“No, Coach, I’ve never heard that one before,” I said to Autumn Smith after she’d shared an observation with me upon encountering one another in the foyer. “I get Tim Robbins every now and then, and I got Doogie Howser once back in the very early ‘90s, but no one has ever told me I look like Jason Isbell.”
She tapped her iPhone a few times, and a photo of the country singer appeared on the screen. “Really? I see it.” Looking at the round face and wide smile, I grudgingly had to agree that I saw it too. A little. Sort of.
The volleyball coach and I parted ways upon entering the lounge, Autumn gravitating toward a table in the center of the room to join Karri Bentley and Deon Gordon in a discussion about UAB athletics, while I waved toward the Bruno Event Team triumvirate Baxter was entertaining at the bar.
I’d invited Jessica Sciacca, Angel Hufham, and Anna Lacy McMains to drop by, and they had done so in the company of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, and Charlie Kimball. The motorsports stars were occupying a corner table for four, and Jessica motioned to me to take the empty chair.
It was early last week, a few days before Texas native Hunter-Reay won his second consecutive Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park and Hinchcliffe and Kimball both finished in the top 10 during the annual Birmingham-hosted race.
“I’ve heard some drivers say they’re always glad to come back to Barber,” I ventured. “You guys feel that way?”
“Barber is one of the best facilities we go to,” said Kimball, who finished fourth there last season. “It’s one of the most fun for drivers and fans. If I wasn’t on the other side of the fence wearing a helmet, I’d be sitting on a hill enjoying the race.”
“Charlie’s right,” Hinchcliffe said. “The elevation changes and blind corners make it challenging, but they also make it a lot of fun to drive an IndyCar here.”
“Something I’ve always kind of wondered about drivers is…you’re obviously opponents on the track, but do you also regard each other as colleagues to a degree?”
Hunter-Reay took the question. “There is a certain amount of camaraderie. And respect. When you’re driving wheel-to-wheel with no fenders at 230 miles per hour, you have to have a certain amount of respect for each other. But everybody wearing a helmet on Sunday is still somebody to beat.”
He demonstrated his ability to do that Sunday, leading 49 of the 69 completed laps of the rain-delayed race that was limited to a 100-minute time limit instead of the usual 80 laps. Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon were on the podium with Hunter-Reay, who still trails Will Power by 18 points for the season. They’ll all be on the track again on May 10 during the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, which serves as a lead-in to the 98thIndy 500 later this month.
Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, and Kimball (whose dad was a Formula One designer) said they all grew up on racing tracks, starting with small four-wheeled vehicles before they were teenagers. “While the others kids were playing football and hockey, I was racing go-karts,” recalled Hinchcliffe, a native of Toronto.
“That’s a lot of experience,” I acknowledged. “But the biggest criticism – if that’s the right word – I hear from people who aren’t motorsports fans is that there’s no real athletic skill involved. It’s just driving a car around in a circle. How would you three respond to that?”
“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Hinchcliffe said. “I like to compare it to something people relate to easier, like basketball. You can try to make a three-pointer, and when you miss 10 in a row, you realize it’s not easy. So when you see a professional player make one, you say, ‘That guy’s good.’ Most people equate driving a race car to driving a road car. It doesn’t seem like it’s challenging.”
“Right,” Hunter-Reay agreed. “The sport is misunderstood because it’s not like a stick-and-ball sport most people have played recreationally. What the average person hasn’t considered is the level of g-forces we experience in the cars, nor have they experienced it. During a race, our heart rates are sustained at 175 beats per minute. It’s physically exhausting. And we have no power steering.”
Kimball took a sip of his beverage, then said, “At its simplest form, motorsports is getting from Point A back to Point A faster than anybody else. But you’ve got 650 horsepower moving you at 100 yards a second, and it’s not in a circle. You’re constantly braking and accelerating and turning right and left.”
“Oh, and did I mention there’s no power steering?” Hunter-Reay added.
“That means the faster the car goes, the heavier the steering gets,” Hinchcliffe said. “Ryan mentioned the Gs. My head normally weighs 10 pounds, but we hit Gs of up to three and a half in the car. Now, my head weighs 35 pounds, which makes it a lot harder for my neck to hold it up. And we get no break from the start of a race to the finish, so it’s really physically demanding.”
“Charlie, I recall from when you and I talked once before that your condition make things a little extra challenging for you, right?” I asked.
“In certain ways,” replied Kimball, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 22. “My car contains a glucose monitor so that I can keep up with my levels throughout a race, so I have to keep an eye on that in addition to everything else a driver has to be alert to.”
“Is nutrition a concern for you while you’re in the car?”
“I have to make sure I’ve taken care of that before a race starts. Unlike baseball or football, I can’t stop between innings or plays to get a snack or hydration. I’m in the car for the length of the race, so I have to be ready to go when I climb in. I keep a second drink bottle in my car – most drivers have one – full of orange juice so that I don’t have to stop if I do need some carbs. So far, I’ve never had to use it.”
“For all the preparation and planning you guys have to do, racing is still a pretty unpredictable sport, though, right?”
“That’s what makes it entertaining for the fans and so challenging for us,” Hunter-Reay said.
“Yeah,” Hinchcliffe agreed. “Your race plan can go out the window in the first turn. The pit crew and the guys setting up the car have as much do with the race as the driver does, but there are still so many variables you don’t control that we have Plans A-F to cover all the bases. And even then, you can execute everything perfectly and still finish out of the top 10.”
It was then that unpredictability appeared at our table in the form of Baxter, who placed a glass in front of me. “Thanks, Baxter, but I haven’t ordered anything.”
“I know,” he said, trying not to smile when he clearly wanted to. “This is from the group at the bar. They said it would be an honor to buy a drink for the country singer Jason Isbell.”
I turned to see six people at the bar instead of three. Jessica, Angel, and Anna Lacy had been joined by Karri, Deon, and Autumn.
“Baxter,” I said, “please tell the coach that her game is deep.”