2019 Long Beach Grand Prix: One reporter’s story of riding in a race car at 180 miles an hour
The liability forms said nothing about haunting.
Which was reassuring: I did, after all, have a growing list of people to come for if I died.
On Tuesday, April 2, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach hosted its annual media day, with dozens of folks — mostly reporters — getting to hobnob with professional drivers and race officials before the three-day event begins in earnest next week and 180,000 people descend on downtown.
Media day’s highlight, however, was not the glad-handing.
It was the chance, for some, to zip around the 1.97-mile track in a race car — at about 180 miles an hour. And I was one of those.
So, yeah, about that list.
The second spot on my haunting itinerary belonged to a colleague, Hayley Munguia. The Grand Prix had two types of race cars offering rides, one from the GT4 America series and the other from the IndyCar series. At first glance, the former seems safer: It has a roof, for one thing. It’s also bigger and, according to Grand Prix spokesman Chris Esslinger, it goes slower. The Indy car, meanwhile, is a full-time convertible and looks far too similar to the X-Wing fighter from “Star Wars,” minus the wings.
“I say go hard or go home,” Munguia said last week.
The Indy Car it was then.
“Don’t die,” she added.
On Tuesday morning, I checked in at the front desk and headed for the black tent where I’d suit up.
For the uninitiated, the area around the Long Beach Convention Center transforms during the Grand Prix.
The familiar mixes with the alien.
The street lights at Linden Avenue and Shoreline Drive, where the racing pit is, still turn from green to yellow to red. But cement partitions, chain-link fences and walls of stacked tires turn the place into a maze.
At the check-in desk, with the Convention Center behind me, I gave my name to Shannon Kennedy, the one responsible for suiting everyone up.
She handed me a form. It was to make sure no one sued.
“First time?” She asked.
“You’ll love it.”
I handed Kennedy the form — with emergency contact and insurance information filled out — and took a couple of steps toward a wardrobe.
Kennedy took a red jumpsuit off its hanger, and told me to take off my shoes.
I slid into the onesie, zipped it up and put my shoes back on.
“Have you done this before?” I asked.
“I have,” Kennedy said. “It’s quite a ride.”
Then I walked to the pit.
Two Indy cars sat parked on the roadway, one gold, the other red – both looking alarmingly vulnerable if they were to, say, crash into a wall.
There were six of us in the first group, and things would go quick, an organizer said.
Two at a time. The next pair donning a balaclava, helmet and gloves while the previous duo flirted with death.
Zach Veach, a second-year IndyCar pro, would drive me around the track.
Veach is below average height, for a man, with a slight build. He turned 24 in December.
As we waited for the go ahead, Veach put on a ball cap.
“Is it true you can go bald if you wear hats all the time?” he asked Colby Redmond, a spokeswoman from IndyCar.
“It’s hereditary on your mom’s side.” she replied.
“Oh, good,” Veach said. “Or I’d be bald by the time I’m 30.”
I’m 30 years old, and at the moment, baldness wasn’t much of a concern. Redmond introduced us, and I asked Veach if he was the one in whose hands I was putting my life. Yes, he said.
“The liability contract says nothing about not haunting you if I die,” I told him, target no. 1 on my list.
“That’s fair,” he said. “You’d deserve that.”
Then, it was time.
Veach swapped the cap for a helmet and sat in the front of the red car’s two-seat cockpit; the other driver got into the gold car.
The first group of reporters got into the cars, too, and the pit crews strapped them in.
The engines came to life. A low, drumroll-like rumble hit my ears.
Then, the cars pounced. The rumble, in an instant, shot upward, like a symphony of snare drums – amplified, piercing.
Dust from the tires went into the air. Burned rubber filled my nostrils. A rock kicked sideways and pelted me in the hand.
Then the race cars were gone. The din faded. It was the second group’s time to finish suiting up.
About five minutes later, it was my turn.
I slid into the car, let the crew fidget with my straps and place a curved, metal bar behind my neck – to prevent whiplash – and waited.
Before getting into his car, Veach said that he’d take his passengers around the track at around 170, 180 miles an hour. During a race, the cars can hit 240.
But sitting in the car, feeling the engine’s smooth drumroll, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference.
At least, I thought, the straps around my chest – which the crews double-checked – were tight. I shouldn’t fly out.
I took a breath and looked around:
The Convention Center to the right. The ocean, somewhere out of view, to the left. A road I’ve driven countless times before ahead and behind me.
Then – the car pounced again.
The acceleration, for a moment, paralyzed my body against the seat. Even without straps, I couldn’t have moved. Then my body relaxed.
We headed up Shorelline Drive. The cacophony – encasing me now – seemed not as loud; my ears filled with pressure – as if aboard an airplane – and muted the world.
Suddenly, Veach braked. My chest leapt forward against the straps. Veach accelerated and back I went. He accelerated, turned, braked, accelerated.
The Grand Prix, after all, is a street race – sharp turns and all.
As Veach drove me on a tour of downtown, I tried to catch my bearings. But I was lost.
Long Beach’s architecture passed by in a blur. Only a quick glimpse at the Pike saved my sense of direction.
Veach zoomed the car onto Seaside Way and punched it again.
Then it finally hit me:
This is fun.
I’ve driven above the speed limit on the freeway before, hoping there were no police around the bend, but I was now traveling twice as fast as I’d ever gone in a car.
I wanted to keep going.
But seconds later, Veach eased off the gas, and pulled back onto Shoreline and into the pits.
It was over.
The crews unstrapped me and told me to climb out. I took off my helmet.
Someone – in the moment, I wasn’t sure who – asked how I liked it.
“Awesome,” I said.
Our staff photographer took my picture in front of Veach and his car. I gave a cheesy thumbs up.
“I survived,” I told her.
We began to leave the track.
“Hey, Chris,” a voice said.
It was Kelsey Duckett, a Grand Prix spokeswoman who works under Esslinger. I turned around.
“I signed you up for the other race car too,” she added, pointing 50 yards ahead. There sat the GT4 America cars.
Sure, I thought.
What’s the worst that could happen?