Up In Flames – Part 5 (My Indy 500 Experience)

After my visit with Dr. Tom Southern (plastic surgeon extraordinaire), in Indianapolis, Robin drives us back to the Speedway, where I tell Dale Coyne and my crew the good news that I’m cleared to qualify. Immediately they begin giving my car its final preparations before I am to drive it the following day.

I go to the team’s transporter, where I pull my spare helmet and driving suit out of my locker. One good thing about all of the gauze on my hands is that I can use it to polish the visor on my helmet. But the bad thing is that I have no way to get my gloves on. I walk to the Bell Helmets garage and talk to Kendall, the guy who has been preparing my helmets all season long. He gives me a new balaclava, then digs out a pair of extra large inner gloves.

These are made solely of Nomex, the fire-retardant material that driving suits are made of—and they don’t have the usual leather outer layer that driving gloves typically have. They are actually like an unfinished glove, but they pull over my wrapped hands perfectly. He then hands me a pair of extra-large gloves. With all these layers of gauze plus these inner gloves, there’s no way I have the dexterity to pull these outer gloves on over all of that. I stand there like a surgeon who has just sterilized his hands and is waiting for a nurse to dress them, but instead it is Kendall doing the delicate work of inching these gloves over the bulk surrounding my fingers.

Standing there in the Bell garage, with material nearly an inch thick wrapped around my paws, even I have to wonder how I’m going to grip the steering wheel. But that is tomorrow’s challenge, so off I go with my new equipment. I’m getting ready to drive.

That night I sleep like a kid on Christmas Eve. Tomorrow is the last day of practice before the final two days of qualifying begin on Saturday. This is it—my very last chance to make it into the field of thirty-three cars that will race in the Indy 500 the following weekend.

Then Friday morning comes. Shortly after the track opens for practice at eleven, I’m dressed in my driving suit, sitting on the tow cart that is pulling my red-and-white number 39 Lola Indy car out from Gasoline Alley and onto the pit lane of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Drivers achieve their dreams here.…

Robin helps me get my helmet on. After pushing intercom earpieces into both of my ears, she gently rolls my balaclava down over my head, being careful not to drag it across my scabbed skin. She lifts my helmet, pulls it down over my head, passes the chin strap through the two D-rings and back again through one, and pulls it tight.

The padded inner liner of my helmet is now pushing down on the badly burned areas of my face, making them feel like a series of bee stings. But this is it—I’m getting back in the car, so no time to complain.

My crew chief Doug Meyers tends to be monk-quiet until he’s had his third or fourth beer, along with Tabasco-and-hot-pepper-drenched chicken wings. He’s bearded and slight in size, but also intense and committed to doing whatever it takes to make the best out of whatever little budget we have to prepare and run my car. The best driver-and-mechanic combinations always have special bonds between them, where they can practically read each other’s mind—and one where they’d do practically anything for the other. Doug and I have that relationship.

As my crew installs a fresh set of tires, I step into the cockpit. I glance at Doug and smile in a “Now what?” kinda way. See, the process of getting into an Indy car is to step onto the single seat, which sits directly in the middle of the cockpit, then reach down and support your weight by holding onto the cockpit sides with both hands, and then slide your body down and into the seat. But there is no way I can support myself with my hands, even with all the wrapping and inner gloves pulled over them.

I crouch down and rest my elbows on the cockpit sides, then Doug leans over and puts his hands under my armpits to support my weight. I extend my legs into the “tub” of the car, then quickly pull my elbows in and plop my butt into the seat, turning sideways a little to wedge myself in. I wiggle a little more and lift my arms up so Doug can reach in and grab four of the belts that make up my six-point harness—two antisubmarine belts that come up between my legs on both sides of my crotch, plus two lap belts.

As part of our ritual, Doug gives each crotch belt a tug to the side to avoid trapping one of my underwear-wrapped “boys” that I might need to enlarge to be brave and go fast, then shoots me a look that asks if I am okay. I give him my usual nod and he begins buckling the lap belts together, threading the crotch belts through the metal loops in the lap belts. He reaches up, pulls each shoulder belt down, runs them through the ends of the crotch belts, and plugs them into the main buckle. Finally he pulls down on the adjusters of the shoulder belts to tighten them.

I wiggle as much as I can within the confined space of my seat and cockpit, then lift my shoulders to stretch my shoulder belts. Then Doug gives them one more tug to make sure they are super-tight.

It’s at this point in the ritual where I would usually reach for the shoulder belts and give them one more tug myself to make them even tighter. But I can’t hold the belts, so I look at Doug. But he can see in my eyes, even through the visor, what I’m asking for, so he reaches down and tugs on them once more.

