Under normal circumstances no one on the face of the earth wants to be the passenger in any vehicle when the driver is 75 years old. And any normal human being would certainly not want this 75-year-old driver to insist he drive fast as hell.
There are exceptions to be made when the 75-year-old man is Mario Andretti.
There have been few times I have been geuinely star struck, but this afternoon when I was invited to ride in the Indy Car Experience at Texas Motor Speedway I was just that. Climbing into the rear seat of the two-seat Indy Car and seeing that the driver was indeed Mario Andretti, I was awe struck.
I could barely see his face crammed into that helmet, but there he was - Mario Andretti, set to give me a ride - two hot laps at Texas Motor Speedway. To meet him was a thrill, to have him give me a ride was a genuinely humbling experience.
As a kid who grew up in Indianapolis and routinely visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and watched Andretti turn laps in practice, qualifying and during the actual Indy 500, Mario Andretti will always be a big deal.
The experience is this: You put on a racing outfit complete with fire suit, helmet, gloves, sign your life away, climb into the car and Mario drops the hammer. There is no pit lane speed limit, which is perfect because it does not give the passenger any time to think about being scared to death.
An Indy Car is basically glued flat to a track, and despite that on the turns and high embankments at TMS, you swear the car is going to fly off the curve. On the first lap, as we headed into turn two, all I could think about was the time when I watched with my young eyes Indy driver Gordon Smiley - at the same point at Indianapolis Motor Speedway - fly off and crash to his death in a run in 1982.
After that morose thought fled from my head, I enjoyed the bat-out-of-hell ride. These cars produce so much force and power that to just turn your head to get a different view is slightly jarring, and for just about the duration of the ride I said something to the effect of “Holy (rhymes with mit)!” and “Oh my bucking God!”
To drive this fast is thrilling; I cannot imagine what it must be like in traffic.
A few minutes after the ride was over - I was Mario’s final passenger - I turned into an adoring fan as I introduced myself. He is not what some may call “tall.” We chatted about his time in Indy, and why he still turns laps for what essentially amounts to corporate sponsorships and promotional events.
“I love doing it,” he said. “I do this at every race and it’s still a lot of fun. I don’t think I am going to be driving in any races any time soon.”
Mario is a driver at heart, and simply loves to drive and push any car.
I asked him something I had always wanted to ask: “Is it really true you said you were the unluckiest man ever at Indianapolis?”
For all his wins, Indy was the one track he never conquered.
“No, I never said that,” he said. “If the Indy 500 was just 400 miles, I would have won a couple of times. I think I led that race more than any other driver to never win it. But I think I won every thing else. I was plenty lucky at Indianapolis.”
It was only two laps, and lasted for roughly three minutes - if that - but it was indeed the ride of a lifetime.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7760