Motor sports journalist and author
Being a journalist gives one a certain advantage sometimes in terms of getting behind the scenes at major events.
When you live in Indianapolis the most major event of them all is the Indianapolis 500. In my lifetime I have had the privilege of getting to see the 500 as a spectator a number of times, cover it as a journalist for a variety of outlets and even be a member of an Indy 500 team by serving as its public relations representative.
All of those experiences provide numerous memories, but one that will always stand out is the time I got to participate in the Valvoline One Lap Around Indy promotion in 1988. Valvoline was a longtime participant in the 500 – both as a supplier of oil and additives and as a team sponsor. In fact, in 1992 Al Unser Jr. drove the Valvoline-sponsored car to victory.
During the week between qualifying and the 1988 race, Valvoline provided journalists a unique opportunity, which allowed writers the chance to drive around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race car. Mind you, it wasn’t an IndyCar, but it definitely was a car built specifically for racing purposes. The car was called a Formula 440 and it competed in Sports Car Club of America events. It was an open-wheel design and was powered by a snowmobile engine. It could top 120 mph and it looked like a scaled-down version of an IndyCar.
After signing the necessary waivers, each journalist got in line and waited for a chance to drive one of the six Formula 440s. Fire suits weren’t necessary (thank goodness), but each participant was given a racing helmet to wear. As I settled into the cockpit it dawned on me how isolated it must be for the driver once he lowers the visor. You truly feel cut off from the world.
To keep participants from going too fast, an instructor pointed out the tape over part of the tachometer. “Do not go beyond that line where the tape starts,” he shouted.
With that, I slowly accelerated and began my first lap of Indy.
Driving through Turns 1 and 2, everything seemed in order until I motored down the backstretch and got up to the top speed allowed. I instantly noticed that the car wanted to sway from right to left. I also was surprised at the number of bumps. If it was that rough at my speed, how much rougher would it have been at the speed of an IndyCar?
More importantly, I noticed the gentleman who had taken off ahead of me was getting closer. Actually, I was going as fast as I cared to go but apparently he was at a different comfort level. What should I do? Are you kidding me? I was driving a race car at Indianapolis. What else could I do but pass him!
I managed the pass without incident and sailed through Turn 3. In the turns the car felt much better – no more swaying.
Now I was on the front straight with the double-deck grandstands almost seeming to loom overhead. This part of the track was much smoother – once again no swaying.
My drive ended at the exit of the pits, where Valvoline personnel flagged me down. Once stopped I removed the helmet and posed for a photographic record of my lap around the track with the main straightaway grandstands and the IMS scoring pylon in the background.
OK, I didn’t quit my job to pursue a career in racing, but Valvoline’s One Lap Around Indy did give me a most special memory of a special place.