Strapped in like this, the cockpit of an Indy car is either a comforting or terrifying place. You can move your feet enough to work the pedals a few inches. You can move your arms enough to turn a ten-inch steering wheel about ninety degrees. A pad on the right side of the cockpit provides support for your helmet, which means your head can move no more than half an inch in either direction. And no more—absolutely no more movement. My entire torso is locked solid into this tub of a cockpit, packed in as tightly as possible. My shoulders are hugged by the cockpit sides in such a way that they cannot budge laterally. You can see out only through a two-inch opening in your helmet.

I start to feel a bit cramped and rather confined, almost as if I am being held down and suffocated. I’m having a hard time breathing.

But I am where I need to be.

I look at my steering wheel and notice where it had been burned, where the leather began to curl up along the stitched seam. I note that the color of the carbon fiber cockpit is still hazy where flames had scorched its surface. Then I glance at the small screen where the number “221” had been just before I caught on fire. Suddenly I’m having a harder time breathing.

I look up, and Doug is there with my outer gloves—the extra-large pair that fits over my gauze wraps and Nomex inner gloves. I offer him my left hand, as part of my ritual is to always put that one on first.

Most race drivers have some form of superstition or ritual they go through before driving. Prior to the mid-1960s, Indy cars were never allowed to have any green color on them, as that was thought to cause bad luck. The same was true of having peanuts anywhere near the crew or driver. The color superstition was challenged and lost when the British racing-green-Lotus team came from Europe and won the 1965 Indy 500 with Jimmy Clark at the wheel. I don’t know about the peanuts.

Like Tiger Woods’s routine of wearing a red shirt on the final day of a golf tournament, my superstition is to always put my left glove on first, and I need all the good luck I can get right now.

Doug gently works the glove over the bulk of material already covering my hand, and then grabs the right glove and does the same. I look up at him and thank him with my eyes. Now I’m really having a hard time breathing.

Finally, Doug steps back from the cockpit, looks me in the eyes, and gives me the “flip the ignition switch up” signal, then a thumbs-up gesture to the mechanic at the back of my car to use the external starter to begin spinning the engine over. Two seconds later, the turbocharged engine fires up its 900 horses and idles at about 3,000 rpm. Methanol fumes from the exhaust waft forward into the cockpit, and its smell burns my nose and eyes, which is normal. But this time, I really could not breathe. My heart is pounding. If the shoulder harnesses hadn’t been so tight, I know my heart would have popped out of my chest. I need air!

Doug waves for me to pull out, so I click the shifter into first gear, rev the engine, and quickly slip the clutch out, my rear tires spinning as I shoot out of my pit stall. Rolling down the pit lane at Indy, I look up toward the scoring pylon on the front straightaway, trying to focus on what I need to do. When I pull onto the track on the back straight, I can finally breathe. Home. Where I belong. In a race car at speed. Relaxed.

I give the steering wheel a little back-and-forth wiggle, testing the car and my hands. The car feels better than my hands. With so much material between my hands and the steering wheel, I can’t really feel it. I can tell which direction the wheel is being turned, but I’m not getting any feedback through it. And that’s feedback that I usually rely on to sense the limit of the tires at speed. But this has to do, since there isn’t anything I can do about it now.

Building speed, accelerating hard, and shifting up and into fifth gear before Turn 3, I arc the car toward the apex of the corner. My goal is to straighten the curve out as much as possible, moving the car from the outside edge of the track to the inside, and then back to the outside. To exit the turn, I unwind the steering to let the car drift out to the wall, then line it up to drive straight for Turn 4. This is exactly where I caught fire last time on the track. I press the throttle to the floor, turn into Turn 4, ease off the throttle a little, straighten my line through the corner as much as possible, and let the car arc back out to the wall on the front straight—right over the spot where I previously had to stop my car on the track and bail out, on fire. But this time my foot is flat to the floor at full throttle.

Breathe. Light grip on the steering wheel. Actually, no grip. It is more like my mummified hands are just guiding the steering wheel. As heat builds up in my tires with each turn, their rubber softens and gets stickier. I feel the car gain grip, boosting my confidence at the same rate as the tires gain traction. At the same time, my rising speed has increased the aerodynamic downforce from my car’s wings, pushing the car down into the track surface. As my comfort level increases, so does the car’s overall cornering ability.

At a certain speed, an Indy car feels very unstable. It’s where the aerodynamic downforce does not perfectly match the speed the car is carrying through the turns. There is only one way to deal with this ominous feeling that just one more mile per hour will cause your car to spin out and crash into the wall: Go faster. Yes, just when you feel you’re on the edge of crashing and dying, and your right foot desperately wants to lift off the throttle for the sake of self-preservation, you have to convince it to push harder on the gas pedal.

Coming out of Turn 2 and onto the back straight, I gain enough momentum to shift into sixth gear, and I know I’ve just pushed through that uncomfortable, unstable speed range. I know it’s time to carry serious speed into Turn 3 so I can build momentum through Turn 4 and onto the front straight, making the next lap a good one.

