Ron Capps and Mario Andretti

LONG BEACH, California – Going from 0 to 300-plus mph is the norm for Ron Capps, but speeding at 180 mph just inches from the concrete wall as Mario Andretti’s passenger gave the drag racer an experience he’ll never forget.

The 2016 NHRA Funny Car champion and native Californian is a longtime fan of the Verizon IndyCar Series, but was never able to make it to the historic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach until this weekend. As part of his experience as a guest of Alexander Rossi – with whom he shares NAPA Auto Parts sponsorship – Capps was the passenger this morning for an INDYCAR Experience two-seater ride with legendary Andretti at the wheel.

Capps was taken aback by the Indy car’s speed on the 11-turn, 1.968-temporary street circuit.

“My God!” Capps exclaimed. “You know, I get to drive a lot of cool stuff. I’ve driven Midgets at the Chili Bowl, the Prelude to the Dream dirt race with Tony Stewart for all those years, but that was a bucket list thing with Mario.

“I got to meet Mario when I drove for Don ‘The Snake’ Prudhomme for nine years and they were tight. We got to go to his house and stuff in Pennsylvania. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and this morning when I found out I was going to ride with him, it was amazing.”

Adding to the excitement for the 51-year-old Capps were the track conditions.

“The track was still wet (from overnight rain), which I was hoping they had rain tires. When I found out they did and that we were going to be (running the two-seater) on rain tires, I didn’t think it couldn’t get any better. What an experience.

“I got to go last and he went one more lap than he took most people and that last lap was pretty hairy. I mean, you could see he was searching around and trying to find the little bit of water that was still out there and I just couldn’t believe how much the car was sticking with how fast we were going in some of these corners. It was nuts!”

Capps admitted he likes to be in control, so being a passenger wasn’t something he regularly enjoys. But having the 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion and motorsports icon behind the wheel made it worth it.

“Even if we did slap the wall, it would be an honor to wreck with Mario,” said Capps. “They said he was pushing it pretty hard, but I didn’t care. Even if we did hurt the car, it would’ve been a badge of honor.”

Alexander Rossi and Ron CappsSince both hail from California, Capps and Rossi have developed a friendship that predates the Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian driver’s scintillating win in last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The shared NAPA backing has brought them closer.

“We got to go to the F1 race two years ago (in Austin, Texas), I took my family and it was my first Formula One race,” said Capps. “One of our sponsors had a box right over the start/finish line, but prior to that I tweeted (Rossi) when he was in Formula One, knowing that he was a California kid. He outran his teammate, who was the full-time driver, that race. It was run in the rain and just a great race.

“We both grew up from California and that was neat, so to be cheering him on and telling my kids about this California kid that was in Formula One, which is a very big deal, it was neat to just watch him the whole weekend.”

Capps was delighted to see Rossi win last year’s Indy 500, but his connection to Indy car racing goes much farther back.

“I was always a Mario fan and I was a huge fan of Paul Tracy,” said Capps. “I love when Paul came into the series because he was so brash and didn’t really care about what other people thought. So I was a big fan of his and then when I got to know (Jimmy) Vasser and (Bryan) Herta, I cheered for those guys, too.

“When … Bryan last year was on the pit box for Rossi, it was a double-cool thing for me to see. My NAPA teammate and then Bryan Herta calling the shots on the car – he’s always been one of those nice guys who has always been the same.”

Rossi also presented Capps today with a commemorative milk bottle for the upcoming 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Capps will watch today’s Verizon P1 Award qualifying from Rossi’s pit and return for Sunday’s race. Qualifying for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach gets underway at 6:30 p.m. ET, with a live video stream on A qualifying telecast also airs at 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN. The 85-lap race airs live at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.