. Then, with a thumbs up and in a soothing Midwestern lilt, he tells me to "go ahead and have some fun."
An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I'm pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward, saliva dries, my eyes are stuck wide open - and a drunken giddiness takes over.
Turn one approaches at 175 mph (281.6 km/h). The car remains on the outer lane near the famous wall that has been the site of many spectacular crashes. In a stream of consciousness, I remember my dad, a racing-car nut, with me on his lap, my younger brother at his feet, all of us glued to the old Zenith as we watched the Indy 500, screaming at every turn to the excited staccato commentary by Jim McKay. In 1965, the year Jimmy Clark won the Indy, Dad won a ¼-mile drag race in Deseronto, Ont., in a 1963 Ford Fairlane. I dedicate this three-lap ride of a lifetime to him. Unlike me, a granny driver, he would have opted to race the car himself.
Turns two, three and four fly by, and then it's the final straightaway past the lineup of the next contenders. In my speed-induced hypnotic state, I can't hear anything but the supersonic engine clocking 180 mph (289.7 km/h).
Much has changed in the 100 years since founder Carl Fisher opened the oval in 1909. The 2.5-mile track made from crushed rock and tar was of such poor quality that in the opening season, the final day's 300-mile race had to be cut to 235 miles. The drivers motored in primitive vehicles at speeds averaging 55 mph (88.5 km/h) and wore thick sweaters to shield them from flying stones.
"They intended on running several times a year and all of that had to come to a screeching halt," says Donald Davidson, the racetrack historian, describing that first harrowing weekend.
An entrepreneur and promotional genius, Carl Fisher went back to the drawing board and drummed up a plan. He had 3.2 million Indiana-made bricks hauled in by rail to pave over the Oval's macadam track and the Indianapolis 500, dubbed "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," was born on May 30, 1911. More than 80,000 spectators paid a $1 admission to watch Ray Harroun in his self-designed single-seater, the Marmon Wasp, win the 500-mile race at 74.5 mph (119.8 km/h). The Indy 500 was an instant success, attracting tycoons and industrialists and a bevy of wide-hatted women in long dresses, many of whom arrived by train from New York for the spectacle.
The race became an annual event, interrupted only by the First and Second World wars. Today, the track is dubbed the Brickyard, with three feet of the original brick still at the start-finish line. But, unlike the wide-brimmed hats of yesteryear, three of the women in attendance at tomorrow's race will buckle up racing helmets instead. For the third year, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick and Milka Duno will be among the 33 racers - 11 rows of three racecars - in the Indy 500. As of press time, Patrick was slated to start in the fourth row, Fisher in the seventh, and Duno had bumped another racer to secure a spot in the 11th and final row.
So get ready. Keep your eyes on car 67 (Fisher in the Dollar General/Sarah Fisher racing car), car 23 (Duno in a CITGO/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing car) and car 7 (Patrick in a Boost Mobile/Motorola car) as they hit breakneck speeds in an attempt to be the first to make the final pass over that original Indiana brick. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
Pack your bags
Getting there Air Canada has two daily non-stop flights into Indianapolis from Toronto. Air Canada and United Airlines have connecting flights to Indianapolis from Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.
Where to stay Conrad Indianapolis 50 West Washington St.; 317-713-5000; wwwconradindianapolis.com. From $317 a night. The Canterbury Hotel 123 South Illinois St.; 317-634-3000; www.canterburyhotel.com. From $226 a night.
What to do Indy Racing Experience $570 for three laps around the Speedway as a driver or passenger in an IndyCar. 317-243-7171; www.indyracingexperience.com. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum Entry is $3 (U.S.) for adults; $1 for children 6 to 15; free for children under 6. 317-492-6784; www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com. Indianapolis Museum of Art See an early version of Robert Indiana's sculpture LOVE outside the museum. Free admission. 317-923-1331; www.imamuseum.org
Where to eat and drink St. Elmo Steak House 127 South Illinois St. 317-635-0636. www.stelmos.com. Naked T chopstix A popular sushi hangout frequented by Indy racer Sarah Fisher. 6253 North College Ave. 317-252-5555. www.tchopstix.com
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