200 MPH IN AN INDY CAR

It took seven months to secure another attempt at 200 mph after failing at California Speedway in February 2002. Brayton Racing, fully committed to giving me a second try, ran out of sponsorship money by mid-season, so I had to find another team. Such is racing.

In May at the Indianapolis 500 race, I met an interesting character: Dr. William Pinsky, a pediatric cardiologist and former racer who, in 1989, founded the charity Racing for Kids (www.racingforkids.org). His concept was simple: Celebrity drivers, on their own time, would visit sick children in hospitals across the country, while also raising money for medical research and equipment. “It’s such a boost to the morale of the kids,” says Pinsky, “and all the money we get goes directly to Children’s Hospitals.”

Indy 500 star Robbie Buhl, the most prominent of Racing for Kids’ (RFK) racers, has visited more than 10,000 sick children over the last dozen years. I got to chat with Buhl–even stand next to his car on the front row of the Indy 500 race (he had qualified second at 231 mph). I wanted to talk about racing–he wanted to talk about his hospital visits. I was impressed.

After the 500 I got an idea: Perhaps I could couple my next attempt at 200 mph with a fundraiser for Racing for Kids. I called Steve McNeely, one the charity’s boosters, and he was intrigued; I would raise the money and he would approach car owners for potential equipment donations to stage the event, thereby ensuring all cash raised would go directly to charity. Surprisingly, within a month I had $20,000 in pledges. But McNeely was having more trouble securing a car and a track. News of my blown engine at California Speedway had spread within the racing community, and some suppliers were spooked that I might repeat what had happened there–or worse, crash.

By July, McNeely had found a team and crew willing to let me try at Michigan International Speedway, one of the fastest tracks in the world, on the day after the Indy Racing League (IRL) race there. I was psyched; Michigan’s two-mile oval is a carbon copy of California with more banking in the corners (18 degrees), meaning it is faster. At the last minute, though, the speedway quashed our attempt.

That left just one more track on the IRL circuit fast enough to make a reasonable run at 200 mph: Texas Motor Speedway, a track I knew well from the Mario Andretti Racing School (formerly CART Driving 101), but a tighter oval–just 1.455 miles around. The 24-degree corner banking would help, but a 200-mph average lap would mean getting around in just over 26 seconds. For perspective, the fastest lap ever turned by a professional NASCAR driver (Bill Elliott) at Texas is 28 seconds. While Indy cars are faster than stock cars, I would definitely be flying!

Upon a check of my credentials by Eddie Gossage, manager of Texas Motor Speedway, the track decided to give me the green light for a run. The idea was to do it Monday, Sept. 16, the day after the IRL race, because the car and crew would already be there. McNeely approached IRL team owner Sam Schmidt for use of one of his cars, and he agreed–providing the machines survived the race and that we donated part of our $20,000 to his Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation (www.samschmidt.com). (A former Indy racer himself, Schmidt is paralyzed from the neck down from a crash in January 2000 at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando.) The Treadway Racing crew agreed to stay on to prepare the car, but because all had flights Monday afternoon, my run had to get done in the morning–and the earlier, the better. Buhl stayed on, too, to be my driver “coach,” as did McNeely, John Martin (Buhl’s engineer), Mario Andretti Racing School President and Chief Executive Robert J. Lutz (for moral support) and the staff of RFK, including Executive Director Patrick Wright.

The race on Sunday was a barnburner. Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who had won the Indy 500 earlier in the year, and Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish Jr., were neck and neck for the 2002 IRL points championship going into the event–the last of the 15-race IRL season. After 190 laps, the two traded for the lead just inches apart at 220 mph. Finally, on lap 200, Hornish went high–Castroneves low–exiting turn four. The crowd was on its feet as the two touched momentarily, then Hornish edged Castroneves at the start/finish line for the win–and the championship–by just nine-thousandths of a second.

All of this was exciting, for sure, but I nervously watched Schmidt’s two cars throughout the race. When No. 55, driven by Will Langhorne, faltered on lap 135 with gearbox problems, I held my breath. My last hope now was No. 20, the Dallara/Chevrolet driven by Greg Ray and qualified at 217 mph. I prayed Ray would finish the race–and he did, in 14th. I had my ride!

At 8 A.M. Monday, we all met in gasoline alley, but the track was far from ready. Seems a miscommunication had occurred: Gossage thought we would start at 1 P.M., and we envisioned 8 A.M. It’s not like you can just go out and drive. The track’s asphalt surface was littered with debris from the race–pieces of carbon fiber from wrecks, oil, trash, etc.–all potential hazards to the special Firestone racing slicks at extreme speeds. Ambulance and fire crews also must be in place in the event the unthinkable happens–the car hits the wall–and they were nowhere to be seen.

I had been through this hurry-up-and-wait before, at California, so I just tried to relax and make the best use of time. First, the crew meticulously fit me into a molded driver’s seat loaned by Indy racer Scott Harrington. I was also given my pick of Buhl’s driver’s suits (he’s about my size). I was particularly careful about hunting down a snug helmet equipped with a radio. I didn’t want a repeat of the buffeting fiasco at California.

