INDIANAPOLIS—We’re hurtling down the track in a two-seat Honda open-wheel racer, Indy winner Mario Andretti at the wheel. It’s May 4, about three weeks before the blurry stands I see in my peripheral vision will be full of race fans for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
To call Italy native Andretti a legend is to understate the case; he not only won Indy (in 1969), but also the Daytona 500, the Formula One World Championship, Sebring (three times) and the Pikes Peak Hillclimb. The Associated Press named him Driver of the Century in 1999.
I’ve met Andretti before, and he’s unfailingly gracious and modest, not to mention funny about his accomplishments. He describes a 60s race he could easily have won, if the eight-cylinder engine hadn’t started running on seven cylinders. “I hated that engine, so instead of heading into the pits I revved it up so it would break into little bits,” he said.
Right now, Andretti’s the fiend who’s separating my stomach from the rest of my body. I’m scrunched into a tiny seat with a view of Andretti’s helmet. On the straights we soar to 200 mph or so, and the g-force pins me backwards while the combination of wind noise and that race engine mount an aural assault that even the Who in full cry at the Westchester County Center (circa 1970) couldn’t equal.
Cornering throws me violently from side to side, despite the harnesses, and braking is so abrupt it leaves my body in two places at once. When we finally stop the earth is no longer stable and gravitational forces are canceled. I once had a similar experience at the Homeland track in Florida with another crazy man, multiple Indy (and Dancing with the Stars!) winner Helio Castroneves, at the wheel, and both times it was days before I was made whole.
Before my taxi ride, I had a chance to ask Andretti, who retains a full head of silver hair at 76, a few questions. Self driving cars? “Not for me. They have their value; my wife would enjoy having one, because she likes to be driven. Me, I enjoy driving.” A race of autonomous cars? “What for?”
Formula E electric car racing? “You couldn’t rope me into that.” Thoughts on the 100th running of Indy? “To have been part of it for half that century is something I hold dear in every way.”
Andretti, then and now, is sponsored by Firestone, which is now the exclusive tire supplier to Indianapolis. Harvey Firestone (an enlightened boss and a close friend of both Henry Ford and Thomas Edison) supplied the very first Indy race winner, Ray Harroun, who was driving a bee-shaped Marmon Wasp. That car is in the Indy museum, but a crazy Chattanooga-based vintage tire builder named Corky Coker built an exacting copy of that car—complete with an original Marmon engine—that I got to see.
What’s it like to drive this 70-horsepower beast, Corky? “It vibrates a lot at 100 mph,” he told me. “It gives you an idea of what it was like to drive these cars at speed back in the day.” Indeed; you didn’t sit in those cars, you sat on them, without a seat belt or any other safety equipment to speak of. And they drove on bricks, 3.2 million of them.
We kissed the few bricks not currently covered in asphalt, an Indy tradition. And we were brought up to date, taken around another section of track by current Indy drivers in Camaro SS street cars. I drew Josef Newgarden, an affable 25-year-old who won the 2011 Indy Lights championship. Newgarden, who later led a tour of Ed Carpenter Racing, won at Barber Motorsports Park in 2015 and led his team to a one-two finish at Streets of Toronto that same year.
Being thrown around by Newgarden is different than being tossed by Andretti; the former seemed to spend at least half the time in controlled drifts, testing the adhesion of those Firestone Firehawk Indy 500 tires. “I love this track,” he told me. “The corners are really gradual, so I have time to set myself up.”
Racing has changed a lot. Andretti told me that some of his cars in the 1960s had more horsepower than those running the Brickyard today, but “we didn’t have such good braking, down force and cornering ability. The keep modernizing Indy; it’s always on the leading edge of what can be done safety-wise. Being proactive is in the DNA here.”
Obviously, we don’t get to drift our way down the commuter route, but remaining in control is still pretty important. We got behind the wheel of both the Camaros and Cadillac ATS cars to try out the new Firehawk Indy and AS against competitors’ tires.
These days, tires are built for specific purposes; the Indy is a race tire for the street, good in wet and dry conditions; the long-lived AS is, as the name implies, all-season, and can handle snow. Both did well against the competition from Sumitomo and BFG.
I love racing, but after a (rainy, then sunny) day at the limit on the track, I know with certainty that my place is in the stands. There’s a scene in The Grifters where Anjelica Huston tells John Cusack to “get off the grift, Roy. You don’t have the stomach for it.” That’s me! I get queasy on roller-coasters, even Ferris wheels. And ferry boats? Forget about it.
The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is May 29, 2016.
Here's video of the tire testing, Josef Newgarden at the wheel: