Taking a Ride

IndyCar driver Kyle Kaiser at the wheel, with Weekly Managing Editor Dave Faries in the back seat, ready for a semi-hot lap around Laguna Seca.

Three questions ran through my mind in rapid succession: “Am I going to throw up?” “Am I going to pass out?” and “What the… ?”

The trepidation was made just that much worse by KION’s Matt Sizemore, who offered a word of advice. Oh, and all the consent forms participants had to sign beforehand – particularly the line asking for next of kin.

Well, not literally “next of kin.” The form requested contact information of someone close to you, which is almost as bad. And just what was implied by Sizemore’s warning, “Take deep breaths”?

But when WeatherTech Raceway’s vice president of communications, Barry Toepke, asked if I wanted to take a lap around Laguna Seca in a two-seater IndyCar, a pulse of excitement ran through my being. The Corkscrew. The Andretti Hairpin. “The Pass.” Rahal, Rossi and Gurney. It’s all lurking out there. It’s only when I was suited up and strapped in, seconds after a support crew member slammed my visor down, that doubt crept in.

Fortunately, it lasts for only a moment.

The opportunity was offered to members of the media following the County Board of Supervisors voting 5-0 on July 17 to ink a deal that marks IndyCar’s return to the track.

I must acknowledge that I follow motorsports. Some series I watch religiously – Formula 1, MotoGP – most casually and one not at all, having given up on NASCAR more than a decade ago. I understand it when commentators or drivers say things in vernacular, like “oversteer,” “wedge,” “double apex” or “dirty air.” But hunkered down in a shell, sweltering in helmet and firesuit, rattling along to the constant tremor of an idling engine, closed off to any sound but the restrained anger of horsepower will erase almost anyone’s confidence.

The design of IndyCar’s two-seater blocks forward vision. So it’s not really deep breaths to swallow fear, but the uncomfortable, sinking notion that a passenger simply doesn’t know what is about to come at them.

“People get anxious when they can’t see ahead of them,” Sizemore agrees. He took a lap before I slid into the car, as did KSBW’s Bianca Beltran. “But right after that initial ‘Oh my God’ moment, suddenly it becomes, ‘I’m not going to die,’” Sizemore adds.

Although lacking the brutal grip and speed of a true single cockpit IndyCar, the two-seater is still quick. It roared to life, tore into the pavement and snarled to 100 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. The driver, a pro racer, flung the car into the hairpin and as the land rotated around me, as the car accelerated out of the turn without spinning off into the gravel, I realized I was in the moment of a lifetime – not for the speed, but because it was Laguna Seca.

Monterey County is home to one of the world’s legendary race tracks. And WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca is known for a blind, plunging, violently twisting corner that has tempted and tested drivers for decades: The Corkscrew. Drivers’ eyes widen when they talk about the turn. It belongs in the racing pantheon, with Eau Rouge, The Parabolica, Rascasse and a few others. But as Bobby Rahal, who won four times on the track, says, “There’s a lot more to Laguna Seca than The Corkscrew.” He’s right.

From the seat, the world rushes by in a blur. The curbing flickered sometimes close, sometimes further from the car – and once, the car chattered hard as driver Kyle Kaiser rode over the rippled surface of a curb. But inside my cocoon of helmet and harness, I could feel the car strain against the forces that wanted to throw it from the track, left and right. By comparison, The Corkscrew seemed more of a thrill ride – an abrupt left, a stomach-jolting drop and a flick back and forth at high speed.

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But then again, I couldn’t see straight ahead.

From the driver’s seat, a wall approaches at high speed, the course veers to the left and then disappears down a steep slope. By the time the driver catches sight of it again, he or she is on top of a turn, one that must be negotiated with precision or the next few moments could end badly.

And then it’s all over. The car rolls to a stop, and I climb out.

The driver, by the way, started 17th in this year’s Indianapolis 500. The car is tuned down, so it falls short of racing speed. The folks who operate the two-seater – Indy Racing Experience – don’t want you to die. They just want you to feel, in every deep breath, the power and appeal of a winding strip of asphalt. It is, after all, Laguna Seca.

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