Fantastico! Magnifico! Eccezionale! (Help, I’ve run out of Italian adjectives!) The highlight of the recent 2008 Indy 500 Media Tour was a 150mph+ thrill ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a brand-new 2008 Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car driven by Italian driver Max Papis. As always, my camera and my recorder went along for the ride.
Click on the play button below to listen to the audio from this most excellent Indiana racing adventure. Headphones are recommended to hear the most detail in the recording.
Want to download the sounds? Buy me a beer!
About the Ride
After signing my life away on the waiver form (I’m not really sure what it said, nor did I care—I just knew it stood between me and that pace car) I waited in line at the base of the Pagoda for my turn. Three pace cars were available to speed members of the media around the track, driven by 1989 & 1993 Indy 500 Champion Emerson Fittipaldi, two-time Indy 500 participant and sports car driver Max Papis, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Joie Chitwood. Emerson drove the official E85 ethanol-powered car that will pace the field for the 92nd running of the race on May 25, while Max and Joie drove convertibles designed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the popular black and silver Corvette that paced the 1978 race.
I’ll take you through my ride by commenting on the audio recording. The first thing I will say is that it all happened so fast. There are of course many different things I “coulda/woulda/shoulda” said or done now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, but that’s just part of the fun I suppose. So let’s get started.
0:04 - Aargh… do you know how hard it is to get down into a Corvette for an “old guy” like me?
0:09 - There is what sounds like an awkward pause after I put my recorder in the cup holder and Max says something about sending a picture from his cell phone. Max was busy with his phone and I was busy getting strapped in and untangling my camera strap, etc.
0:19 - My door closes and Max, who is a test driver for Hendrick Motorsports, explains that he was sending a picture to NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson. I guess even race car drivers realize that being at the Speedway is really cool!
0:25 - “Let’s hit it!” - Hmmm… perhaps not the best choice of words when you’re about to travel at high speeds down a race track surrounded by steel and concrete walls, but what I meant was hey, let’s go!
0:29 - We accelerate hard down Pit Lane and as I’m pushed back into my seat, I can’t help but let out a “woo hoo!” Max explains that Corvettes are fast. If I had to do it again I might choose a Dukes of Hazard style “yeee haw!”
0:34 - Max asks me if I’ve driven around the Speedway before. I inexplicably and automatically answer “no” despite the fact that I’ve driven around the Speedway several times in my own car and I’ve been around countless times in the Speedway tour bus. Had I been thinking, I might have answered with a Bud Light commercial-style “Not in a car this slow.”
0:38 - “Alllll right… there’s Turn One!” - kathump - What you’re unable to discern from the recording is that as we sped down Pit Lane a track worker or someone scurried across our path from left to right, headed for the short concrete wall that separates Pit Lane from the front straight. Max moved left to give him room, barely lifting, and put the left wheels just into the grass where the warm up lane splits from the main track surface.
0:40 - Back on the gas, we accelerate through Turn One and head into Turn Two. The wind moves the car just a little, and I think this is the first chance I really had to realize how fast we were going and that this was going to be one heck of a ride.
0:55 - We’re through the apex of Turn Two and accelerating hard again. Max calls out our speed… 120, 130, 140, 150, 155mph… the wind noise at this speed was very loud. I don’t know if that’s partly because we were in a convertible (with the roof up of course) or not, but I have to assume so. There is a great sense of speed, but the track is very smooth and the car very stable, so while there’s definitely the sensation that we’re going very fast, it’s not disconcerting.
1:10 - Max backs off the throttle a bit and we head into Turn Three, putting the left wheels on or below the white line. It’s not the 155mph on the straights that get you, it’s the 120mph in the corners! Through Turn Three and Turn Four, I think about how I’m fine with high speeds, and this is a great car to go fast in, but we are going WAY, WAY faster than I would dare to go through these corners. Besides fearing for my life, I would be overly concerned with putting the car in the wall. But fortunately(?) I am riding with a professional race car driver who doesn’t appear to be concerned with those things at all!
1:30 - We’re through Turn Four and we drift out towards the wall. Yep, that’s the wall… up close and personal!
1:32 - Back on the gas and headed down the front straight in all of its glory at 150mph. I’m preoccupied with getting “the shot” and I’m using up precious milliseconds trying to focus and compose not only the photo, but myself so that I don’t completely blow it.
1:41 - We cross the famed “Yard of Bricks” with an almost imperceptible “click”.
