Miles Of Smiles Half A World Away

by Allan Brewer

Half a million people watched a man drive a car today.

They did this on a weekday, in the middle of the day, during work for most of them.

They tuned in from all over, from Turkey, from Russia, from California, from Greece . . . on computers, and phones and tablets because network TV wasn’t even around to put this trip on the air.

They watched one 35 year-old man drive not particularly fast, and he didn’t set a record for speed . . . not even close . . . or break a mark for distance either. It wasn’t a big race or a novel technological feat like putting a man on the moon. In all truth, it was just a regular kind of car for what it was doing, which was really nothing special at all.

But for the motorsports world, what happened today was an earthquake, a tsunami and a twister balled up in one; because the man doing the driving was Fernando Alonso.

Twice World Driving Champion Alonso took his rookie driving test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today and methodically, effortlessly and confidently put the glorious orange McLaren –liveried car he will attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 through its paces without a hitch.

When he climbed out of the car after his first, short, stint in the cockpit he was all smiles. “It’s good, it’s good,” he said to pit lane reporter Robin Miller on the IndyCar video stream. “It’s very good.”

For the record, let it be known that Fernando Alonso was cruising along at 220 mph at the climax of the private test session near 1:30 PM Eastern after being progressively brought up to speed from approximately 205 mph on his initial mid-morning circuit of the 2.5 mile oval.

Alonso admitted later that the whole Indy experience—the oval, the left-handed repetition, the foot-flat-to-the-floorboard technique—was somewhat “weird.”

“Yeah,” he said, “definitely it felt new to me and it felt a little bit strange, driving anticlockwise and at those speeds.”

Fernando did not make it through the whole experience without a little coaching from Race Control. He dipped beneath the white line that borders the rumble-strips above the grass infield in each turn on one occasion and earned the reprobation to “stay above the white line” that followed.

As the day went on the Andretti Autosport Team that is fronting Alonso’s Indy effort began the process of removing wing and Alonso’s car began to swing a little wider at the exits of Turn 1 and Turn 3, never getting close enough to the concrete-backed SAFER barriers for concern but obviously responding to the wider and wider angle of approach Alonso was experimenting with to make the car go faster.

“The team has been very, very supportive and very helpful,” said Alonso. “We exchanged so much information on e-mails and things like that, that I think I was able to go into the test knowing most of the important things on the car.”

After a pause, he added in a nod to Michael Andretti’s conservative style to getting Fernando up to speed, “I’m not driving the car yet; the car is driving me around. I said, ‘I will do flat out now in Turn 1 because the car is able to do it’ but at first my foot wouldn’t stay put. After a few laps, it did stay flat. For any racing driver, it’s just pure adrenaline. It was a good day.”

Admittedly Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda career has not produced the results everyone thought it would, with his last victory in Formula 1 now two years in the rear-view mirror. However, today there was a special level of interest surrounding F1’s most popular driver who challenged and played to a draw the “Motorsports Capital of the World”—a special interest that went well beyond Gasoline Alley and even McLaren factory in Woking, U.K.

As he summed up his first day at Indy, Fernando Alonso reflected with a pleased look, “I think I put a smile on everyone’s face at the team.”

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