Vegas and I have a tumultuous past. Seventeen years ago I flew across the desert into the blinking Legoland of slot machines and all-night buffets in pursuit of a puppy-love affair. Purebred it most certainly was not. We had met in the Midwest, where he was singing four-part harmony in a quaint jewel-box musical. As luck would have it, the show transferred him to Las Vegas. With a few extra waiter shifts to pad the coffers, I arrived for what I hoped would be a romantic getaway. Like doubling down in a game of blackjack, I threw all my chips into that weekend.
We parachuted out of a tin-can airplane with instructors that reeked of stale beer. We wept through Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère. We rented mountain bikes and pummeled through Red Rock Canyon. And at the airport, after four days of nonconjugal bliss, he broke up with me at the gate. (One of the incidental blessings of increased security is that such awkward scenes now play in the back of a taxi or sequestered in the corner of a short-term parking lot.)
For the next week I listened to Cyndi Lauper’s "I’m Gonna Be Strong" and wailed like a banshee on my linoleum floor. I would never love again. I would never risk again. The scars healed eventually, though, and I put the tenor with those puppy-dog eyes to rest. But I’ve never forgotten Vegas. All these years later, a lifeline tugged me back, saying, "Shake your heart around a bit to remind yourself that it’s still beating." So, I thought, "Vegas, here I come. Show me what you’ve got!"
Life in the Fast Lane
The amount of time I’ve spent behind the wheel about equals that of that ill-fated romance. I gladly gave up my Chevy Cavalier (with a license plate that read STAR2B) for New York City’s subway system, so when I find myself ready to burn rubber at Exotics Racing, my stomach starts churning like the day I accidently drove into a gas station. (Whitney Houston was on the radio. I was distracted. What can I say?)
Emblazoned on a banner in the holding garage is a Henry Ford quote: "Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built." The airborne testosterone is thicker than gas fumes as I make my way out to the tent. Everyone has his camera out, snapping photos of Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and more. With thirty cars in rotation, Exotics Racing operates the world’s largest fleet of supercars.
To me, they look like candy. Banana yellows, cherry reds and lime greens peel their way under the tent. Participants jump in and out of driver’s seats, striking Mario Andretti poses, then craning their necks into the engines like puffins burrowing for food. I wonder what color (not make or model) car I’m going to get and if it’s an automatic. I’ve never shifted a gear in my life.
We pile into a seminar room that reveals a map of the newly built, 1.4-mile course along with a few other diagrams. The track’s eleven turns include an 11-degree bank and 1,800-foot straightaway. Designed by French racecar driver Romain Thievin and business partner David Perisset (co-founders of Exotics Racing), the track has no limit except fear. The instructor rambles on about various models, quick-shifting transmissions, and horsepower and torque. My eyes begin to glaze over. I’m back in high school math class, calculating how I can cheat my way through another midterm. Not to worry, he says: "Think Italian. If it’s behind you, it’s no longer important."
Decked out in prescription sunglasses and a helmet fit for Charlie Brown, I climb into a Porsche 991 Carrera S with my instructor, Jeff. He talks about about accelerating here or cutting hard there. I drift again, thinking my reaction time is best when witty repartee is involved, less so when I’m handling a $100,000 car. Peeling out onto the track, Jeff encourages me to be smooth on the brake pedal and accelerator. "Hard right to the apex, accelerate hard! Go full throttle! Break! Cut to the double cones! Break harder! Cut to the right! Accelerate! Harder - all the way to the end! Break hard. Harder! You gotta break harder!"
So it goes for five laps as Jeff firmly guides me through the course, urging me to put the pedal to the metal and just as quickly reel in the speed to navigate hairpin turns. Too frightened more than glance at the speedometer, I catch myself at about 120 mph. The car can reach 187 mph and accelerate from zero to 60 in just over four seconds. I’m happy to survive without destroying the transmission or burning out the tires.
On my way back to the Strip, moving at a comfortable snail’s pace with a hired driver behind the wheel, I remember Gary’s comment, "Think Italian. If it’s behind you, it’s no longer important." That sentiment is far bigger than the racetrack. My extreme Vegas adventure has only begun.
Pricing from $199 for five laps.
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