At Indy 500, Honda’s simulator puts Executive Editor Jamie Butters through the paces

And then on Sunday, I got to walk the grid, where the cars are lined up on the track during the pre-race rituals: the introductions of the drivers, the Purdue University marching band, the singing of “Back Home in Indiana,” the Thunderbirds’ flyover.

The track is hot. The drivers wear not only the heavy gloves, but also a fireproof suit, boots, balaclava and crash helmet. Some have special cooling equipment, but when every pound matters … there’s a lot of sweating going on.

Watching the race on replay at home on Memorial Day, I couldn’t help but marvel that the steering wheel I saw on TV was exactly like the one I had used in the simulator. (Yes, I know that’s the point of the simulator, but still — there it was!) Davide had showed me that the tachometer was effectively displayed by lights across the top of the wheel. When the blue ones flash all across the right side, it’s time to upshift. The pros, through anticipation or reflex, clicked it up at the instant the lights clicked on.

That wasn’t how I recalled my performance.

But I worked it along, shifting down to fourth gear on turns 1 and 3, then back up to fifth on the straights.

“Hey, Jamie, about two laps to go,” Davide said. “If you want to, give it a shot at full throttle and just drive.”

Well, OK. What’s the worst that could happen?

Even if I wrecked and flipped the car, all the simulator would do is sink to the entry platform. It is an amazing simulator, but that’s what it is. There’s no replicating the actual danger faced by drivers at high speeds. Even with amazing safety advancements, the sport has risks on a different level than say, tennis or basketball.

So I left it in fifth gear and tried to stay on the track as I kept my foot floored.

Well, I tried to keep my foot floored. Chuck Schifsky, spokesman for Honda and Acura racing, commented later that the monitors revealed a “confidence lift” — taking my foot up a little out of fear.

It wasn’t lack of confidence, I told him; it was fatigue and discomfort. I had to adjust my foot after jamming my leg down for so long — which, again, was only about a tenth of Sunday’s race, little more than half the distance a driver typically goes on a tank of fuel between pit stops.

With no other cars on the virtual track, I didn’t have to worry about someone creating funky air disturbances that could throw me off. But there was also no one for me to draft off of. (And how hard is that to actually do at full speed?)

The Honda Performance Development staff said the theoretical best lap under my simulated conditions would be 221 mph.

My last lap was 218.03.

And now I want to try to chase down those last 3 mph. …

Maybe in my next lifetime.

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