IRL: Jay Leno Practice for Indy500 Role

LENO TAKES INITIAL LAPS AT IMS IN MONTE CARLO Tonight Show Host To Pace Indianapolis 500 On May 30 By Dick Mittman INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 1999 - Five nights a week comedian Jay Leno makes people laugh who tune in across ...

LENO TAKES INITIAL LAPS AT IMS IN MONTE CARLO Tonight Show Host To Pace Indianapolis 500 On May 30 By Dick Mittman

INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 1999 - Five nights a week comedian Jay Leno makes people laugh who tune in across America to the NBC award-winning "The "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." On May 30, Leno will drive the 2000 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Pace Car to start the 83rd running of the Indianapolis 500. And his day will be ruined if he brings out any snickers from the racing fans gathered for this annual auto racing extravaganza. "They don't get much bigger than this," Leno said Tuesday as he went through a Pace Car practice session on a sunny day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "Let's hope they're not laughing. If they're laughing, I'm in a lot of trouble." The late night comedian drove a number of laps at 100 mph plus after first taking some instruction from 1963 Indy 500 champion Parnelli Jones. Jones drove the Corvette Pace Car last year as a fill-in after golfing great Greg Norman had to pull out to undergo shoulder surgery. Jones told Leno that it isn't necessary to drive extremely hard and scare himself. He said non-race drivers appearing on the Speedway surface tend to become mesmerized by the speed and feel they must drive beyond their capabilities. "But really," he said, "you can run around here in a car like that (Pace Car) at 100 mph and not be out of shape or scare yourself. So I think the main thing is to try to get this across to them so they don't embarrass themselves. "I think if you can accomplish that, that's about as good as you can do." Then Jones related a story about the time Leno's "Tonight Show" predecessor, Johnny Carson, came to the Speedway during the summer of 1967 after Parnelli had nearly won Indy a second time driving the controversial turbine car. The famed driver was taking Carson around on his first familiarization lap in the Pace Car. He hadn't even completed a full lap when the comedian said he understood what was necessary and wanted to drive. Carson brought the car down the front straight and as it approached the first turn Jones warned him several times to lift off the throttle. When that didn't happen and the car was headed straight for the Turn 1 wall, Jones reached over with his left hand and somehow steered the car safely through the corner. "He froze," Jones said. "He was white when we stopped the car." Jones doesn't expect that to happen to Leno, who has been through a driving school and participated in a celebrity race at Long Beach several years ago. "This is the greatest thrill," Leno said. "It's funny. Driving a car is like sex. Everybody thinks they're good at it. Because they drive a car, they think racing a car can't be much different. They don't realize how much skill, how much ability is actually needed. "Just going around this track at 100 mph, you're saying, this is a scary thing. But you must realize these guys are running at twice that speed." Leno, who once emceed the Indy 500 Victory Banquet and has attended several races, called the opportunity to become an on-track participant thrilling, because he is a car history buff. He prefers the early period of auto development from 1900 to 1935 and owns a collection of antique cars. He pointed out that in the early days the Europeans didn't care much for most American races, but were awed with the Indianapolis 500 when it began in 1911. They began coming over in 1913 (France's Jules Goux won that year), and even today foreign drivers are a regular part of the Indy scene. "Indy was the one they really thought was most amazing of all," Leno said. "Peugot ran here in '13, Delage, the Bugatti. I've got a couple Bugattis, I've got some Duesenbergs. "A lot of people don't realize some of the best cars in the world were built right in Indianapolis." In past visits, Leno has driven out into the city and searched out the home sites of the Duesenbergs. He called them Fred and Augie as if they were long lost friends. He also enjoys touring the basement of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum and admiring the cars powered by Harry Miller-built engines. Leno also holds high regard for drivers like Parnelli, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti, whom he followed as a 13-year-old during the 1960s from his home in Andover, Mass. "I mean they're world class athletes," he said. "That was my era. I like all the new guys, too, but I sort of go back to the days when the cars really had engines that resembled those you could buy. It was that thing where you could almost have one somewhat similar. "That's what's kind of fun about this Pace Car. People can buy a replica. The Pace Car replica you can buy actually is much closer to the Pace Car today than they were several years ago. "This is basically a stock car. It's out there running 115, 120 and it's rock steady." A Chevrolet Monte Carlo will also pace the 600-mile NASCAR race following the Indianapolis 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. This is the second year in a row and a record 12th time a Chevrolet was selected to pace Indy. "I'm pretty impressed with this car," concluded Leno. "It handles nicely."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Dan Gurney , Mario Andretti , Jules Goux , Jay Leno