1:45 - “And into Turn One… ho ho…!” I will probably (hopefully) never forget this moment. In a way it was the entire ride summed up into one short corner. It was undoubtedly the point where my brain was most loudly shouting out to me “We’re going too fast! We’re not going to make it! Red alert! Slow down you idiot! Something BAD is about to happen!” But again, fortunately, it was completely and quite happily out of my control. To my untrained feet and buttocks, it felt very much like the front end of the car was at the limit of adhesion and the back end of the car had gotten loose just a little bit as we went through the turn. But what do I know?
1:54 - We survive Turn One and as we travel through the short chute and Turn Two, Max explains to me that the rear of the car did not slide. What I felt was the effect of slight braking. Of course I know that under braking the front of the car will move down and the rear will move up. What I didn’t consider is that when you’re braking in a banked turn at high speeds, the rear of the car will not only move up but also out toward the outside of the turn due to the centrifugal forces involved. That’s the sensation I had, and my newfound knowledge will come in handy the next time I am exiting the freeway at a high rate of speed.
2:03 - Back on the gas down the backstretch, we hit at least 150mph again before heading into Turn Three and continue the discussion on weight transfer.
2:19 - We turn into Turn Three, Max is back on the gas between Turn Three and Turn Four, and again just briefly coming out of Turn Four before heading back to Pit Lane.
2:40 - We reach Pit Lane and Max is hard on the brakes, locking the wheels. We go from 140mph to almost 0mph very quickly, and I let out an “ugh” from the negative G forces (which, let’s face it, were really nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t stop that quickly every day).
2:50 - “So we’re just gonna get tires and go back out, right?” No dice, it’s time for the next victim.
2:57 - As we make our way toward the start/finish line, Max tries again to send his cell phone photo to Jimmie Johnson who is in Phoenix for Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race. (Hey Max, send him the one at the top of this page!)
3:12 - We come to a stop, and I shake Max’s hand and thank him for a great ride.
3:17 - The door is opened, I get out with another “arrgh” and let the guy know “That was awesome!” I notice that my feet are tingling… I think I was “velocitized”.
And that, my friends, completes my adventure on “The Amazing Mad Max Papis Pace Car Thrill Ride.” What an experience!
There is no question that in addition to everything else, I now have a new appreciation for what it takes to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Granted, race cars (whether they are open-wheel cars, stock cars, or what have you) travel at much higher speeds, but I do have a better idea than I did when my only experience traveling around the Speedway was at 40mph or less in a passenger car or tour bus. Perhaps I have a reasonable idea of what it takes to drive a pace car at a race (besides nerves of steel to avoid crashing the pace car in front of hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention the millions watching on TV).
One thing that’s still hard to imagine is what it must have been like for drivers in the “roadster era” in the 1950’s who raced at the same speeds I was able to travel, but did it in an open cockpit and on skinny tires… on a track that was still made of brick in areas! Can you imagine that? My teeth hurt just thinking about the vibrations. Amazing.
I’d like to thank Max Papis, the folks at Chevrolet and of course everyone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for making this happen. It was a thrill I’ll never forget.
About Max Papis
A native of Como, Italy currently living in the United States, Max Papis has established a successful and very diverse auto racing career. Getting his start in karting in Italy and driving for the Italian national team by age 12, Max then moved on to Formula 3 and Formula 3000. In 1995 he made his Formula One debut with the Footwork Arrows team at mid-season, and drove in a total of seven events, placing seventh at his home Grand Prix at Monza, Italy. From 1996 - 2003 Max drove in the CART open wheel series, for the Arciero-Wells team from 1996 - 1998, Team Rahal from 1999 - 2001, Sigma Autosport in 2002, and PK Racing in 2003. He made his first Indianapolis 500 start in 2002 for Red Bull Team Cheever Racing, and raced for them again in 2006. Max has also been heavily involved in sports car racing throughout his career, driving in IMSA in 1996 and the American Le Mans Series since 2002. He has won the 24 Hours of Daytona, has two Sebring 12-hour victories, and has finished second in the 24 hours of Le Mans twice. He earned the nickname “Mad Max” at the 1996 24 Hours of Daytona with a stunning late-race performance in a battered Ferrari that earned his team a second place finish. Max is staying quite busy in 2008 by driving for Corvette Racing in endurance events, competing in the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series, and piloting Rusty Wallace Racing’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS in all three 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series road course events. On top of all that, he will attempt to qualify and race a car for Rubicon Racing in the 2008 Indianapolis 500. He is married to wife Tatiana and together they have a son, Marco.
