IRL: McGehee - role reversal

It was role reversal Monday at Nashville as McGehee's mom tackles Driving 101. NASHVILLE, Tenn., July 25 - Janet McGehee knows that what her son Robby does for a living is hard. She's been with the Indy Racing League star every step of the way...

It was role reversal Monday at Nashville as McGehee's mom tackles Driving 101.

NASHVILLE, Tenn., July 25 - Janet McGehee knows that what her son Robby does for a living is hard. She's been with the Indy Racing League star every step of the way during his racing career, from Formula Dodges at Road America to the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She's one of the few women in the pits at Indy Racing League events who has raced sports cars and formula cars herself in the past, so she has first-hand experience on what it's like to be strapped into the cockpit of a race car, squash those nervous butterflies, come up to racing speed and then run as fast as possible just inches away from an unforgiving concrete wall.

She also knows what it's like when things go wrong. She never left her son's bedside when he was hospitalized last year following a nasty Indy car crash at Texas Motor Speedway in which he broke his left leg in 10 places, cracked some ribs, separated a shoulder and suffered a concussion.

But even Mrs. McGehee came away from the Driving 101 program she participated in on Monday at Nashville Superspeedway with a greater appreciation for what her son and his fellow competitors go through at every Indy Racing League event.

"It was an awesome experience; it was easy and difficult at the same time," she said after the day's activities less than 48 hours after Alex Barron won the Firestone Indy 200 on the same track and a year after her own son finished fourth here.

"I had zero fear, where as some of the other people were having second thoughts," she said. "But I have even more respect for these drivers now because you have to be in tip-top shape to do this. You have to be really strong. I'm in good shape, but it was a big job to turn that car because it was really heavy. My car had a major push - on purpose - and it was an effort to turn the wheel. My hands were red and I was out of breath, and I only did six laps. It's a concrete track and it's rough, but nice. It was very grippy. The backstretch was so rough that I had to really focus to see. I have no idea how the drivers do 200 or more laps in a single race. It takes a special person with special talents to be able to do what they do. I have even more respect for them now after this program."

Mrs. McGehee's participation in the program was courtesy of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., one of the program's sponsors. It was arranged by Al Speyer, Bridgestone/Firestone's motorsports director, and Woody McMillin, the company's motorsports/consumer products and PR manager. Among the other 20 or so people joining her for the one-day "Racing 100" class on Monday were Barbara Butz, president of Performance Tire Service Co.; Jean Dunbar, manager of motorsports promotions for Bridgestone/Firestone; Diana Horvath, an IRL scorer and wife of Cahill Racing team manager Mike Horvath; and Norma Oteham, Robby McGehee's girlfriend.

The program is orchestrated by Bob Lutz's Driving 101 company based in Las Vegas. The 1,800-lb. cars that Mrs. McGehee and the others drove are a semi-monocoque chassis built in-house to similar specs to a Reynard champ car. They are powered by a 600-horsepower Chevy engine and they use Firestone Firehawk racing slicks.

Safety is crucial, of course.

"There was a lot of downforce in the cars so it would be harder for us to crash," Mrs. McGehee said, adding, like the driver she is, "If I was going to do many more laps, I would have come in and asked them to make some changes so I could have gone faster."

It isn't hard to see where Robby McGehee gets his competitive streak, either.

"I couldn't see my lap times in the cockpit, but afterwards they told me I was the fastest driver that day," she said. "With a few more laps and some changes to the car, I feel sure I could have gone 175 with no trouble."

As it was, her fastest lap on the 1.33-mile tri-oval located in Lebanon, Tenn. was run at an average speed of 146.1 mph.

"Nashville is a D-shaped oval, which was sort of interesting and surprising to me," Mrs. McGehee noted. "You don't fully appreciate its shape from the pits or the grandstands. It's a completely different perspective when you're actually on the track."

Driving 101 hosts similar events at California Speedway, Chicago Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway too.

The program began with classroom instruction, which Mrs. McGehee missed. Luckily that wasn't a problem thanks to her previous racing experience.

"Then they took us over to look at the car and they talked to us about the basics," she added. "I knew all that so it wasn't a big deal to me, but for those who were really new to all of this, it was important," she said.

A few laps on the track in a van to discuss the racing line were next, and then it was time to get buckled in and pushed off.

"My instructor, Eddie Baggs, was on the track in front of me. They tell you to keep your eye on the flagstand on the frontstretch and keep five lengths or more behind your instructor in the car in front of you.

"It felt good," she continued, "so I just pushed Eddie a little bit and nobody seemed to care. The flagger didn't tell me I was too close, and before the session Robby told me that I should just pass him. I didn't want to get black-flagged and have my session cut short though.

"It was a great experience," she said. "The only thing that I wish I could have done was shift, but you don't have to shift the cars for this program. Overall I loved it, and I really am grateful to everyone at Firestone and Driving 101 who made it all possible."

What did Robby think?

"All he said was 'Mom, just don't crash; you're going pretty darn fast,' " Mrs. McGehee related, "and I was thinking about that as I was building up my speed.

"Then when he found out we weren't liable for any crash damage, he said 'Go ahead!' " she added with a smile. "I think he was just thinking about the crash-damage possibilities, and not any possible injuries. Drivers never seem to think about that.

"There really wasn't a lot of advice he could give me because he hadn't seen the car before," she continued. "Actually I think he got a big kick out of it. He seemed to be having fun watching us. He said he took about 60 photos, which is the most pictures he's ever taken of anything.

"Afterwards he said he thinks I should go back to the Skip Barber series," she added, "as long as it doesn't conflict with the IRL schedule. He definitely likes driving better than taking photos."


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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Robby McGehee , Alex Barron , Skip Barber