Race car driver Cory Witherill was the guest speaker at the Palisades Optimist Club’s morning meeting last Tuesday in the Oak Room at Mort’s Deli. Witherill, a 1990 graduate of Palisades High, talked about what it’s like to drive over 200 miles per hour and what it meant to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 2001. Witherill, a Navajo, became the first full-blooded Native American to qualify for and complete racing’s most prestigious and grueling event, finished 19th out of 33 drivers three years ago. ‘I think I shocked a lot of people by making it,’ recalled Witherill, who bumped Shigecki Itori out of the race and qualified two spots ahead of Al Unser. ‘It was my dream ever since I was a youngster at Canyon Elementary and Paul Revere [Middle School]. Only 600 people have ever had a chance to experience the Indy 500 so it was a big accomplishment.’ Witherill confessed a childhood injury altered his career path. ‘I started racing dirt bikes when I was at PaliHi. I traveled all over California in a motor home to different tracks. But then I broke my arm doing that and my mom wanted me to stop. So I switched to racing cars instead.’ The Rustic Canyon resident described his Indy 500 experience as both ‘exhilarating’ and ‘exhausting.’ ‘I was running 10th to 12th most of the way but I ran over some debris and spinning out in Turn 4. I literally closed my eyes and said ‘This is going to hurt!’ I thought I was going to crash into the wall, but instead I was able to ride out the spin and get back into the pit lane. I got back into the race 10 laps down, in 26th position, but I made up seven places by the checkered flag. Normally, I don’t get tired during a race but Indy was harder than I expected.’ Witherill’s crew consisted of 24 people’from engineers to mechanics to computer data personnel and the pit crew. The Indy 500 is run on a two-and-a-half mile long oval and through the course of the race a typical car needs nine sets of tires and burns 250 gallons of fuel. The difference between winning and losing is sometimes only hundredths of seconds. ‘In a race like that it’s important to get everything you can out of your car,’ Witherill said. ‘During qualifying, we adjusted a tire four thousandths of an inch and over the course of the race that added one mile per hour to my speed, which is huge.’ Now 32 years old and a newlywed (Witherill married Motor Week TV co-host Jennifer Khasnabis last September), Witherill’s next goal is to become the first Native American to qualify for and race the Daytona 500’the crowning jewel of the NASCAR circuit. ‘They allow 43 cars at Daytona and the qualifying system is a little different,’ Witherill said. ‘But I’m hoping to run that race in 2007. I think that’s a realistic timetable.’
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