Delusions of Grandeur

I used to think I could’ve been a serviceable Major League shortstop had things gone a little differently. My esteemed backyard Wiffle Ball career hinted at it … my solid Little League career confirmed it. Because the fact of the matter is: I could hit. Period. Like a locked-in, Riddlin-fueled Tony Gwynn. And even though my baseball career abruptly ended in the 9th grade, I nevertheless maintained that level of confidence. For some ungodly reason, I just figured I could hold my own against professional pitching. Nothing crazy. Nothing .320-ish. I’m talking more in the .245 neighborhood. The “serviceable” neighborhood. I wasn’t greedy or crazy about it. I was realistic. I was quietly, unjustifiably confident.

That is, until I saw Kerry Wood pitch in person … from about 18 inches behind the catcher.

[shaking head dejectedly]

It was during Spring Training in Mesa, Arizona. During Wood’s prime. With nothing separating he and I except his catcher and a flimsy chain link fence. And it took exactly ONE pitch from Wood to emphatically, completely destroy whatever misguided baseball confidence I once had.

It could’ve been an 85 mph slider he threw. Or possibly a 138 mph sinker. Not that it matters, though. Because truth be told, I couldn’t even see the flight of the ball. Seriously. But I could hear it. And with God as my witness, it sounded like one of those incoming Howitzer shells during the Normandy scenes of “Saving Private Ryan.” It was a tangible sound, if that makes sense. A howling, horrifying, three-dimensional zing that you could feel reverberating through your sinus cavity. The kind where you’d instinctively hit the deck if you ever heard it.

It did not, however, sound like a ball that was imminently hittable. Or even remotely hittable, for that matter. It hardly seemed detectable to the human eye. And that’s when it dawned on me.

I guess epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. And this particular one came with a vapor trail and the very real possibility of an impailed skull. It’s message? “There’s a reason why only 0.0000000000027% of the world’s population is physically capable of hitting this level of pitching. And you, sir, are certainly not one of them. Nor were you ever. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Stick to Wiffle Ball, fatty.”

Duly noted. Message wholeheartedly received.

And here’s the lesson I learned: unless you’ve actually seen Major League pitching up close, you have no f—ing idea. None. Less than none, actually. Just as I had. Or didn’t have, as the case may be. Because watching professional baseball on television — or even from a safe distance in the stands — doesn’t do it justice. To truly appreciate the magnitude of such reckless four-seamed savagery, you have to experience it up close. Terrifyingly up close, actually.

Thus bringing us to the crux of the matter here. Thus bringing us to Saturday — to my up close experience with the IndyCars. And to my second such realization that I’m a hyper-delusional douchebag.

Because frankly, heading into it, I just assumed I could drive an IndyCar if ever given the chance. I mean, not in a real race, obviously. Not where I could mistakenly maim every driver in my immediate vicinity. That’s silly. And wrong. No, I’m talking about being alone on the track. During qualifying, for example. At crazy-fast speeds. Because really … how hard could it be? Put the pedal down, turn left, try not to mow down pedestrians. Big f–king deal. It’s not like hitting a Major League fastball … this actually seemed plausible. Probable, even. My thought? If fancy Welshmen and petite women can thrive at this, I could at least manage. I mean, I don’t have palsy. I’m not Marty Roth. I’ve hammered the throttle on my 4Runner before. I could do this. I was certain of it.

That is, until the IndyCar folk stuck me on the track for Pole Day.

(And just so we’re clear here, I don’t mean “on the track” as in “some kick-ass lower-level seats in the Southeast Vista.” I don’t even mean “on the track” as merely “in the pits.” I mean “literally ON the goddamn track.” I mean “in the well between pit road and the front straightaway … where one is forced to sign 48 different liability waivers and pass an impromptu psychological exam before going there.”)

And in the immortal words of Mary Todd Lincoln: Holy. F—ing. Insanity.

As someone who’s never before been that close to a racetrack, I’ll just come out with it: having a car blow past your forehead at 235 mph changes things. Lots of things. Most notably, it recalibrates your God-given “This-Is-F—-ing-Nuts-O-Meter.” Simply put, that vantage point drives home an immensely concrete realization: these speeds are unimaginably, preposterously dangerous. Unfathomably dangerous, really.

And I know what you’re thinking:

Wow! So you’re saying that 700 horsepower racecars are DANGEROUS??? Brilliant. That’s some top-shelf sleuthing there, “Murder She Wrote.” And yet another example of why I come to the Pagoda: for ground-breaking and insightful investigative journalism. Bra – freakin’ – vo. You putz.

It’s a valid point. But I’m not merely saying they’re “dangerous.” I’m saying that unless you’ve stood three feet from a full-throttle IndyCar, you simply have NO idea how insanely dangerous they really are. You just don’t. You can’t. Watching it on television doesn’t do it justice. Which is exactly what I learned on Saturday, and precisely what I’ve been trying to get at here. Standing there on the track was the aforementioned “terrifyingly up close” times 12. The rare breed of “terrifyingly up close” who served time, takes Guatemalan horse steroids, and wears a cape. The f—ed up, crazy, dangerous kind.In short, it’s the kind that literally sucks the air out of your lungs as it rockets past.

I can’t over-emphasize how serious I am. That’s not a joke. And it’s not a metaphor. Physiologically speaking, a 235 mph racecar leaves a very real concussion of destruction in its wake. It leaves a very real sense of “I probably shouldn’t be standing here.” And it left me with a very real epiphany, not unlike the Kerry Wood Experience.

Except this time, I didn’t realize that I couldn’t do it. I realized that I wouldn’t do it. I would never even try. And I was kidding myself to think I ever would.