IRL: Indy 500: Astronaut loves stars of the Brickyard

ASTRONAUT DEVOTED TO STARS OF INDY 500 FOR 29 YEARS INDIANAPOLIS, May 8, 1998 -- Astronaut David Wolf was less frightened when Russian space station Mir lost all of its electrical power than when he sat in the front row of the first...

ASTRONAUT DEVOTED TO STARS OF INDY 500 FOR 29 YEARS

INDIANAPOLIS, May 8, 1998 -- Astronaut David Wolf was less frightened when Russian space station Mir lost all of its electrical power than when he sat in the front row of the first turn of his first Indianapolis 500 in 1969.

"It scared me to death," said Wolf, an Indianapolis native, about watching the cars storm into the turn just a few feet from where he sat with his father, Harry.

"We were in the very front row and the cars came right at you. The seats were not set back like they are today, and you could set your Coke on the wall. When I saw them coming right at me I ducked behind the wall. I missed the first 15 or 20 laps."

Twenty-nine years later, Wolf, now 41, made his own circles last winter, but his track was around the Earth on the crippled space station. Wolf is back home now and scheduled to be grand marshal of the 500 Festival parade through the downtown streets of Indianapolis on May 23. While working on Mir, Wolf appeared to have some perilous moments.

Was he scared?

"No," he said matter-of-factly. "I slept good. Even when we had the total power failure, I didn't think it was an emergency situation. I was more scared in the first turn."

Astronauts often attend the "500." But none has a string of consecutive races like Wolf's -- 29 in a row. And he said his goal is to attend 100 in a row. Seriously.

NASA's original schedule had Wolf listed for Mir duty this spring (later it was moved up to a launch last October), which meant his streak of attending the "500" would have ended. But the innovative Wolf had a contingency plan.

"It was to request an orbit adjustment (over Indianapolis) on Race Day," he said. "I would use a telescope to see a race car on the track and count that toward my 100th in a row."

Wolf said he actually could see the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Mir with the naked eye. A telescope brought it in much clearer. Without a telescope, a viewer from space had to know where the track was. The golf course and track, though, could be seen.

"But you barely could see the tiny little ribbon of a track," he said.

Wolf told his Russian space companions -- Anatoly Solovey and Pavel Vinagradov -- that he was looking at Indianapolis, where the biggest race in the world was held each year. They said they had heard of it.

The hometown astronaut said it is somewhat of a tradition for his NASA mates to come to Indy for the race and compared it to his North Central High School class reunions. Curt Brown, for instance, has attended the race three times. Brown will command the crew, including 77-year-old Sen. John Glenn, of the space shuttle Discovery that will launch into space this October.

"They all love it," Wolf said of the "500."

Wolf also is a member of the 16th Squadron of the Indiana Air National Guard based in Terre Haute, Ind. The name of the group is "Racers." They've taken many Indy 500 drivers on supersonic jet flights.

There are comparisons between sitting in a race car cockpit for three hours and in a space capsule, Wolf pointed out.

"It's like doing a space walk in a suit," he said. "It's very hard work, very strenuous. I was outside (Mir) four hours and in the suit 10 hours. Other similarities are the fire hazards because we breathe pure oxygen and, I think, the concentration involved."

Wolf won't head into space again for about 2 1/2 years. He will spend the next year transferring information from his Mir ride to engineering and scientific teams designing the new international space station.

Wolf, whose father is an Indianapolis physician, sat in the first turn seats for several years, then moved around and eventually watched from the Tower Terrace. One of his most vivid memories is the start of the 1973 Indy race when driver David "Salt" Walther flipped on the start and slid down into the grass at the end of pit area. Wolf said this happened directly in front of him.

Wolf says he'd love to drive an Indy Racing League car and is thrilled to be grand marshal of the parade.

"That's as important to me as my space walk," he said.

And then he added one final juicy thought. "I've always wanted to drive the Pace Car," he said. "Make sure you get that in."

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