IRL: Morgan Freeman rehearses the ride of his life at Indy

Obie-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor Morgan Freeman rehearsed for his role as Pace Car driver for Sunday's 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 by driving media members around the 2.5 mile Speedway. The veteran movie, television and ...

IRL: Morgan Freeman rehearses the ride of his life at Indy

Obie-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor Morgan Freeman rehearsed for his role as Pace Car driver for Sunday's 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 by driving media members around the 2.5 mile Speedway.

The veteran movie, television and stage star trained for his role with a handful of high-speed laps under the direction of three-time 500 winner Johnny Rutherford. Both actors and race drivers have to know their lines. Media members who rode with Morgan reported that he tested various lines on the track, preparing for his lead role on Sunday. By the time he finished today's chores, he had more laps around the Speedway than Greg Ray had before qualifying this month.

Freeman is a long time race fan - so long that he doesn't remember how he caught the bug or what year he first saw the Indianapolis 500. He's also not sure how his turn at pacing the race came about.

"I don't even know what got me here," he said. "Last year the Speedway invited me to come and drive the pace car. As luck would have it, I was working, so I couldn't make it happen. So I thought it was a wash. Then Donna, my very lovely sister in law and publicist, called me up and said 'They want you to come and drive the pace car.' So I said 'Well tell them yes! I'll make the time this year - if they're going to be that adamant about this.

"It's hard to explain to you, if you haven't had the good fortune to have someone ask you to do what you want to do. It's so much fun - everyone is so cooperative. I don't like to brag, but I am impressed."

Getting ready to drive at high speed is different from getting ready for his usual task of acting.

"Preparing for a role is like getting into someone else's skin," he said, "and there are a lot of things that help you do that: costumes, makeup possibilities, and of course the script. Then there is you and your life experience.

"Getting into a race car, the first thing you have to do is speed up. If you're not used to driving at high speed, it's really hard make yourself get up there and think that you can hold it. Like anything else, it all becomes easier with practice. So today when they said I'd have a chance to take passengers around the track, I thought 'perfect practice.'"

Practice was preceded by a quick lesson from three-time 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.

"JR and I went around about three times with him driving," Morgan recalled. "Then we went around maybe five or six times with me driving. He said 'You've got the basics, you've got the hang of it, and we'll come back.' He didn't like the way I was leaving the track. A couple of times I was surprised that we were coming off, so I jerked the wheel, and that made him cringe."

"I'm normally a fast driver. The problem I had this morning with Johnny is that you get into a race car - and a 200 mph Corvette is a race car - you want to drive the racing line. But in the pace car, you need to stay in the middle of the track, and I had trouble doing that. So we're going to do it again tomorrow.

"I don't know how many people were lined up to take the rides, how many laps I got to do, but that was the freelanced part. That was the chance to go round and round and round."

Even though his passengers tended to say things like "Great ride," rather than critique his technique, having passengers in the car was important and helped his feel for the job. Most important were the laps. "Every lap around teaches you something. That's one lap more of experience, one lap more of feel for the can and the road. It was very important."

His instructions for race day are to pace at around 115 mph, keeping it to 100 to 110 mph in the turns. Eventually he was comfortable entering the turns at 120 mph. He thrilled some of his passengers with speeds up to 140 mph - but brought every one back safe and sound, and with a huge smile on their face.

While Morgan is a long-time fan of the 500, open-wheel racing isn't number one on his motorsports list. His garage holds a Toyota Tundra truck, a GMC Denali, and a dualie Chevrolet Silverado. And a BMW 745 "which will actually do 160 mph - ask me how I know." With that stable, his favorite racing series are NASCAR and rallying.

Why NASCAR? "It's more of a car," he explained. "Formula cars - speeds are different, handling is different - it's completely different. I have to put this in quotes, but NASCAR is a 'stock car.' It isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, but when we see it it's a stock car. It's evolved over the last 50 or 60 years into what it is now, a go-fast machine that is built around a roll cage, but it started out just a souped-up stock car."

But when it comes to drivers, he sees no difference from one kind of racing to another. "I think all race drivers are the same breed of guys - moonshine runners."

So the series doesn't matter - it's racing, and Sunday will be an experience to treasure. "My life is a series of dreams coming true," he said. "This will largely be another one. I will put it on my wall of successes. I tell my kids all the time they should be dreaming."

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