About the Chevrolet Corvette Pace Cars
[Photo courtesy of General Motors and IMS]
The Chevrolet Corvette will be the first car to earn the distinction of having two models pace the Indianapolis 500 in the same year. One of the pace cars is a customized Corvette Z06 E85 concept that runs on E85 ethanol fuel, a domestically produced alternative fuel similar to the E100 fuel that powers all of the race cars in the Indy Racing League. It will be driven during the race’s pace lap by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi.
The other official pace car is a black-and-silver commemorative edition that marks the 30th anniversary of the celebrated 1978 pace car – the first Corvette to pace the field at the Indianapolis 500. Chevrolet will produce a total of 500 examples in both coupe and convertible form, each signed personally by Fittipaldi at the Corvette’s Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant.
Apart from the fuel system and powertrain controller revisions required to run E85, the Z06 concept pace car is mechanically stock. It is distinguished by a unique Gold Rush Green color-shifting paint scheme that changes between hues of green and gold when viewed from different angles and in different light. A subtle checkered flag pattern also is part of the paint scheme. Safety equipment and strobe lights are the only other equipment added to the car.
The black and silver commemorative edition pace car has now been placed on my official list of things to buy when (not if) I win the lottery.
About the Photo and Recording
I have to admit, I’m a little proud of the photo at the top of this page. I’m proud because I planned it carefully (the easy part), and then actually managed to pull it off in the heat of the moment (the hard part). I’m not under the illusion that it’s the greatest photo ever, or that I absolutely “nailed it”, but I’m pretty happy with it, all things considered. If ever there were a moment when opportunity met preparation, this would be it.
The first challenge was the cramped passenger cabin of the Corvette. The passenger and driver are separated by only about 12 to maybe 18 inches at the most. I knew I was going to want to be able to capture the driver’s face (at the time I did not know who the driver would be) as well as the view out not only the driver’s side window but the front windshield as well. Fortunately, I had purchased a super wide angle lens, the Sigma 10-20mm, just several weeks before and it really paid off for this shot. The focal length for this photo is 10mm—it just doesn’t get any wider without going to a fisheye lens that would have made an interesting image, but would not have produced the desired effect. As you can see in the photo, I was able to capture an incredibly wide angle of view, from Max’s right ear on the left side of the photo all the way to the Scoring Pylon and the entrance of Turn One on the right side.
The second challenge was to set the exposure. I needed the shutter speed to be slow enough to capture the sense of motion outside the car without picking up too much motion inside the car or having the shot blurred from camera shake. I really didn’t know exactly how fast we’d be going or what to expect in the way of vibration, etc. so I wasn’t sure exactly where I should set the shutter speed, but I figured something around 1/60s might work. As it turns out, I got a little lucky because I went about things backwards (typical!). Knowing I wanted some decent depth of field, I set the aperture to f/14 based on the light that was available before I got into the car. Once I got into the car, f/14 was giving me a shutter speed of between 1/25s and 1/60s depending on where we were on the track. Because that seemed pretty good and because I got caught up in the moment, I just went with it. The photo at the top of the page has a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second.
The third challenge was to capture as much detail as possible both inside the dark cabin of the car and outside in the bright light. I knew it would be important to at least be able to see the side of the driver’s face in the final photo. It would be easy to expose for the outside and end up with a completely dark interior or expose for the inside and end up with a completely white exterior, but I needed a balance between the two. Fortunately, it was just a bit overcast which cut down on the intensity of the outside light, and that helped a little. I had my flash mounted just in case I needed more light inside, but fortunately it was not necessary since it probably would have been hard to control in such a tight space. The final exposure of 1/50s at f/14 was just about the right balance, and the magic of Photoshop helped recover some of the highlights and fill some of the shadows.
As if all of that weren’t enough, I was trying to make an audio recording of everything at the same time. I guessed at the recording levels I would need and as I approached the car to get in I started recording. Once I was in I plunked the recorder into one of the cup holders and hoped for the best. During the ride I had to keep my hand on the recorder to keep it from rattling around or falling out under acceleration, and I kept glancing at it to see where the recording levels were. The only thing I really had not accounted for was the extreme wind noise at top speed. Though it was very loud, it was just under the threshold of distortion, and I was actually able to boost the final recording by 1db without too much of a problem.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I just put my camera and recorder away and enjoyed the moment. Life would certainly be easier. But then I look back or listen to moments like this and consider the joy of being able to share them with people and it all makes it seem worthwhile.
Special Bonus Clip!
Here’s your reward for reading this entire post! Click the play button below to listen to a short sound clip of a pace car passing the start/finish line at high speed, followed by another pace car accelerating down Pit Lane into Turn One.
Want to download the sounds? Buy me a beer!
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- Spotlight: And Heeeeeeee’s On It!
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