The Indianapolis 500 has always been a singular experience. Its racers command 650 horsepower to push rolling rockets past 230 mph in the straightaways and to as many as 3.5 G's in the corners. On May 27, at the 102nd running of the Indy 500, these earthbound pilots will experience the track at the controls of a new machine.
The retooled 2018 IndyCar, with a sleeker chassis, generates more downforce from under the frame rather than from the wings. The design allows ground effects to improve passing by creating less turbulence thanks to a reduction in wing size while also making the cars more stable at high speeds.
Smaller wings aside, good racing is still a lot like smooth flying; it's all about cleanly cutting through the air. Of course, instead of using aerodynamics for lift, IndyCars use it for downforce. They're essentially upside-down airplanes.
With that in mind, The Mag strapped two-time champion Red Bull Air Race pilot Kirby Chambliss into a two-seat IndyCar behind four-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon -- the winner of the 2008 Indy 500 -- to take a few laps at the famed speedway. And since high-speed turnabout is fair play, Dixon was then treated to a ride in a two-seat model of Kirby's race plane above Indianapolis. For the third year in a row, the air race circuit will return to Indy on Oct. 7 to race over the legendary track, as pilots manipulate the controls of their aircraft through multiple gates.
While both men excel at accelerating a hunk of carbon fiber to great speeds, the two racers sat down after their shotgun rides to appreciate their differences.
Scott Dixon, IndyCar driver: How quick that plane can turn, the end-over-ends, the spinning, the going backwards -- most of the time I'm in any situation like that in a race car, it's very bad. We started out with a pretty big turn, six G's for five, six seconds, and at that point, my vision was definitely narrowing almost to the point of blacking out, which we don't get to witness too often. It's the sustained G-forces. We get pretty high peaks [in IndyCar] but never for that long.
Kirby Chambliss, Red Bull Air Race pilot: The G after a while is like looking down the inside of a pipe until you G-LOC (loss of consciousness from G-forces) and go to sleep. It gets smaller and smaller and smaller.
Dixon: That's the first time that I had that sensation, when my vision started to go. I'm holding on, and I'm like, ohhhhh. I think I was maybe a second or two away from blacking out.
Chambliss: I'm cheating a little bit. I'm controlling the G, you're not. Even if I tell you, "OK, we're going to do it now," you're still a fraction of a second behind.
Dixon: I think we get 5.5 to six G's in qualifying. That portion of the corner is about four seconds. Most of ours is lateral. You come into the compression in the IndyCar, and you sit there for a while, but you don't really feel it that much.
Chambliss: I found that to be uncomfortable because normally I don't have that kind of G. It's a huge amount of yaw, and it doesn't last very long. But we're going around the track and you feel it.
Dixon: I remember when the [2001 Firestone Firehawk 600] got canceled in Texas. Guys were blacking out, and that's when they said no race today. That was because the corners were much longer there and the banking was much higher. Indy is very quick. Ninety-degree turns versus other sustained turns for a lot longer.
Chambliss: See, to me, that seemed like a long time.
Dixon: It's the shortest by far that we come across.
Chambliss: That's what gets you. I've had guys who are airline or fighter guys, and they go, "How many G's are you pulling?" We pull 10 to 12 G's, and they go, "Oh, you can't do that." But they don't understand that in a fighter, you have an unlimited amount of thrust to sit there in a nine-G turn all day. The only way we can sustain that G is with a spiral, and then eventually you are going to run out of altitude. We're not superhuman. That's the biggest difference, the duration.
Dixon: I think you tense up so much because the load through the steering wheel is so high. The amount of torque that you are trying to create from your arms helps in those scenarios.
Chambliss: What blows me away is I'm out there for a couple of minutes at the very most. I do two or three runs during the practice, five or six minutes at the very most, and I'm done. You're out there for this long. The concentration ... when you're going that fast, you need to be on your game the whole time. There's other cars around you!
Dixon: I've raced cars all my life. I came to America, and it was the first time I ever went on an oval. Just going around in a circle. I did it, and I'm like, "Holy cow, this is hard." It is so tough mentally to keep the car on the edge and not spin out. You're coming down the straightaway and you're thinking about where you have to brake, and then it becomes about how you initiate your entry, and then how you can let off the brake to roll the speed to apex, and then when you can go for the throttle. Then you're thinking about the next corner. You process how that corner went and where you can gain time on the next lap.
Chambliss: [When] you're going 230 mph in an airplane, you best be thinking about what you're doing. I'm thinking about the fastest way to get from this gate to that gate the whole damn time because you can't think about anything else. People think you just go straight through the gate. I'm trying to take the biggest angle. There's only a certain amount of heading that I can be off there and get through there without touching the gate, so whoever plays that angle the best is going to end up winning. All of a sudden, you throw a big tailwind where you've been practicing with a headwind, and now it's almost impossible. There's only fractions of a second to get the airplane turned over and get it set up for the [next] one. If you don't set this one up right, you're not making that one.
Dixon: Even when you would do the quarter turns, I was still back at the first quarter turn. You're trying to play catch-up a ton. When you were explaining what was coming next, I'm trying to process what we had just done. The intensity of how quickly it turns is what shocks me the most. Just how quickly it rotates. In a normal plane, you can't achieve any of that. That was one hell of a ride.
Chambliss: See, to me, I think the car feels faster. Your a-- is about this far off the ground. I would be trying to catch up the whole time. When you are that close to the ground, and things are just whizzing by. It was amazing, I'm smiling the whole time.