Commentary

Grand Prix lap is quite a ride

Writer's trip around the Long Beach course gives him a new appreciation

Updated: April 16, 2010, 10:36 PM ET
By Martin Henderson | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Editor's note: Freelance writer Martin Henderson took a ride in a modified two-seat, 750-hp Champ Car leading up to the 2004 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and wrote about his experience afterward.

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- I have been around the race course at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. I have reached 176 mph on Shoreline Drive. I was in the backseat (really!) of a modified champ car driven by Jimmy Vasser, a current IndyCar Series team owner, former champion, and one of the entrants in this weekend's Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race.

He's the pro.

When we had made a previous lap around the track a couple of years earlier in a pace car, I reminded him that he was fumbling for a water bottle on the floorboard doing 75 mph on the backstretch. He said he remembered, and then he told me as we climbed into the car: "We're going to go a hell of a lot faster today."

On ignition, you feel the vibration of the engine up your spine as you get massaged from the inside out.

It's a bit like the anticipation of a roller coaster's beginning while driving down pit road. Heck, all of us drive faster on the freeway. But exiting pit road there is a startling burst of speed if you are uninitiated.

This temporary street circuit is 1.969 miles long, and there are 11 turns, six of which are about 90 degrees, one that is 180. A lap will take about 73 seconds.

The lap begins in earnest coming off the hairpin when the monster roars. The front straight has a gentle right break. The chest compresses against the spine. Vasser had told me you never see the walls and, remarkably, you don't. Not unless you look at them on purpose, at which point you can't help but think about your own mortality as the front stretch brings its second surprise.

Stopping power.

Deceleration is as important in racing as acceleration, and now the chest is being restrained by the six-point belt that keeps drivers locked into position as if they were coated in double-sided tape.

[+] EnlargeLong Beach Grand Prix
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesThe Long Beach road course can be much more challenging that it might look, especially from the perspective of a novice.

A sharp left Turn 1 is narrow and the aquarium fountain passes on the right. Clip a corner, a quick burst of acceleration and back on the brakes just as immediately.

It's throttle-brake, throttle-brake into Turns 4 and 5, where we swing wide toward the wall on exit for a protracted thrust of acceleration. Braking into Turn 6 can snap the head forward and you realize the value of the HANS device.

There seems a rhythm to what Vasser is doing, and from Pine Avenue, he turns onto Seaside Drive -- the back straightaway. I had been down Seaside Way hundreds of times on a computer game, taking full advantage of a Force Feedback steering wheel.

Nothing is comparable.

A mere three laps into our test drive, and the first one at full speed, and my arms are sore from the death grip on the handles in front of me. At the end of the Seaside, it's less than two seconds to cover 500 feet -- almost two football fields -- under braking.

Turn 9 is sharp to the right and sets up a sweeping Turn 10. It was at this point that I realized I'm inside Jimmy Vasser's helmet, that what I feel cannot be replicated on TV or the computer, that my rear end is 2 inches off the asphalt just like his and that only a handful people will ever experience this.

Though it looks more choppy on television, Vasser swings the car into the Turn 11 hairpin gracefully. It is one of the most famous turns in racing, and it's only 28 mph, but you discover a great new respect for how fast 28 mph can be.

And then Vasser lays into the throttle like John Force, and the speed of that initial thrust out of the pits, that acceleration going down the backstretch, seems so tame. The wind buffets the helmet and it wants to take my head off. My rear end never touches the seat until we get back to Turn 1.

Drivers will do this for 83 laps this weekend.

I didn't think I could, but I discovered a newfound respect for those who execute passes at Long Beach because there simply is no room to do so. But braking, shifting, accelerating, avoiding other cars while subjecting one's self to nature's forces of inertia are awe-inspiring.

These cars are amazing pieces of machinery, and it's an amazing experience to feel the extraordinary forces on your body. After being on the track and seeing what little space there is, and the margin for error, my appreciation for a nifty driving move -- perhaps a pass or simply avoiding trouble -- was a hundredfold more. Every pass is an event and should be regaled with a cheer. With all that's going on in the car, and the speed with which it happens, it's a remarkable achievement.

We climbed from the car and I felt as if we were blood brothers. Vasser shared with me that on the straights -- when I felt my head was about to launch like a birthday balloon -- he occasionally rests and drives one-handed.

And Jimmy, whose name was spelled VA$$ER on the back of his helmet, then let me in on a little secret. "I get paid for the 'ir, irr, irrr,'" he said, replicating the sound of shifting gears.

It's a skill that's well worth it.

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