Once the track was blown clean, Buhl and I drove a few laps in a rental car, he giving me pointers on the racing line. There would be no lead car this time, so I would have to find my own groove around the track.

Then it was time for me to get into the car. My heart was pounding, but further delays once I was strapped in had a calming effect. To talk on the radio, I was told, just push the green button on the steering wheel. A digital speedometer was smack in front of me on the dashboard. Not that I would have much time to glance at it, but you never know. I was also told to move the sequential shift only up to fourth gear (there were six gears) during my run, then leave it–the car was capable of 210 mph in that gear without any danger of hitting the rev-limiter.

With the thick helmet padding and fireproof suit in the cramped confines of the car, I couldn’t hear much other than sporadic radio communication. An umbrella was put over the cockpit to keep me as cool as possible. I closed my eyes and tried to envision the configuration of the quad-shaped oval I was about to drive. Because of the extreme heat–140 degrees Fahrenheit in the car–I was quickly drenched with sweat, and almost fell asleep. When the ambulance and fire crews finally arrived at 12:30 P.M., it was time. The starter tool was inserted into the back of the car; I flipped up the ignition switch, depressed the clutch and put the car into first gear.

I ran my first three laps slow–just 120 mph–to get a feel for the car and to check the track for debris. When I came in, some adjustments were made, and I went back out for a few more, faster laps. On the fourth lap, I brought the car up to 185 mph on the back straight, and it felt solid–incredibly fast, but solid. My helmet felt secure, too, with just a tolerable amount of buffeting. I also experimented with my racing line, finding that the low one best suited my driving style. I came in again, more adjustments were made, and then it was time for the run.

I figured it would take me at least ten laps to work up to 200 mph, if I could even do it, so my plan was to gradually pick up the pace by a second or two each lap. That way the speed comes gradually, almost hypnotically. On the fifth lap, I saw the speedometer flash 200 mph at the end of the front straight. That boosted my confidence. But the goal was to average 200, a much more difficult proposition, and that meant keeping the speed all the way through the tight corners. I squeezed the throttle a little more and had a “moment” in turn one where the car got high on the 24-degree banking. I didn’t panic, though–it had happened to me before with the Mario Andretti Racing School–and I kept the higher line through turn two; I was rattled but OK.

After a few more fast laps, I heard the words, “199.4–Clash, don’t do this to me again,” crackle over the radio. From the speeds I had seen on the dashboard–over 205 mph–I knew the number was an average lap speed, so I was almost there! I matted the throttle between turns one and two, and held it down the back straight and well into turn three. It was now or never, I thought. What a ride! I was on the edge, and had absolutely no time to glance at anything but the videogame-like track ahead rushing toward me. After flashing by the start/finish line, I heard the words, “Pit, pit, pit–you did it”!

I backed off the throttle, and a powerful combination of joy and relief overcame me. “Thanks, guys, you were great,” I managed into the radio as I coasted down the back straight. Those few moments, alone in the car, were some of the best in my life. I had worked hard at this second attempt, and I couldn’t help but contrast it with the bitter disappointment at California in February. Not just that but, because of our efforts, two deserving charities were $20,000 richer.

In the pits, everyone was all smiles as I brought the car to a stop. Wright looked relieved, Buhl gave me the “thumbs up” and McNeely was clicking off photos. I was so excited that I purchased the stopwatch that had captured 201 mph on it from John Martin–I didn’t want it to be used again. I also had the entire Treadway crew, including chief Skip Faul, sign my T-shirt as a souvenir.

My dream had begun in 1977 when I watched Tom Sneva, on television, run the first lap ever above 200 mph at the 2.5-mile oval called Indianapolis. Who would have believed that a quarter century later I would run a lap slightly faster–and on a track a mile shorter? (Computer telemetry showed my fastest lap was run in 26.034 seconds, or 201.2 mph, and that my top speed was 207.7 mph. Sneva had averaged 200.5 mph.)

A few weeks later at the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in–of all places–Indianapolis, I met a number of interesting people: Sarah Fisher, the world’s fastest woman Indy driver and spokesperson for Tag Heuer; Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Prince Andrew; and racing legends Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart. But it was my chat with the city’s mayor, Bart Peterson, that put it over the top. When my host, Ginger Kreil of the Indy Partnership, mentioned my Texas run to him, he suddenly became childlike. “You’re the first normal person I’ve ever met who has driven above 200 mph,” he gushed. “What was it like?”

I thought for a second. “It was like being a big kid,” I said politely, smiling. “A big, fast kid. And someday I want to do it at your speedway, too.” He smiled and said, “Hey, you never know.”

James M. Clash covers mutual funds and adventure at Forbes Magazine. He is author of “To the Limits: Pushing Yourself to the Edge, in Adventure and in Business” (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

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