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All I could see of the man who would soon hold my life in his grip was a pair of handsome eyes above the face shield, the smile wrinkles around them deepening as he returned my little wave with a gloved hand.

I wasn’t really nervous — people do this all the time, right? — until I was nearly supine, and two technicians loomed over me, reaching down and around my body to strap and buckle me firmly into place. At that moment, reality sank in, my heartbeat accelerated and my chest heaved in a couple of anxiously deep breaths.

The guy with the silver crewcut gave me a wink and pushed my visor down into place. A few seconds later, I was tearing out of pit road and into turn one of Michigan International Speedway. The spine-tingling acceleration reverberated through my solar plexus and I’m sure I was smiling.

My hands were clutching a steering wheel but it wasn’t the one controlling the race car — just a little dummy wheel to give the rear-seat passenger something to hang onto. I was deep inside the cockpit of a two-person Indy-style race car, flashing down the backstretch of the storied two-mile track as a Friday afternoon lark.

Having spectated at more than a few MIS races, I was still surprised at how wide the back side of the track was, and how low to the ground we were in the streamlined little vehicle. Under blue summer skies we were sizzling inside the helmets and close confines of the car. This was the three-lap, $99 special of the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, a traveling attraction that operates at 19 tracks around the country.

Packages range from my three-lap ride-along to $1,000-plus splurges that allow motorsports fans to suit up and get behind the wheel of these open-wheel cars that look and sound like the real thing — though they don’t quite top out at the 230 mph or so you see in Indy qualifying.

The two-seaters are custom made, said Kurt Weinhardt, chief revenue officer of the parent company, North Carolina-based Driving 101. “And we have the engines especially made for longevity — they have to hold up throughout some long days.”

The uniformed crew members seemed OK with the Michigan heat, as they routinely work tracks in the south and west, traveling in convoys with equipment cars, merchandise and supplies. They’re kind, friendly and businesslike — with more than 200 people per day to run through the process there’s not a lot of chitchat; it’s something of an assembly-line feel.

After check-in there was nearly a two-hour wait in the pit area and plenty of people-watching to pass the time. The people who had signed up to actually drive the single-seat racers seemed to enjoy striding around in fire suits, many with the sleeves casually tied around their waists. Most were men in middle age or beyond, and I sensed a lot of nerves; as they were escorted to their cars, a crew member often kept a soothing hand on the newbie’s shoulder.

Riding was good enough for me, at least for a start. Dual two-seaters, red and silver, alternated in picking up passengers at the pit wall. Getting close to the front of the line, a worker strapped a foam brace around my neck and handed me a helmet with face shield and visor. Other than that, riders wear their own attire, with closed-toe shoes being the major non-negotiable item. Given the 90-degree temps, I was happy not to wear a jumpsuit.

Crew members inspected tires and leaned down to check in with the professional drivers between each passenger, offering water and a break — but these guys were tough, doing laps for hours without exiting the cars despite the sweltering sunny day.

As “luck” would have it, I got to empathize with more of the Indy driver experience than anticipated. Fans will know the long-running joke about the four most famous words in racing: “Mario is slowing down.” Well, on the second lap it was “Melissa is slowing down” as the engine began stuttering — and eventually we coasted to the inside shoulder up to the grassy infield.

I heard my driver on the radio as I lay there, sweating and firmly strapped in. Then he raised his visor and called out “You OK back there?” “Yeah, what’s up?” “Apparently we ran out of gas,” he laughed.

Kind of an anticlimax, and, due to traffic on the course, it was what seemed like a looong 15 minutes or so before we were towed to the pit. After a fill-up in pit row we were off again — only for another fuel-supply problem to crop up. This time we made it back in under our own steam and I was hoisted from the car and escorted to the other one, in which I finally got my laps.

By that point I felt like an old hand and was just exhilarated, not nervous, at the heady speed. The best part was coming out of turn two into the wide backstretch, feeling the acceleration in every nerve ending and bracing for the swing into turns three and four, with the big orange and red grandstand looming ahead. Now I knew what the view was like from both sides of the safety fence.

I didn’t ask if we ever got up to the 175-mph max promised in the promo materials — but it sure felt that way. My car probably only came within 15-20 feet of the wall, but it was close enough — and gives me a new respect for the drivers who go within inches — and a lot faster — of that white-painted concrete.

If this inspires you to take a ride-along, bring a sunshade or umbrella, because canopies are in short supply on pit row, and take a cooler with lots of water, ice and a post-lap beverage. Wear the proper shoes and clothing that won’t hinder you from slithering in and out of the cockpit — nothing too tight or constricting. You can wear glasses or sunglasses under the helmet, fortunately, but I wouldn’t wear earrings or necklaces.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Maybe next time behind the real steering wheel.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com

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