A Chance Encounter

As I stood looking down at the side pods of the Honda-powered Indy car, I wondered which parts of the car to avoid stepping on. I had just pulled on my helmet and, looking at who was on the other side of the car, any discomfort became incidental, because there was Indy and F1 legend, Mario Andretti. I was to be his passenger for a hot lap around Sonoma in the fanciful two-seater Indy car.

As a NASA HPDE driver, I was familiar with track cars, but even so, this was a different world, and one I essentially bumped into accidently while heading into a Starbucks for a latte! Having pulled up in my Vette, I was greeted by the question, “Do you track that Vette?” Without thinking about my response too deeply, I simply said, “Yes, I sure do and I have joined NASA on the bottom rung, participating in HPDE1.”

“Get your latte and pull up a chair,” he said. At this point I had no clue as to who this Vette enthusiast was, or how close to American racing royalty he would bring me.

During the months that followed that latte, Brian and Jan Kenny joined my wife Margo and me at numerous NASA events. Brian was a better driver and started out in HPDE3 and, in time, graduated to HPDE4 and eventually TT. Together with the Kennys, we have participated at NASA events in SoCal, NorCal and Rocky Mountain regions.

The Kennys aren’t a household name, so perhaps referring to them as the parents-in-law of Bryan Herta, or Jan Kenny as the grandmother of Colton Herta might shake loose some cobwebs. Yes, that Brian Herta, whose team has won the Indy 500 with drivers Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi, and who today partners with Michael Andretti.

Our friendship with the Kennys developed over a shared passion for Corvettes. It also was a big help when I tried to book the two-seat Andretti experience, and found all the spots were taken. Thanks to the intervention of Bryan Herta, one more opening was found!

The experiences we’ve shared with the Kenny’s over the years have included an open lapping day at the Nürburgring Nordschleife where we rented a pair of Lotus Exige S 240s from Ron Simons Racing. We also took a couple of hot laps at Sydney Motorsports Park from the passenger seat of a Ferrari F430 race car driven by a young Red Bull hot shoe. It’s all the more astonishing that a chance encounter over a latte that day changed everything, and NASA HPDE was the catalyst for a friendship that continues to this day.

As for those laps with Mario, for those who have experienced Sonoma and who know the track well, there is no simple way to say wow! Just when you think he should be lifting for Turn 1, Mario is grabbing another gear and continuing to accelerate. Nothing quite prepares you for the downforce and the grip of an Indy car, and nothing quite prepares you for the carousel that leads onto the drag strip. As for the esses, well, there is a reason why they surround your helmet with additional padding. Suffice to say, it was clearly a time when one more item was crossed off my bucket list together, yet with a reluctance to admit that really nothing at all could top that ride with Mario Andretti!

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Image courtesy of Richard Buckle