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Thrill Ride at the Indy 500

It’s just before 8:30 AM on the hazy morning before race day and the long, low grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sit empty. Just as the sun starts to warm this legendary ribbon of asphalt, tens of thousands of race fans are groggily greeting the day in the nearby camping lots, assessing the damage from last night’s Bud-fueled, bottle-rocket bedecked bacchanal.

It may be early, but inside on the vacant 2.5 mile oval, Josh Duhamel is the opposite of groggy. The chiseled Transformers star has a mischievous grin as he clinches the wheel of a 2010 Chevy Camaro and takes a few last practice laps. Tomorrow he’ll kick off the 93rd running of the Indy 500 as the official pace car driver. Dude is fired up. I’m sitting shotgun.

Before: Cool, calm, and concentrated on the road

After: Let's break speed limits!

Duhamel’s job tomorrow is largely ceremonial—he’ll chaperone the field of 33 cars through two parade laps and a quicker pace lap before retiring to pit lane. Three-time Indy champ Johnny Rutherford will take over pace car duties during the caution laps. But still, with 250,000 pairs of eyes watching trackside and millions more viewing on TV, this is not something you want to screw up.

“Yesterday I nearly stalled the car in front of (two-time Indy 500 winner) Arie Luyendyk. That’s pretty much the last thing you want to do,” he says as we glide through the first turn nearing 85 MPH.

I’m shocked how narrow the track looks through the windshield. It’s just 50 feet across, and I find it difficult to imagine that tomorrow, the race field will average over 220 MPH In traffic.

Rutherford has been coaching Duhamel to regulate his speed and stay in the center of the track before drifting the car inward in the third turn and opening up the throttle coming out of the fourth.

“I have a 1969 Camaro at home. No way I would trust it to do this,” the actor says as we pick up speed on the far straightaway.

No souping-up was needed to prep the 426 HP, 6.0-liter V-8 Camaro SS for its pace car duties; beside its special gray and red paint job and the strobe lights up top, it’s the same stock six-speed manual Camaro SS/RS just hitting dealers. I’ve driven this muscle car—fast—on the open road, but something about its retro-spaceship styling feels especially right as it quietly howls through Indy’s smooth, slightly banked corners.

“Isn’t this a fuckin’ ride?” says Duhamel, hollering as we come out of turn four at 130 MPH. The G-Forces suck me to my seat. “It’s a rush every time,” he says.

We slow to a stop midway through the homestretch. The 6’3” actor jumps out of the car and ducks under a boom camera that’s being used in a practice run of the televised driver’s introductions. Duhamel finds an Indianapolis Motor Speedway rep standing by and approaches him.

“Hey, you got anybody lined up for next year?” he asks.