The big man sits in the tiny car, his 6'3", 200-pound frame folded enough that he could almost gnaw on his knees. Amani Toomer wants to race. That's why he's here today at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., tucked a bit too tightly into a five-foot-long shifter kart. Ever since he went to his first F1 race in Montreal last year, Toomer's had the driving bug. "You have no idea," says the Giants wideout, grinning like a 5-year-old.
"There, live, PAP! PAP! PAP! The engines going through their gears. You can feel it in your chest."
On this chilly morning, when Toomer will find out if he has the heart to take the wheel, he's cool, if not overconfident. "I'm a good driver with a limited knowledge of performance driving," he says. "And I've been practicing on Gran Turismo 4."
But Toomer is no fool. He knows that videogame reps won't help him go from snagging passes in traffic to passing stragglers in traffic. So he's accepted The Mag's offer to learn from the best driver's ed teacher at ESPN's Russell Racing Schools …then get schooled in a friendly headto-head with a slightly more seasoned pro.
The tiny woman in the big car is Danica Patrick, the 5'2", 100-pound raven-haired Indy Racing League rookie. For two days, she's been testing her regular ride, the No.16 Rahal Letterman car, at Infineon's road course. The 23-year-old has been track-happy since she started racing shifter karts at age 10 in her home state of Wisconsin.
Unlike an Indy ride, a shifter kart doesn't boast 650 horsepower or top out at 230 mph. But the 42-hp sled isn't—pardon the pun—a day at the races. "Nothing's more physical than shifter karts," says Patrick's boss, 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal. "A few laps beats you to death."
Is Toomer worried? Not especially. You don't become the Giants' all-time receiving-yards leader without good timing, quick reflexes and heaps of fearlessness. But karts don't just knock you around, they knock you around really quickly, as Buddy Rice, Patrick's teammate and last year's Indy 500 winner, tells Toomer. "In those shifter karts, you feel like you're going 200 mph," says Rice, in Sonoma to test his No.15 Rahal Letterman Honda. "You'll feel out of your element." Toomer can relate. "When I first got into the NFL, it was so fast," he says. "Totally different game. I remember thinking, I have never played football before."
TOOMER'S DAY at the track starts at 7 a.m. in a classroom trailer next to the kart course. Patrick joins him to listen as Russell's chief instructor, Mark Wolocatiuk, covers the basics. The kart has six gears and tops out at around 90 mph. There's no suspension, and with seats just one inch off the ground, the ride feels like … well, you're just one inch off the ground. "Driving a shifter kart is as close to the Indy Car experience as an average person will get," Wolocatiuk says.
Pointing to a diagram of the track on the wall, Wolocatiuk outlines a strategy for the 3/4-mile course. Brake hard into this turn. At this straightaway, be in fifth gear. Whatever you do, don't look right in front of you—look down the track. Toomer absorbs the info as if preparing for the Eagles' secondary. Nods. Shakes his head. Asks questions. What do you mean by understeer? Downshift when? I accelerate right out of the turn?
Surprisingly, Patrick also pays close attention. It's been seven years since she's climbed into a kart, and she asks questions in her clipped, concise manner. Can't you just crack off the throttle for shifting? When downshifting, do I have to blip the gas? Why are we in shifter karts? They're so hard.
Toomer laughs nervously. If Patrick thinks karts are hard, he might be in for a rough trip. Toomer peppers his racing mate with questions. The crucial one: what separates a speed demon from a speed bump? Concentration, she tells him, plus bravado, reflexes, instinct, preparation, coordination, intuition and perseverance. But mostly, feel. When you're feeling it, 220 mph seems effortless, like you're watching the race instead of driving in it. Toomer understands feel, at least in football.
"When you're in a groove," he says, "it's like no one's around and you're just pitching and catching. You don't get tired. You feel indestructible."
By 9 a.m., the two drivers are ready. No more questions. No more strategy. Toomer and Patrick grab their helmets and gloves and step outside. "It'll be a bit nerve-racking," Toomer says with a playful smile. "My only problem will probably be to push it harder than my skill level."
The big man takes off. Everything's perfect: dazzling sunshine, San Francisco Bay in the distance, an empty race track. Even the big man's father, Donald (a big man himself), has driven from Berkeley to watch. And as Toomer steers into Turn 1, he's finally driving a race car. Slowly. Very slowly.
"He's driving conservatively," says Wolocatiuk diplomatically. "He's respecting the potential."
Sure. "I'm going home to tell my wife that when he was driving, I was jogging next to the car," says Donald, howling with laughter. "It's not gonna hurt his ego, is it? I bet in his mind he's going 80."
He just might be, because inside the kart the wind blows, the landscape flies past and Toomer absorbs every tiny bump on the winding track. Turns seem like the banked monsters at Daytona, the throttle feels as powerful as Patrick's 16 car. Toomer can imagine he's Mario Andretti.
Then Patrick gets rolling. After granting Toomer a few warm-up laps, she tears onto the asphalt. Patrick floors it into every straightaway, slams the brakes into every curve, downshifts, upshifts. Her engine is maxed, wailing like a cat in a blender. She passes him. He slows. She passes him again, he spins out. She passes him again, he stalls.
Ten minutes later, Wolocatiuk waves the checkered flag and the two pros pull into pit lane. Toomer slides off his helmet, looking as if he's just been blindsided by a strong safety. Patrick laughs, shakes out her hair and slips on her shades.
What she doesn't do is give him a hard time. "Everyone's got to start somewhere," Patrick says, aware that she'll have her own hands full with her first Indy 500. "All I can say is, if I were doing his job, I'd want one of those ancient suits of armor."
The big man nods and eyes the track. "It's so much harder than it looks," he says. "I mean, it felt like I had never even driven before."
With that, the big man puts his helmet on, squeezes into the car and steers back onto the asphalt, knowing that all great racers are athletes, but all great athletes are not necessarily racers.