As soon as the national anthem finished and a couple of military jets flew over the straightaway at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Indy Racing Experience staff helped me get into the rear seat of Honda’s two-seat 500-hp Indy car. Helmet and gloves on, I sat down with my knees chest high and got strapped to the seat. The 90-degree Florida weather and what felt like 100 percent humidity had me suffocating in my fire suit, until another nice gentleman—umbrella in hand—asked me if I wanted some shade. I nodded. Although most of my view was blocked by the front seat, I could clearly see Mario Andretti’s brown eyes reflected in the sideview mirrors. He looked like he was concentrating, ready to take off as soon as he got the signal.
“We are gonna take a nice ride ahead of the field; we’ll start the race,” Andretti had said as we were walking to the pit lane minutes before we got in the two-seater. “We’ll be the first ones to go flat out.”
What neither Andretti nor I knew at that time is that this ride, my ride, was going to be the last official ride in the Honda two-seater Indy car. Just a week after the 2020 Indy Car season concluded that moist afternoon in Florida, Honda announced it was ending its 15-year sponsorship of the Fastest Seat in Sports and would now use the time at the races to show Honda production vehicles that could turn into sales.
Andretti and Indy Racing Experience will most likely continue to offer rides for the 2021 season, under another brand’s sponsorship. The legendary driver didn’t have any intentions of stopping that Sunday afternoon. “I don’t leave anything on the table,” he said before he walked out to the track. “I’m safe, but believe me, I run as hard as the thing can go.” And sitting behind a racing legend, I could tell he was still passionate.
Because the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg uses a street circuit, there’s no room for error. The track is narrow, and the walls are close. The two-seater isn’t as powerful as the regular Indy car, and its proportions are bigger, so I felt like we were inches from the wall during some of the tight turns. But Andretti knew exactly where to place the tires, when to brake, and when to hit the gas.
After warming up the tires on the first lap, the adrenaline kicked in. It was surreal to feel the g-forces on my body while hearing the V-6 engine behind me roar as we sprinted down the runway of a local airport used as the straightaway for the race. I couldn’t hear anything else except my shouts and the double-whammy of wind noise and that delightful vroom-vroom sound that seemed to be playing at decibel levels too loud for heavy metal rock concerts. Flying down the straight at 165 mph had me readjusting my helmet a couple of times.
The whole moment was special—the thrill of being strapped into a two-seat race car and having the man with the most famous name in motorsports at the wheel. But starting an Indy race was right below that. This is the equivalent of playing warmup with Rafa Nadal before the tennis match starts or having Leo Messi take a penalty kick with you at the goal prior to the start of the game. This just doesn’t happen. Yet the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg started with Andretti and me leading in the two-seater, followed by the Civic Type R pace car and the two dozen Indy cars right behind. Just as we pulled into the pit lane after three “warmup” laps, the race was starting.
For Andretti, this was another day at the office. For the past 15 years he’s been giving rides to lucky fans, journalists, and celebrities, such as Lady Gaga. That damp Sunday was no different—he gave more than a dozen rides in the morning prior to starting the race with yours truly in the afternoon.
For Andretti, someone who has been a Formula 1, Indy Car, and NASCAR champion (and who daily drives either a Lamborghini Aventador or C7 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1), you’d think that giving rides in a 500-hp two-seater Indy car wouldn’t be that energizing or entertaining. But when I asked him if he still feels the adrenaline when giving rides like these, he nodded with a soft smile on his face.
As I stepped out of Honda’s two-seater, I didn’t have the words to explain how thrilling the ride was. There was a mix of glorious feelings as I tried to gather my thoughts—from the epinephrine traveling through my veins to the sensation of being driven by the legend himself. I’m still daydreaming about the ride.
We really hope to see Andretti on the track next year; what I felt on that ride should be experienced by many more.