Racing fans aren’t your typical breed of diehards.
This isn’t baseball where you’re lucky to go to one stadium to watch your team play half of their games. This isn’t football where you can grab a piece of your team’s garb at any corner store. This isn’t basketball where you can piece together a pick-up game with a hoop, a ball and a couple of strangers at the YMCA.
Racing fans follow their favorite drivers to the ends of the country, from the Monster Mile in Dover, Del., to the road course of Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Race fans search specialty shops on the road and the internet to find the latest in memorabilia and apparel. And as for jumping in a car and racing for themselves, law enforcement frowns on taking your Chevy Impala to track speeds on the freeway.
Instead, race fans have to search for other ways of fulfilling their racing dreams like video games, go-karts or a fantasy-like trip to driving experiences.
That’s precisely what I did in an effort to get closer to what it’s like for a NASCAR driver to take a lap at 190 miles per hour as they will March 4-6 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Stratosphere Pole Day, Sam’s Town 300 and Kobalt Tools 400.
I don’t have much race experience so it was vital to enlist some help. Fortunately, Las Vegas is home to a few NASCAR drivers. Unfortunately, Kyle and Kurt Busch weren’t available/didn’t answer my annoying e-mails.
But, we hit the jackpot in finding Taylor Barton. The NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver is not just an up-and-coming racer, but his family happens to own Las Vegas Mini Grand Prix. Oh, and he happened to beat Kyle Busch several times at LVMS’s Bullring.
Professional race car drivers usually spend years learning the art of racing, starting from go-karts or Bandoleros before working their way up to dirt tracks and finally some form of stock cars or open-wheel cars. I attempted to streamline that process of 10-15 years down to about three or four hours.
Barton took the “Rocky” route with me, replacing the hanging, frozen carcasses of cows with the arcade version of “The Fast and Furious.” Now, I’ve never been a slouch when it comes to video games, having put the whooping on my friends in just about any game involving sports, but with Barton standing nearby in his full racing suit there was an intimidation factor.
Luckily, minus a few virtual scrape-ups with oncoming traffic, I aced the course and nosed my way into first place. But during this lesson I took a mental note of something that would prove useful later on: “The more you turn your car in the corners, the slower you’ll go,” Barton said.
The tip doesn’t mean much in a less-than-realistic video game, but it would carry more weight on my next mission: the go-kart track.
I managed to maneuver around the track well enough to lap the fresh-faced children out there, but Barton was quick to point out that I was more chaos on wheels than a race pro.
Instead of gliding through corners, hitting the exact accelerating and decelerating spots, I drifted through turns with the heated rubber tires barely keeping me from losing control. After a few tweaks of my approach, I glided through the corners as if I was on rails.
Again, I boiled down what would have been years and several championships for professional drivers to about 30 laps.
Despite creating some head-shaking moments for Barton, I managed to improve in all my progressions and grabbed the fastest lap time of the day at 46.06 seconds. I was prepared to take on the world, or at least Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Barton was quick to bring me back down to Earth.
“I wouldn’t go there,” Barton said. “You’re probably at about the Bandeleros level, where 8 and 9 year olds race.”
He did throw me a bone, though, and said I should be able to get through the Richard Petty Racing Experience without killing myself.
A few days later, I pulled up to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to drive a 600-horsepower racing machine around the 1.5-mile track. For some reason I wasn’t nervous about this endeavor.
I was paired with four other racing fans and we received fairly minimal instruction considering we had just signed up to hurl ourselves around a track at 130-plus mph. But there’s only so much you can learn in a classroom.
The roar of the engine is something that sticks with you. The sound must register somewhere between the growl of a bear and the screaming of a fighter jet hitting Mach 5. Step on the gas in these cars and you feel the vast power difference from go-karts or dad’s old Chevy Chevelle.
First things first, I needed to be sure to not look like a fool off the starting gate. The cars have four-speed manual transmissions and it’s been awhile since I’ve used a clutch. Fortunately, I managed to keep the car from stalling as I followed my instructor around the track apron.
Once we got our cars up to speed, we climbed the straightaway just in time for my first left turn, where my stomach promptly took a right as the car flew around the corner at more than 100 mph.
The exuberance of driving a race car quickly waned when I passed by skid marks that undoubtedly had sent a driver into the unforgiving wall. From then on I kept focused on my marks and maintaining proper distance between myself and the instructor’s car.
The corners came at ease as I followed my instructor with the grace of a dolphin at Sea World, remembering to minimize my turning. The size of the track began to shrink and without notice, the checkered flag waved over my head, signaling the end of my ride and likely the end of my fleeting racing career.
My fastest lap time was almost the same as the shorter go-kart track, 46.28 seconds. But the speeds of 132 mph were a different sensation than traveling at 45 mph.
Professional race car drivers live on the edge of death every second they are on the track, creating a unique perspective that can’t be duplicated. But negotiating 20-degree banks at 100-plus mph is a daunting task for the regular person and about as close as any fan will get to the real thing.
Las Vegas Cyber Speedway at Sahara
What: Las Vegas Cyber Speedway lets guests enjoy a virtual trip around Las Vegas Motor Speedway or down the Las Vegas Strip.
Cost: Starts at $10
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
What: Offers multiple racing experiences including Richard Petty Driving Experience, where you can drive in a real stock car and the Mario Andretti Racing Experience.
Cost: Starts at $109
Pole Position Raceway
What: Race go-karts at speeds up to 45 miles per hour on a state-of-the-art track.
Cost: Starts at $49.
Las Vegas Mini Gran Prix
What: Four tracks of action for every member of the family.
Cost: Starts at $6.50 per ticket.