If you visit Indianapolis in the month of May, you may notice a preoccupation with a certain legendary race. The Indianapolis 500 is the world’s largest single-day sporting event, bringing in hundreds of thousands of auto-racing fans from around the globe.
But if you can’t make it to the Brickyard on Memorial Day weekend – or if simply watching the action on the oval isn’t enough – these four Circle City activities can put you into the driver’s seat any day of the year.
Do a hot lap in a go-kart
Owned by former IndyCar driver Sarah Fisher and her husband and former crew chief Andy O’Gara, Speedway Indoor Karting (SIK) is located less than a mile from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On a breezy weekday morning, I could hear the faint roar of the practicing cars from the track as I eased myself into the kart.
Competitors can race against up to 12 people, or just battle the clock. Last year’s IndyCar Series champion, Josef Newgarden, holds the SIK road course record at 31.5 seconds, while I lagged a bit further behind at 47.1 seconds. (The staff assured me my time was pretty average and not bad for my first time.) The 12-turn course can be deceptively difficult for racing novices; during my morning on the track, two separate, nearly hairpin, turns threw me for a loop. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t navigate through them without killing nearly all of my momentum. The CRG karts reach up to 40 mph, but the speeds can seem much faster, particularly if you’re in a competitive race.
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SIK’s banked 0.2-mile oval is faster and much more physically demanding than the road course. You may get 8-10 laps on the road course during a 5-minute race. Expect to pay about $15-20 per race, depending on the day of the week and which course you choose.
Don’t be surprised if you see some famous eyes beneath the other helmets; according to SIK staff, drivers like Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe occasionally pop in for a few laps.
Get in some simulated oval action
If actual driving isn’t your speed, try out SIK’s brand-new virtual-reality simulator. With no real-life consequences, you can take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise try. When I eventually flipped my car, the cockpit where I was sitting shook and rattled; ironically I was shook and rattled myself for about a second until I realized I was in a glorified video game and hit the reset button.
At Dallara Race Factory, the simulators don’t have the benefit of VR, but you can sit in the cockpit of an actual IndyCar when you’re driving. There are more standard machines as well, for kids and adults who can’t reach the gas and brake pedals on the IndyCar.
While the SIK simulator costs $10 for a 7-minute race, the Dallara version is free with the $10 factory tour. Both simulators are great for race fans who have physical limitations that prevent them participating in other activities.
Take a ride with Mario Andretti in a two-seater IndyCar
Perhaps the best way to feel what it’s like being a pro driver is to sit behind one while you’re hitting 170 mph. That’s possible at Indy Racing Experience. The driver’s helmet might be blocking your view of the track, but you’ll still get a tremendously visceral experience.
The cars are driven by current professional drivers and retired legends like Mario Andretti, who knows the speedway so well he could likely navigate the oval blindfolded. As the staff strapped me in behind Mario, I could feel the throaty rumble of the engine vibrating through my chest, making my heart beat even faster. The g-forces immediately kicked in as the car hit the track; my helmet felt as if it would fly off my head. Seconds into the ride, I had a much greater appreciation of just how amazing these professional IndyCar drivers are. The straightaways disappear in a literal blink of an eye. Going into the turns, we’re missing the infield grass and outer track wall by what seems like inches. I know I’d be terrified it wasn’t Mario Freaking Andretti behind the wheel.
If the $499 price tag for two laps (one at race pace) is a bit much for your budget, Dallara runs street-legal two-seater rides around the town of Speedway for $40 or less. Although technically those rides max out at the local speed limit – 35 mph for much of the route – driver Connor Kramper jokingly admits that “sometimes we’ll go a little faster than that.”
Drive an actual IndyCar yourself
If no other experience will do, you can take an IndyCar out for a few laps around the speedway. The cars – all of which have raced at Indy in the past – have a max speed of about 130 mph, vs the 200+ mph that official drivers reach on the track. This is disappointing to some participants…until they get behind the wheel. After a morning classroom session learning the basics of the car, they quickly discover firsthand that an IndyCar doesn’t handle like the SUV they drove to the track that day.
“You have guys who’ll come in and think that because they’ve driven their car 100 or 120 mph on the highway, they can drive an IndyCar,” said Indy Racing Experience’s Scott Jasek. “But have they ever taken the off-ramp at 120 mph? That’s what driving an IndyCar on the track can feel like.”
Settling into the cockpit, drivers feel like they’re almost lying down. By the time they exit turn four and onto the main straightaway, the drivers usually feel comfortable to open it up a little.
Jasek estimates that 90 percent of drivers average less than 100 mph for their laps, but no matter if they topped out at 70 or 120 mph, when they take off the helmet, “the huge smile is the same.”
If you belong to the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, you can race your own vehicle against other competitors on IMS’s road course during the four-day Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational in June.
Want to leave the high-speed racing to the pros? There are ways to go slower around the track. Runners in the Indianapolis Mini Marathon do a lap around the oval during the 13.1-mile event, and cyclists can do either one lap or 100 miles around the oval during the Tour de Cure.
Make it happen
If you’re interested in doing a two-seater ride or driving an IndyCar yourself, make a reservation as early as possible, as both tend to sell out quickly.
Visitors to Indiana should try the state’s official state sandwich, the breaded pork tenderloin. Dawson’s on Main has the best in the city, conveniently located just a couple of blocks away from the track. Craft-beer aficionados will love Big Woods and Daredevil Brewing, both a short walk down Main Street. Try the Common Necessity coffee stout and Lift Off IPA, respectively. The Alexander offers sleek, modern lodging in a convenient downtown location. Be sure to stop by the hotel bar Plat 99 for a cocktail before turning in.
Robert Annis got behind the wheel as a guest of Indy Racing Experience and Speedway Indoor Karting. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in return for positive coverage.