The Ride of My Life – Mai La Thai
August 2, 2018
The Ride of My Life: With Mario Andretti and Jim Clash
When I got my driver’s license in the early 1990s, my parents gave me their old
Nissan Stanza. It felt empowering to own a car. It also meant taking
on more responsibilities. I was already a latchkey kid but now one
with more keys, driving myself to various activities, jobs, and
college orientations. At other times, it was chauffeuring my brother,
niece, and nephew. The ability to drive brought me a sense of liberty
and a limitless view of the road ahead. It became a part of my
strength and identity.
I journeyed through Cleveland, OH, under the sun and moon, in snowstorms,
blizzards, and rain without a hitch. Parallel parking was a piece of
cake. Road work, ramps, bridges, industrial complexes, detours,
and tunnels were points of discovery, not nuisances.
On occasion, I savored venturing through dark and winding roads and
all over Ohio navigating unfamiliar terrain to the tunes of the
Smashing Pumpkins and
the Cranberries. After senior year, the car reached its logical end
and I moved away.
Over the years, my muscle for driving waned from living in large urban
jungles like San Francisco and New York. The thought of navigating
these places created feelings of nervousness and unease. At first it
was funny, but then it became a constraint and the crux of family
matters. I felt ashamed, useless, and guilty. I was no longer that
fearless and dependable person behind the wheels of my youth.
About a year ago, Jim Clash, an adventure journalist, asked me to
shoot and cover an IndyCar 500-mile race with him in Pennsylvania.
Excited to take on my first editorial project and to work with Jim, I
accepted the assignment, no questions asked.
On the morning of the race, we met at Avis in Manhattan. I handed Jim
the keys, assuming he’d be our designated driver. After all, he’s
driven at very high speeds and lived to write about them. When we
exited Manhattan, though, he pulled into a rest stop and asked me to
take over. I was caught off guard. Evidently, his license had expired
and he didn’t feel comfortable driving outside of an enclosed
This was quite the predicament. It was suddenly up to me. I didn’t say
anything about my nerves, just took the keys and off we went.
An hour later when I pulled into the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, PA,
we immediately walked over to the IndyCar Racing Experience trailer.
It was my first time setting foot on a racetrack, let alone queuing up
for a high-speed ride! Moments later, I’m speeding around the track at
180 MPH in an open-wheel two-seater with the legendary Mario Andretti
behind the wheel. It was incredible, phenomenal, and surreal.
Other surprising events for me unfolded, including riding in a Chevy
Pace Car to start the race, and standing in driver Will Powers’
frenetic pit area during
the race. When the day ended,
I was still faced with getting us back to Manhattan in the dark.
Recently Jim and I met to catch up. I confessed that my fear of
driving that day was greater than any fear I had felt speeding around “the
tricky triangle” with Mario. “I had no idea,” Jim admitted, laughing.
I also recalled the moments of Zen during my 2nd and 3rd laps with Mario.
Facing my fears at Pocono ultimately had prepared me for the ride –
and the drive of my life. Thanks to Jim and Mario, I couldn’t have found a
You can check out Mai La Thai at mailathai.com