Joy ride: Hitting the racetrack with Mario Andretti

Autos reporter Jerry Hirsch goes for a ride with Indy legend Mario Andretti.

Sitting behind Mario Andretti, I felt my stomach flip into my lungs as we lurched onto the racetrack at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Honda had offered me this once-in-lifetime ride in a two-seat IndyCar, with a legend at the wheel. The car was specially built to give observers a taste of the race driver's viewpoint.


The G-forces shoved me back into the seat, even though I don't think I actually moved. There was no room to slide.

Before the thrill ride on Sunday, I had walked the perimeter of the course and studied the map along the Long Beach waterfront, where I have walked or biked 100 times. Suffice it to say it looks a bit different at a disorienting 160 mph.

We flew by the lagoon that fronts the Long Beach Hyatt Regency, edging closer and closer to the temporary white concrete barrier that surrounds the course. We were 6 inches from the wall, maybe closer after the first turn. We passed it so fast I had no time to get scared.

As Andretti continued to carve up the course, my sense of admiration built, watching him find the shortest path around the two-mile track – in less than 90 seconds.

The vehicle Andretti drove wasn't a true IndyCar racer. But this was as close to the real thing as any civilian can get – open wheels, open air and about 75% of the speed drivers brought to Long Beach this weekend – and will bring to Indianapolis next month.

They two-seater is built by Dallara, the company which also manufactures the chassis of IndyCars. At 1,850 pounds, it weighs about 150 pounds more than an IndyCar. The engine has 500 horsepower. The car can reach 180 mph, but on the twisty Long Beach course of seat streets hits a top speed of about 160 mph.

The fire suit, helmet and gloves made the experience that much more real. The crew that buckled me in showed me how to step into the car and inserted the padding that wedged me into the seat. They closed my visor and gave Andretti the thumbs up when were safe to launch.

This was a demonstration program for Indy circuit vendors, media, sweepstakes and charity auction winners. Andretti, who retired from racing in 1994 and is 75, drove about a third of the people. I got a nod and a smile, but not a word from the laconic racer whose grandson, Marco Andretti, would finish eighth in the race that afternoon.