Imagine heading down U.S. 31 at full speed coming toward a four-way intersection — where the lights are green in every direction.
Now imagine going through a similar white-knuckle intersection a couple of times each minute, and you’ll start to have a feel for what it’s like to drive in a figure-8 race.
To many people, the idea of intentionally buzzing Frogger-style through traffic seems crazy. But for drivers who compete in the weekend races at the Indianapolis Speedrome, there’s no greater rush.
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“I don’t do drugs or anything like that,” said Mike Riddle Jr. of Whiteland, who claimed victory in Saturday’s late-models figure-8 race at the eastside track. “This is my drug. It’s like, when you go out there, when you come back you’re high as a kite.”
“I’ve always loved the figure-8s. That’s what I grew up on,” added Jonathan Byrd II, who is in his first full year as the track president at the Speedrome. “It’s some of the most exciting racing out there.”
Very few tracks worldwide still host figure-8 racing — the number may be as low as two dozen — and the Speedrome long has been considered its mecca, serving as the home of the three-hour world championship race every year since 1977.
Local veteran drivers such as Riddle and Casey White of Greenwood got hooked on the races as young children. Riddle’s father, Mike Sr., was running the figure-8 back in the 1970s, and White started coming to the track in the early 1980s when his father was helping out Charlie Reed, a Whiteland driver who is being inducted into the Speedrome’s Hall of Fame later this month.
Like Riddle, White competes in traditional oval races as well as the figure-8s, and he prefers the latter.
“It’s more of an adrenaline rush,” White said, “and my opinion is that it takes more of a driver to be able to run the figure-8s than just the ovals.”
For all of the near-misses, those who drive the figure-8s have proven pretty adept at avoiding disaster on the crossover. No one has died in a figure-8 crash at the Speedrome since 1960, and the two accidents that caused restarts during a recent feature race both came on the turns, not in the middle of the track.
Safely navigating the crossover, the drivers say, starts with learning to anticipate.
“You’ve got to look farther up the oval,” explained White, who also won a 50-lap figure-8 race April 15. “Usually, whenever I’m going through the center of the turn, I’m kind of looking across the track to see where the other cars are, which driver it is.”
“You miss the wrecks in the crossover in the turns,” Riddle agreed. “That’s where you miss them at. You wait until you get to the crossover, you’re too late.”
Generally speaking, the drivers have enough understanding of the situation and respect for one another to avoid causing unnecessary collisions. The cars who aren’t in contention for the lead will generally cede the right of way to the leaders at the crossover; some will even stop completely.
Any miscalculations, though, still can lead to trouble. With cars crossing at top speeds of 70 or 80 mph, the margin for error is minimal. Both Riddle and White say they’ve had their share of accidents over the years.
“Nine times out of 10, we can shoot out in front of another driver and they’re going to give us the room we need. But when you go through with a bunch of cars, there’s always that chance that they’ll be racing side-by-side and one might not see you — and you might get whacked.”
The odds of getting through the crossover unscathed also depend on how crowded the track is and the length of the race. Last weekend, 18 cars took the green flag for the 50-lap feature. Come September, when the Speedrome hosts the world championship race, expect twice that many.
That might increase the likelihood of wreckage, but it’s not going to deter the likes of Riddle, who not only still looks forward to running the figure-8 every week but is also grooming his son Tristan, a Whiteland sophomore who turned 16 on Tuesday, to join him before long.
Tristan Riddle is racing in the Thundercars division this year, but a late-model car already is being worked on for his future use.
Likewise, the next generation of Whites is already on the track. Casey’s son, 16-year-old Quentin, is racing in the stocks division this year and already has won a figure-8 race.
For Mike Riddle Jr., Saturday’s victory was his first late model triumph at the Speedrome since coming to the track in 2012 after several successful years racing in Anderson — further amplifying the buzz he already gets from running the figure-8.
“This is like NASCAR of figure-8 racing right here; there is no higher,” Riddle said of the late-models feature at the Speedrome. “So if you win in this class, this is the best figure-8s there is.”
Upcoming Figure 8 races at the Indianapolis Speedrome:
Saturday;Late models (50 laps)
July 22;Late models 37th Annual Sonny Thompson Memorial (100 laps)
July 29;Late models (50 laps)
Aug. 5;Late models (50 laps)
Aug. 11;Late models (50 laps)
Aug. 12;Late models (50 laps)
Aug. 19;Late models (50 laps)
Aug. 26;Late models Season Championship (1 hour)
Sept. 8;Front-Wheel Drive Figure-8 Clash (length TBA), World Championship qualifying
Sept. 9;$20,000-to-Win World Championship (3 hours)