Champ Car's Minardi 2-seater is the ultimate ride
by Mark Cipolloni

 August 4, 2007

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Talking to Paul Stoddart before I get in the car

Getting ready to climb aboard

It's a snug fit in the passenger seat

Braking for the final turn

With Miss San Jose Grand Prix, Marivel Salgado
All photos by Bob Heathcote

When ex-Champ Car President Dick Eidswick asked me at the Cleveland GP if I wanted a ride in the Minardi F1x2 Champ Car 2-seat car at the next race in Mont-Tremblant, Canada I could not say yes fast enough.  Who would not want a ride in these wonderful ex-Minardi F1 2-seat cars that are as close to the ultimate performance of a Champ Car as anything on this planet, and to do it on the undulating, high-speed Mont-Tremblant track was the icing on the cake.

Imagine then my disappointment when I had to email Dick and tell him I had to forego my trip to Mont-Tremblant because my father, who was fighting to stay alive from cancer, had taken a turn for the worse.  Sometimes even my love for racing has to take a backseat to more pressing issues.

Dad would die a couple of days later and, because I was able to be at his bedside in his last days, I never regretted canceling that trip.

Because of this tragic event and all the post-funeral logistics to address I missed the Toronto and Edmonton races too.   So it wasn't until the San Jose GP that I was back at the race track and Dick was kind enough to offer me a ride the first time he saw me on Friday.  OK, this wasn't a track as spectacular as Mont-Tremblant, but regardless,  knew it would be a day I would never forget.

A fast call by Dick to Brandi Latimer (last year's Face of Champ Car) who schedules the time of the rides and my time was set for 11:45 Sunday morning.  Dick said to get there by 11:00 to get your medical exam and suited up.

Sunday Morning
Because I could not wait, I arrived at the staging compound outside the last turn of the short 1.4-mile San Jose street circuit at 10:45, a full hour before I was due to be in the car.

A large gathering of thrill seekers had surrounded the tent that housed the two orange and white cars, lured there by the sound of the ear piercing  F1 engines warming up.  The sound is unique to racing, an intoxicating crescendo of music that screams out the exhaust headers of the short stroke naturally aspirated V10.

The first order of business was to sign in and John Hancock all the lawsuit waivers.  Next was a visit with the doctor who asked me a few questions about my medical history and checked my blood pressure.  I was given a clean bill of health.

There were a total of eight of us taking a ride that day.  Two people had won the rides at a charity auction the night before.  Miss San Jose Grand Prix, Marivel Salgado, was getting a ride as part of her reward for winning the title the previous night, and there was even a businessman from Japan.

I was in the second group to go out so I had to wait in the hot drivers uniform until the cars returned from their first run.  The full outfit, including Nomex underwear, a balaclava, drivers suit, shoes and helmet are toasty warm under the hot California sunshine.

Paul Stoddart, the man behind these wonderful 2-seat cars, came over to shake my hand.  He said to me, "You're up next.  Time is short so we need to get you in the car quickly." 

Now I know what those sports car drivers go through when they make a driver change during a pitstop.

OK, so they didn't get me in the car that quickly because at 5'-11" and over 200 pounds getting me into the passenger seat wasn't the easiest thing but once I got my knees past the bulkhead I slid right down with no problem. Everyone was doing their job with haste and I was ready to go in several minutes.  

They buckled my seat belts and Zsolt Baumgartner, my pilot this day, lit the engine.  It was time to go.

Hold on tight
Others who had gone before me warned to watch out for the braking, you'll bang your head on the bulkhead in front of you.

Zsolt dropped it into first and we were away.  As soon as he made the left onto the track's main straight he nailed the throttle.

No warm-up, nothing.  100% throttle for a good half a mile down Almaden Blvd.   This wasn't you're typical Sunday drive that's for sure.  Now I know why the doctor wanted to know what I had for breakfast.  "Damn," I remember  saying to myself, "This baby could get it on," the engine pulled hard all the way to Turn 1.

The acceleration was incredible. I had to stick my head out around the side of the bulkhead separating Zsolt and I so I could see just how fast we were going.  There was no way I was missing anything.

As the engine ran up to 19,000 RPM after each gear change I could feel the piercing sound of the engine right behind me.  Despite having earplugs in I still felt a twinge of pain. 

As we approached the first turn hairpin I pinned my head backwards against the headrest in anticipation of more braking force than I had ever experienced.  We passed the No. 3 braking marker and then Zsolt hit the brakes.  I managed to keep my head upright but indeed, these cars really 'honker' down in a hurry. 

I got the sense Zsolt went easy on me in Turn 1 so I could get used to what was to come.  Although I didn't see much down the straight I distinctly remember seeing the fans taking pictures out the side of my eye as we rounded the 180-degree hairpin.

The braking for Turn 2 and 3 was fairly tame compared to Turn 1, but I still had to force my head backwards to overcome the deceleration.  Although I could not see his feet my guess is Zsolt was left foot braking because he went from full throttle to full braking almost instantaneously. There was no transition period for my head.  It went from being pinned against the headrest to wanting to slam forward against the bulkhead at what seemed like the same time.

As we blasted down the backstraight (Market Street) it was full throttle through the esses, not even a blip of the throttle, and then another hard braking zone for the right-hander.

The short spurt down Balbach St. took all of a couple of seconds before we broke for the final right-hander which put us back on the main straight for the start of lap 2.

With the tires even warmer Zsolt was ready to go even faster.  As we hit the braking zone for the Turn 1 hairpin this time he went all the way to the No. 2 braking marker before slamming the brakes.  Massive deceleration I remember saying to myself as I fought to hold my head upright.

How difficult it really must be to pass in F1.  The braking zone felt like it was no more than 75 feet from over 180 mph down to about 35 mph.

Zsolt clicked off the final two laps without fanfare, each lap faster than the previous one.  Then it was back to the pits and the end of the ride of a lifetime.

By this time I was beginning to feel rather hot in the confined cockpit on this warm sunny day.  Anyone who says race drivers are not athletes needs to take a ride in one of these cars.  Between the constant pounding of your body over the bumps, to the longitudinal and lateral g-forces, and the heat, it really is quite physical.

Getting out of the car was a lot easier than getting in.  Talking to the other lucky passengers and hearing what they thought, the reaction was the same.  Everyone was thrilled.  It will be a day we all will never forget.

Note: Rides go for $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the day, so if your company wants to buy one for one of its valued customers, or you want to buy your spouse their very own ride of a lifetime, you can.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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