DiZinno: Why a ride in Honda’s Fastest Seat in Sports is thoroughly awesome

2 Comments

With Honda’s future involvement in IndyCar a hot topic of discussion this summer, it’s worth noting how much at-track activation they do as it is – proof positive that Honda has so much more invested in IndyCar beyond the on-track product.

From the pace car program to the IndyCar fan village, the new Safety Car to on-site hospitality, it’s apparent that Honda does so much on a typical race weekend that you need to factor in enough time to see all the programs on the ground.

One of the areas where Honda is involved is with the two-seater rides, dubbed the Fastest Seat in Sports, where invited guests and fans have the opportunity to ride in a two-seater with either one of North America’s greatest ever drivers, Mario Andretti, or a recent open-wheel veteran.

Conor Daly and Martin Plowman also serve as Honda Fastest Seat in Sports two-seater drivers, with Zach Veach also on-board in the older Firestone two-seater via the Two-Seater Experience.

Whoever the Fastest Seat in Sports driver is that weekend will be scheduled to come to Fan Village and make appearances/Q&As and autograph signings.

I had the opportunity to ride in a two-seater during the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park a couple months ago, and if you’re wondering why I’m just getting to this post now, it’s due to the fact that IndyCar hasn’t had a week to breathe since two weeks before Barber in April, and it would invariably get lost in the shuffle.

Or that the ride itself does a good enough job of taking your breath away.

When you’ve had other two-seater rides before, in sports cars, you at least have a reference point. Riding shotgun in the passenger’s seat alongside at tracks such as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Miller Motorsports Park or Sonoma Raceway provide good examples of the sense of G-loading, speed, braking and elevation changes that drivers go through.

I’d had a ride-along at Barber before, and with arguably one of sports car racing’s most successful drivers in Hurley Haywood. The difference was, that occurred in a Porsche 911 on a damp track, and while Hurley undoubtedly could have pushed it, he opted not to for safety purposes. Good man, I said.

Race morning at Barber on this occasion dawned under similar conditions – overcast skies, a damp but drying track and the triumvirate of Daly, Plowman and Veach preparing for the hot laps.

source:
Fastest Seat in Sports ready to go, as am I. Photo: Tony DiZinno

First off, you get properly suited and booted when you’re going through the check-in at the Honda Fastest Seat in Sports transporter.

There’s an allure the first time you put a firesuit on anyway, particularly if you’re not a full-time driver or crewmember, so actually seeing yourself in gear getting ready to go is the first cool moment.

Then, Daly arrives. The 23-year-old Noblesville, Ind. native was a week removed from arguably the greatest 17th-place finish in recent memory. He got drafted in to race the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda in Long Beach in the middle of eating breakfast at Honda hospitality Saturday morning, with almost no practice time to prepare.

“Now I’m back to my day job,” he jokes.

The process is then about anticipation. Get your firesuit all set to go, get your headsock, gloves and helmet on and prepare to launch.

source:
Daly, Veach and Plowman ready to turn laps. Photo: Tony DiZinno

I’d figured I’d be in the back of Daly’s car but as we were all moved into position once through, I wound up staging to ride in Veach’s car.

Still good to go. And then we were off.

First up, your legs are in close and pressed up against the cockpit sides as you sink into the seat. If it’s relatively uncomfortable for a lap and a half, imagine how uncomfortable it is for two to three hours.

Second, the noise isn’t nearly as loud as I thought it would be. You’re not issued any earplugs but the noise doesn’t drown out the whole experience – with the engine behind you and the gearshifts going up and down as planned, it’s a normal ride.

From there, commence roller coaster. It’s down through Turn 1, up through 2, back down through 3 and then full-on, power-down, head thrown back and hang on through the rise in 4 before the full acceleration and dive into 5, the tight left-hand hairpin that serves as Barber’s most prominent passing point.

The back portion of the track is awesome once you’ve cleared the double-apex right hander through Turns 7, 8 and 9. The 10/11 and 12/13 pair of left/right, left/right full-on shifts are just mega – you’re wowed at the change of direction and the G’s as they hit.

Again, this was in the older car, so the Honda two-seater is almost certainly even quicker and fractionally more stable through this section.

Veach completed the final rise, fall and rise again back through the final corners and into pit lane. It had only been one lap, but it’s truly a rush.

“I have a lot of fun driving the two-seater,” Veach told me after the ride. “The crew is so awesome. I’ve had such a good time working with them.

“Conor Daly and I make the joke, it’s the first time we’ve been paid to drive a race car! Giving people a ride they’ll remember is special.”

Veach, who has raced a Prototype Challenge car once this year and has several prior Barber starts in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, reflected on the Barber track.

“You either have people, where they are really stoked to do it, really scared, or really sick. You try to not get many sick people; you don’t want to get thrown up on! Luckily they’re behind you.

“Barber is one of those places, with the G-loads, you can have a good time. People get an idea what we go through in a real race car.

“The most common reaction I get is how much more they understand what we go through and appreciate what we do now.”

Indeed. As if I needed another reason to remember why I write about this sport instead of drive in it…

IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
0 Comments

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area. The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean, who finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full season, said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps another his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”