Bravery is a necessary ingredient for every driver who competes in the Indianapolis 500. That part’s a given. But bravery isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair; there are levels involved here, which George Mack demonstrated during his solitary appearance at Indy in 2002.
In fact, the Californian added two new tiers of fearlessness to the Speedway’s annals of courage, starting with his ascension to the Indy 500.
A quick scan of that year’s rookie field reveals a number of serious names on the entry list. Headlining the newcomers was Dario Franchitti, a five-year veteran of the CART IndyCar Series, close friend Tony Kanaan, who brought similar CART experience to his Indy Racing League debut, and Max Papis, an ex-Formula 1 driver with plenty of CART races to his credit. Among the others was Alex Barron, the eventual Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, a junior open-wheel champion who’d driven for Team Penske and All American Racers prior to his first opportunity to race at the Speedway.
By the time the quartet graduated from karting in their early teens, more than 20 years of collective learning had been amassed in Formula 3, Formula 3000, Formula Atlantic, and Indy Lights to prepare them for IndyCar, F1, and the Indy 500. And then there was Mack.
Unlike Franchitti, Kanaan, Papis, and Baron, there were no intermediate steps taken on his journey to the world’s biggest motor race. When he arrived for his first IRL test, Mack was wholly unprepared for the new discipline he’d chosen to undertake with 310 Racing: he’d never raced a car, on an oval, or with wings.
A legend within the Los Angeles karting scene, Mack went from the smallest, lowest training series — racing’s version of Pop Warner football — straight to the Super Bowl. And didn’t fail. By the end of his lone Indy 500 run, Barron was the only rookie in front of Mack’s No. 31 GForce-Chevrolet; Franchitti was two spots behind, Papis was seven in arrears, and Kanaan went out in an early crash.
Beyond hailing the fortitude involved with his karts-to-Indy performance, Mack’s ability to take part in the race, much less finish 17th out of 33 starters, was something close to a miracle. This is where his final act of bravery comes into play.
Mack spent that May afternoon rocketing through Indy’s four corners hundreds and hundreds of times, turning left repeatedly at well over 200mph, all while fighting the dizzying effects of vertigo. With his head spinning in a constant circular motion around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 33-year-old accepted a challenge that was kept secret at the time.
Battling vertigo came as the result of a hard crash and the ensuing concussion Mack received during practice for the big race. With stricter post-crash protocols in place today, there’s every reason to believe Mack’s concussion and vertigo would have been detected by IndyCar’s medical staff and led to his being officially sidelined for the remainder of the event.
But 2002 was a different time. He was discharged, and given a prescription for pills to help manage the symptoms.
“Telemetry said we we’re doing 223mph or something coming out of [Turn 2],” Mack recalls. “Lost the rear, and banged my head. So, I just saw stars. My ears are ringing right now. They still ring. But they let me out of the hospital.”
Fortunately for him, news of Mack’s crash days before the race and questions regarding his fitness and ability to take part in the Indy 500 made the local newspapers in Los Angeles.
“When my chiropractor read the paper that said I wasn’t going to drive the car at Indy, he called me,” Mack continues. “He says, ‘They’re giving you some pills called something or other.’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Don’t take those pills, don’t take those f****** pills!’ Throw them in the trash.’ Find a chiropractor out there and get adjusted every day, several times a day. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘No b*******. If you can get adjusted five times a day, do it,’ because I still had a few days left.”
As Mack began a daily routine of making multiple visits to a chiropractor, his 310 Racing team made repairs to the No. 31 car and began preparing for likelihood he would be unable to compete in the Indy 500.
“Sat down, and they were going to let Roberto Guerrero drive the car,” Mack recalls. “They’re starting to fit it for him because he’s a smaller guy. I said, ‘No. No, no, no. My deal. I’m driving it.’ [They said], ‘Yeah, but you can’t even barely …’ [I said], ‘I’m driving it.’ Took him back out of the scenario, refitted it to me again. I told them I was going to take the pills. I didn’t take any more, based on what my chiropractor told me. I was able to get adjusted once or twice a day for the next few days. That’s how I was able to drive the car. I wasn’t completely cured.”
For the average person, vertigo can turn the simplest acts of standing or walking into a significant challenge, as feelings of being light-headed and dazed can appear in an instant. Being in a seated position for 500 miles lessened some of the obstacles for Mack, but the high speeds, constant influence of gravity’s pull against his body and brain, and the narrow field of vision that vertigo made available through his helmet all conspired against his success.
“If you go back and look at some of the footage, you’ll notice my head is tilted and strapped in with a bunch of padding to keep my head turned [left],” he says. “That’s the only way I could see straight. So I ran the Indy 500 with my head cocked like this, and they had me in tight.”
Exactly how Mack survived his first Indy 500, and excelled at points along the way to placing 17th, is a mystery. Taking the start, pulling onto pit lane, and parking the No. 31 car after a few laps would have been more than acceptable in light of all he had to overcome, but Mack summoned the will and focus to persevere for three hours and 10 seconds and was rewarded for his bravery.
“And they were asking me along the way, ‘How’s your vertigo doing? How’s your head doing?’ [I’d say], ‘I’m OK.’ But I wasn’t going to tell them the absolute truth,” he admits. “Because I wasn’t going to let anybody else drive the car. I’ve got to drive the car. I was not going to let anybody else drive it.”