Written by Betty Packard
For almost 20 years I lived one block from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As a family friend of the Hulman-George family, I had the privilege of taking visitors in my own car for a few laps around the track. I quickly learned that there was a “groove” that allowed me to go fast. I often would hedge on the speeds I was supposed to go and up them – sometimes quite a bit. Once, after a particularly fast lap, I came into the pits and found Clarence Cagle standing in the lane shaking his head. “I worry you are going to kill yourself,” he said before he walked off still shaking his head.
But then I moved to California and the Speedway upgraded the track and its facilities. My racing days had ended. Each May as I returned for the 500, I watched qualification lap times rise higher and higher and I marveled at the engineering of those sleek open-wheel cars that circled the 2 ½ mile oval.
Then a couple of years ago engineers created a 2-seater open- wheel race car. Honda began holding contests with a fan picked to ride in the car on the pace lap of every IndyCar race. I would watch sometimes with a tinge of envy as a fan rode at the front on the parade laps.
Back in Indy this past May on the Tuesday before the race, I attended the racing wives’ golf tournament. While I no longer play golf, I always attend. I consider it a fun time to share with friends I see only once a year. It also supports the Mary Fendrich Hulman Benevolent Fund for injured drivers and/or their families. Along with lunch I purchase a number of raffle tickets. I was talking, not paying attention, when people started shouting, “Betty! Betty!” I stopped in surprise, wondering what all the noise was about. “You won! You Won!” they screamed. In total disbelief I learned that I had just won a trip in the 2-seater around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along with cheers of “I am so envious” and “lucky!” I made my way to accept in a total blur of amazement.
My world of anticipation came to a screeching halt when I discovered that I was leaving Indianapolis for home before I could get on the track. A plaintive phone call and the co-owner of the 2-seater arranged a ride for the afternoon before I was leaving.
On the morning of the Indianapolis 500, I watched Lady Gaga get into the2-seater which would pace the start of the race. I excitedly knew that it was just two short days before that would be me. Dave Calabro announced over the public address system that she was going 130 mph.
Tuesday afternoon came: 91 degrees with accompanying humidity. I went into the trailer and donned the fire suit. It not only was stifling hot but made for a guy at least 6 ft tall. Walking to the pits, I had to hold up the pants legs that were at least 8 inches too long. My friend, who had brought her camera to record my escapade, broke into hysterical laughing. My pit crew was great – rolling up my pants legs and also the lengthy arms. I tried desperately to step over the sidepod into the cockpit – an effort because the overly long pant crouch hit me at my knees. My body struggled to remind me that I was four months shy of 79 years of age. My pit crew gave me an extra boost and I nestled into the cockpit, legs and feet stretched under the driver’s seat occupied by Martin Plowman. As they strapped me in, the crew shouted instructions. I pulled the balaclava over my head; they planted the helmet on and flipped down the visor.
Before I could even comprehend, the engine roared and we were off. It was when we hit the first turn that I felt the first Gs; I was thrown into the side of the car. But after that, WOW! I could make out the grandstands, the turns and the pits as we flew by and, while I knew we were moving rapidly, there strangely was not the sensation of going fast. The wind caused my helmet to rise and I grabbed onto the bottom rim and held it down. As we continued circling that magnificent track, I saw it from a racer’s point of view. Fifty-six years ago my husband’s fastest qualification lap at Indy was over 142. Memories took over. Suddenly I was not alone in that cockpit and tears dampened my cheeks.
Then it was over. “What did I think?” they asked. “Only that it was not long enough. I could have gone on for a lot more laps.” And then I asked the real question: “How fast did I go?!” Their reply: “Somewhere around 180-181 mph.”
I smiled as I left the pits, my step a little lighter and my heart a little fuller: For that one moment in time, Jim and I were together again.