May 30, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Race car drivers live for life in the fast lane

Detroit — Initially, it’s about the speed and sheer exhilaration.

But then they find racing.

And it is about the speed — and so much more.

It’s about driving on the edge. It’s about strategy. It’s about competition and timing.

At the core, though, it is about the need for speed.

And that’s what makes race car drivers different.

“You are born with something,” said former IndyCar driver and current owner Michael Andretti, whose team is among the favorites heading into this weekend’s Belle Isle Grand Prix races. “I see so many who love it and want it so bad, but they just didn’t have that talent. So you have to be born with it.”

What is “it” exactly?

It is the desire for speed but also understanding how to harness it.

It is the understanding that being faster is the objective, but on the grand stage, it is about calculating the right time and spot to make a move that takes advantage of the speed.

It is something most drivers can’t describe.

“It is a certain type of feel, and you have to be wired a certain way to want to risk everything so often,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the Indianapolis 500 with a breathtaking pass of Helio Castroneves on the white-flag lap in the second-closest finish in race history.

“It’s a certain type of adrenaline and a rush you can’t get anywhere else. There’s nothing like it. That’s why when we have the offseason, race car drivers don’t know what to do with themselves. Exercise and training just doesn’t do it for them. You’ve got to get back in the car, and that’s where you feel at home.”

Starting early

When he was a kid growing up, it was at home that Hunter-Reay’s career was born.

“I was always on wheels, didn’t matter what it was, I was always creating a race within the house,” he said. “My dad made the mistake of buying me a go-kart when I was a kid. Tore through a lot of peoples’ lawns. That’s what got me on the race track in the first place — neighborhood complaints.”

Townsend Bell also felt the speed early in his life.

“I had a fascination with speed from birth,” said Bell, who was as high as second in the Indianapolis 500 before a Turn 2 hit late placed him 25th. “My mom likes to tell stories about me racing around the kitchen in a little seat with the wheels.

“I gravitated to ‘Dukes of Hazard’ and ‘Chips’ and ‘Knight Rider,’ so I was fed a steady diet of quality early ’80s TV. I took a lot of inspiration from (“Knight Rider” star David) Hasselhoff. Knight Rider was probably one of my favorite shows.”

Television shows aside, Bell, racing this weekend in the United SportsCar challenge, was born not only with the inclination for speed, but for racing.

“When I first drove anything I was 8 years old and right away I was good at sliding and driving at the limit,” he said. “I instinctively knew how to do that without any training.”

Castroneves, a three-time Indianapolis 500 and Belle Isle winner, was a self-taught racer who, though attracted to the sport because of the speed, liked the thrill of bringing home trophies.

“I was so addicted to racing, I didn’t want to do anything else in my life,” Castroneves said. “I was 12, 13 years old, and I knew what I wanted.

“It was the whole thing. It wasn’t just the speed. It was the trophies. Coming home, showing everyone my first trophy, fourth place, it was like my gold medal. Everyone thought it was so cool. I wanted more.”

Stepping up

As drivers progress through their careers, the thing that attracted them most to the sport from the beginning — the speed — takes a backseat to what it takes to use that speed to its best advantage to win races.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who has raced in Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar, said when a driver is growing up in racing, he looks forward to the next level.

“Because the next is quicker than the previous one,” Montoya said.

But years later, as an established racer, the speed is important, but it is about so much more, like negotiating turns on a superspeedway and a street course like the one on Belle Isle, where patience is as rewarded as speed.

“I don’t feel that the speed is what drives you,” Montoya said. “It’s about pushing the car to the limit. I think if speed is what really drives you, you should be a dragster. For me, it’s more about, in the corners, how fast you can roll through them, and when it’s a fast corner, how brave are you to go through that corner. It’s determination to be better than anyone else.”

Andretti has been removed from racing full-time for just more than a decade.

“When you’re racing and you’re in the mode of racing, it is frustrating to get slow,” said Andretti, whose Andretti Autosport won the Indianapolis 500 with Hunter-Reay. “Once I retired, it took me a few years to wind down, but now that I’m out of the car, I’m not speed-driven.”

Hunter-Reay said his need to drive fast does not apply to everyday life. In fact, he can’t remember the last time he got a speeding ticket driving outside the track.

“I know I got a 45 in a 35 (mph zone) — that’s about as crazy as it gets for me on the road,” Hunter-Reay said, laughing. “The two (racing and everyday driving) are so different, and there’s no need for speeding on the roads. That’s not what you’re supposed to do.”

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'It is a certain type of feel, and you have to be wired a certain way to want to risk everything so often,' said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the Indianapolis 500. / Steve Perez / Detroit News