AVONDALE, Ariz. – Entering his 17th season of Indy car competition, four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has had ample opportunity to instruct the less experienced in the art of driving an open-wheel machine. Just maybe not one as famous as Jay Leno.
The comedian and former “Tonight Show” host was at Phoenix Raceway today, driving an Indy car under the watchful eyes of Dixon for an upcoming segment of “Jay Leno’s Garage” on CNBC. The episode slated for July airing will also include a segment taped two weeks ago when Leno went on a ride-along with Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner Sam Schmidt in the Arrow semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM) Corvette that the quadriplegic Schmidt drives using breath, voice and head movements.
Following instructions this morning from Dixon in the Chip Ganassi Racing pit, Leno turned laps on the Phoenix 1.022-mile oval in one of the INDYCAR Experience single-seaters – at speeds less than half the 190 mph or so that Dixon averages in his No. 9 Honda.
Nevertheless, Leno – the self-described car fanatic – was thrilled with the experience.
“Really fun,” Leno said. “I’ve driven cars with more power but not that much grip. The level of grip in these is unbelievable. Doing road cars on an oval or something, you feel it start to slip, and this doesn’t move at all. It’s just planted. That’s the biggest difference, I think.”
Leno’s connection to Indy car racing is extended. He was the honorary pace car driver for the 1999 Indianapolis 500. He was treated to an Indy car two-seater ride two years ago at Auto Club Speedway with legend Mario Andretti at the wheel.
“It’s more fun when you’re driving, actually,” Leno said when asked to compare the two-seater experience with today, “but then it’s Mario, so that’s a whole cool thing, too.”
Dixon enjoyed the experience of working with the iconic television star just as much.
“It’s great to see his passion for racing and how knowledgeable he was on the whole INDYCAR field and drivers and different eras,” Dixon said. “But it was also nice just to chat about different cars, about the new Ford GT and different things.
“He did a really good job (driving) and he’s not scared. He’s really laid back, relaxed. I think for a lot of people this would be a daunting experience, but he definitely took it in stride and really seemed to enjoy it.”
Leno’s passion for anything automotive stems from his days as a youth in rural Massachusetts, when he and friends would fix old cars and drive them in fields. The object of “Jay Leno’s Garage,” he said, is to “get more experiences like this to try and get everything that encompasses the whole automotive world for the show. This is great fun, I think it will be fun for the viewers and I think people that don’t know about INDYCAR will learn a little something about it. That’s what we want to try and do, promote the sport as much as we can.”
Leno also lit up when recalling the ride with Schmidt in the Arrow Corvette Z06 at Spring Mountain near Las Vegas.
“He was incredible,” Leno said of Schmidt. “He took me out in his Corvette where he drives by blowing into the tube. Man, that was wild! It was a lot of fun and he was really fast. Always a racer.”
Schmidt, who said he’s visited Leno’s personal exotic car collection in Los Angeles, stopped by this morning’s shoot to say hello.
“He’s a car guy, so the interviews are so easy and he’s so easy to talk to,” Schmidt said. “I was very excited to do it. I’ve been to his garage a couple times and it’s just phenomenal. He has a pure passion for cars, a pure passion for the sport.
“The Corvette and the technology there, he was really inspired by what that has the possibility to do for people with disabilities and that translational stuff. That’s what drove that. But here (in INDYCAR), he obviously has a very large following of car enthusiasts and across a wide range of ages, so the more of that kind of exposure we can get, the better.”