It's a beautiful afternoon and I'm doing two of my favorite things: scrapping and watching a race on TV. Not just any race, though. Today is the Indy 500.
Oh, to be Danica Patrick. . . .
Helio Castraneves in on the pole today. Unfortunately, one of my favorite drivers, Paul Tracy, failed to qualify for this year's Indy. I watch for Paul in every IRL race cuz me and Paul - we go way back.
In 2007, Brenda and I volunteered with the Champs Car folks at the Cleveland Grand Prix. We had a blast working behind the scenes the three days leading up to the June race, but the best part was what happened on Race Day.
Our crew of volunteers was told we'd get to escort the drivers on the parade lap. Escort - as in get behind the wheel and DRIVE THE DRIVERS AROUND THE TRACK.
I've never been so excited in my life.
Before we closed up shop and headed over to to the grandstand, we were given strict instructions about not bothering the drivers, not using the air conditioning because it would drip condensation on the track, etc. etc. etc.
Oh, and one more thing.
Whoever drove Paul Tracy was EXPRESSLY FORBIDDEN from doing or saying anything to upset him. Don't argue. Don't ask for his autograph. Do what he says and get him around the track safely. I knew Paul Tracy's reputation as a helluva driver who was passionate about racing and not afraid to express his opinions. I also knew that in 2002, a bogus call by the Indy Racing League left him in heartbreaking second place at end of the Indianapolis 500, a ruling that would have soured anyone. But Tracy was a true Champs star, and right then and there I knew that's who I wanted to drive.
As we pulled up to a long row of Mazdas, Brenda and I could hardly contain ourselves. Right away, I spotted the car designated for Paul Tracy and outran one old lady co-volunteer to get to it first.
After Brenda and I took pictures, I opened the door to my Mazda and hopped in. Outside at the staging area, the temperature was 95 degrees. Inside, it was at least 150. Mazda had not embraced the genius of Ford's pedals forward technology, so I spent 10 sweaty minutes trying to adjust the seat so my feet could reach the pedals. Another 10 sweaty minutes were spent trying to raise the seat so I could see over the steering wheel. I adjusted the mirrors and then sat back and looked around. Off to my right, Paul Newman was talking with his crew chief. I couldn't stand it anymore and dug out my forbidden cell phone to call my dad and play "Guess where I am?" He was as excited as I was and told me to be careful and have fun. Just then a Champs car representative came by to tell us we'd be moving up to get our drivers in three minutes. As he disappeared down the row of cars ahead of me, a rivulet of sweat slid down my back. I leaned forward to unstick myself from the seat. I accidentally bumped something, and all of a sudden my windshield wipers were flapping back and forth in the glaring sun.
I twisted the turn signal post on the left side of the steering wheel.
I tried to push in the turn signal post. Then I tried to pull it out.
I furiously patted the dashboard and armrest for anything that looked like a windshield wiper control.
Opened the glove box for an owners manual.
At this point, the heat of the boiling sun and the lack of moisture under the wipers combined to make the most annoying screeeeeching sound every time they swiped the width of the windshield.
Oh my god.
I was going to pick up Paul Tracy with my windshield wipers on. I could see the headlines now: "Distracted Tracy Loses Major Race, Vows Revenge on Dumb Blonde."
I started to hyperventilate. With shaking fingers, I dialed Brenda's cell phone but she didn't pick up, probably because we were moving along pit row now to pick up the professional race drivers we'd been entrusted with introducing to their waiting fans.
I almost wet my pants as three cars ahead of me stood Paul Tracy, looking hot and impatient in the relentless sun. In a total panic, I began swatting/hitting/twisting/smacking everything on the dashboard in an attempt to undo whatever it was I'd done. Thanks be to the racing gods - the windshield wipers settled under the hood just as I drew up alongside my professional race driver.
I almost cried from relief.
Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to unlock the doors.
My professional race car driver was standing in the boiling sun on pit row, locked out of his parade lap car. I began swatting things again and managed to pop the locks. Then Paul Tracy in the flesh eased himself into the car, looking resplendent in his hurt-your-eyes blue and white racing suit.
"Whew. Hot in here," he said and immediately turned on the air conditioning. I told him about the condensation on the track thing, and he laughed. "Girl, we'll melt in here!" was all he said. I don't remember much as I pulled away behind the string of Mazdas and began to pick up speed except that he wasn't scary or nasty or even impatient. We made some small talk, I think, but I can't be sure because I was trying to figure out if the long wait in a 150 degree car had left me stinky. Mostly I concentrated on not saying or doing anything else stupid.
Then we were up to speed and pulling out onto the track. With a grin, Paul eased himself off the passenger seat and up through the sunroof.
Once I'd maneuvered around the first turn at 65 mph just fine, I let out a long breath and relaxed a bit. I knew I couldn't ask Paul Tracy for a picture, but thanks to my cell phone I snapped this picture of him to remember the best parade lap of my life:
And since I probably wouldn't be driving on a Champs or Indy or NASCAR track again anytime soon, I snapped this pic of the track as we came out of turn three. That's Lake Erie off to the left and the infield on the right. I have no idea who the driver is poking out of the sunroof ahead of me, though:
Way too soon, we were braking to a slower pace and pulling back into pit row. I pulled up to Paul Tracy's spot without hitting anyone or anything and gently stopped the car.
"Good luck today. Stay safe," I said. Or at least that's what I said in my head. Lord only knows what came out of my mouth. All I remember is Paul Tracy thanking me for a "great ride" and then watching his blue tushie as he got out of the car.
I'd just driven Paul Tracy on his 2007 Cleveland Grand Prix parade lap and delivered him safely back to his crew without maiming him, causing an international incident or inciting a tantrum. Most importantly, I'd done it without publicly humiliating myself and without the use of windshield wipers.
I sat back, a stupid grin on my face. Life was good. Very good, indeed.
That's when a big angry man with a red face smacked the hood of my Mazda and yelled through a bullhorn, "Hey, lady! Get the f*** outta here! We've got a race to run!"
I threw the Mazda into gear and did a little fishtail in my hurry to catch up with the other Mazdas way ahead of me down pit row, praying the TV cameras were engaged somewhere else. We wove our way through the back lot to the staging area and parked. I jumped out and found Brenda. No question - this was the best fun ever.
And guess what? Paul Tracy won the Cleveland Grand Prix that year! I was kind of proud that his parade lap was rather uneventful, although he's had to overcome much worse than a hapless parade lap escort to be successful. The very next year, the Indy Racing League took over the Champs Car series and Cleveland was eventually dropped from the circuit. I'm sad the Grand Prix isn't here anymore but 2007's race couldn't have ended better.
When my dogs sleep, they dream of being Dobermans.
Me - I still daydream of being a Ken Block or Matt Kenseth or Danica Patrick. I can vividly imagine what it would feel like to take the third turn at the Brickyard or Darlington or drive gymkhana. The feel of the car, the smell of the fuel, the rumble in my gut as I work my way through the gears using all my skill and strategy to challenge the laws of physics and push my car to the limit and test good fortune.
It'll never happen, but that's okay.
I'll always have Paul Tracy's legs.