Exiting Turn 3, I glance down to see “219” on the dash. Slow, smooth hands and full throttle through Turn 4, I tell myself. Releasing the car by straightening out the steering wheel as much as possible, I drift up to the wall onto the front straight at Indy and glance down again. “222.”

Breathing comfortably now, I look down the full length of the front straight and into Turn 1, which is nearly three-quarters of a mile away. Indy, where drivers achieve their dreams.…

Now I’m totally focused on carrying as much momentum as possible through Turn 1. I position my car as closely as I can to the concrete wall on my right just before turning the steering wheel. I arc the car down toward the apex of the corner along the inside edge of the track, halfway through the turn.

The g-forces that hit my body are as violent and sudden as the fiery heat that engulfed me a week earlier. It’s as if all the blood in my body has flowed over to my right side, filling only those veins and draining out of the others. My legs, arms, shoulders, torso, and head are pushed against the right side of the cockpit with a force four times the total weight of my body. If it were not for the support on the upper cockpit’s right side, I’d have no way to hold my head upright. I have permanent bruises on my elbows and knees from the constant pushing against this side of the cockpit.

The g-forces build the nanosecond I turn into the corner, continue all the way toward the apex, and then dissipate as I unwind the steering and align with the wall lining the straightaway toward Turn 2. With the combination of my car’s tiny steering wheel and literally two tons of aerodynamic downforce pushing down on its super-sticky-slick racing tires, just turning the steering wheel requires an effort similar to trying to turn the wheel in your car with the engine turned off. Repeating this four times every forty-five seconds for a period of seven seconds each time is like a weightlifting session at 220-plus miles per hour.

Exiting Turn 2, I glance down and see “214.” What? That felt like a good run through 2. Why so slow? As I look down the back straight, I feel a slight vibration. Before I can run all the possible options of what could be causing this through my mind’s database, this slight vibration turns into a major one as the engine lets go and blows up big time.

Fortunately the car is pointing straight when the unthinkable happens. A connecting rod attached to the crankshaft that’s turning at 12,000 rpm inside the engine decides that it is tired and breaks, smashing into everything in its path, including the crankshaft and engine block, before finally exiting the engine through the bottom of the oil pan and out through the carbon fiber undertray of the car. It takes a little oil with it too, spraying the rear tires, which doesn’t help their grip on the track whatsoever. The car and I slither our way down the back straight as I coax it to the left side of the track and eventually onto the grass infield, where I wait for the safety crew to pull me back to the pits.

Sitting there, I breathe hard. Adrenalin’s been coursing through my body and my heart’s been pumping at over 180 beats per minute, knowing that I was getting up to the speed I’d need to qualify for the Indy 500. I’m not sure what it is, but my hands now start to scream with excruciating pain. Was it from the raw meat being pulled away from the bone as I tried to grip the wheel? Or simply from the extreme blood and adrenaline flow?

Then I can’t breathe again. I just can’t get enough air. My chest is heaving up and down, and I’m sucking what air I can get through my mouth. Clumsily, my mummified hands fumble with the safety harness buckle, and I push myself up and out with my throbbing hands on the side of the cockpit. I have to get out.

Seconds later, still trying to catch my breath as I stand by the side of my car, oil and water dripping out the back, I think about how Indy can be cruel, and how drivers’ dreams are sometimes crushed here.

The safety crew asks if I want to take my helmet off as I ride back with them, but I know I need help to do that, so I ride fully geared up all the way back to Gasoline Alley, still breathing heavily.

That evening, as Doug and the rest of the crew replace the broken engine and repair my car’s undertray, I sit thinking about what I need to do the next forty-eight hours. All I need is four laps in a row faster than an average of 217 mph. I could hang on for four laps, couldn’t I? Absolutely. I think. But I also think about the race the following weekend. Could I hang onto the steering wheel for 500 miles, or close to three and a half hours? That I am not so sure about.

The next day is Saturday—the second-to-last day of qualifying. As I drive out of the pits once more and head onto the back straight, I can hear the telltale rattling sounds of an engine getting ready to break. I’m sucking air into my lungs like I’ve just sprinted a mile while breathing through a straw. I’ve survived three engine failures in the past two weeks and watched both my teammates spend time in the hospital due to their engine blowups. Now I don’t have the guts to take my car up to speed. I am terrified.

Based on the sounds coming from the piece-of-crap engine, my car won’t go far anyway, so I leave it in first gear and stand on the gas pedal. Scarcely five seconds later, the engine explodes, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I coast toward Turn 3.

Join me next week for the final part of this story – of the last day of qualifying.

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2 Comments

  1. Buick = Boom and here we go again another engine change…
    Made me laugh, 3 or 4th beer…
    I have plenty of pictures…I should find them…

    Reply
  2. Very brave and very determined! Not sure too many people, burned that badly, would have done the same. Very clear that you wanted this BADLY. Looking forward to the next installment!

    Reply

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