December 30 2011
It promises to be one of the more unusual mornings I’ll ever have. I’m flying to Las Vegas for less than 24 hours, to drive as fast as I can on a track in the desert in a race car with 600 brake horsepower – imagine nine Fiat 500s strapped together – and a V8 engine that howls deafeningly like a banshee. I’ll be wearing a fire-retardant suit on top of my clothes; I’ll be strapped into the seat with so many harnesses I can barely look left or right; I’m told to expect temperatures in excess of 140ºF on the Tarmac. It’s safe to say my comfort zone will be well and truly pushed. Pushed, if I’m successful, to about 150 miles per hour.
I get my last few emails out of the way in Terminal 5. It’s a straight shot on BA from Heathrow to Vegas; the flight is fairly quiet, with a surprising number of families along with the predictable stag and hen weekenders.
We took off from typically uninspiring British summer weather – grey overhead, blustery rain – but we emerge blinking into a deliciously balmy Las Vegas evening, with soft pink skies. I’m staying at The Cosmopolitan, the newest big hotel on the strip.
Downstairs in the Chandelier Bar – a magnificent three-level installation – the head mixologist persuades me to try some of her favourite creations. The Fire Breathing Dragon has me chuckling as puffs of liquid nitrogen smoke shoot out of my nose. I float to my room in the blissful certainty that London, and work, couldn’t possibly be further away.
A light breakfast, and I’m en route to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, about 15 minutes out of town, in full-fledged desert. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – Nascar – is America’s Formula One, and can claim 17 of the top 20 most-attended single-day sporting events in the world. The limo drops me at the track. It’s already over 100ºF.
I sign the usual disclaimers, and then to the briefing. I’m to follow no more or less than three car lengths behind the instructor’s car at all times. Fine in a jam on Piccadilly, quite different when you’re belting along a race track at more than 100mph. There are two lights on the back of the lead car: one green, one yellow. Green means I’m too slow and yellow means I’m too close. Brakes? Best to ignore those completely. This is all pedal to the metal, and don’t stop until they make you. I meditate for a moment on the fact that the disclaimers are there for a reason.
Prep talk done, I don a race suit and head over to the pit lanes. Give or take a few minor modifications, the cars we’re driving are the same as the ones they use to race. Covered in stickers, wide and low to the ground, and built from the frame up in the Richard Petty shop on premises (he’s a legendary driver who has won the Nascar Championship a record seven times). The Chevy 350 V8 engines push out an easy 600 brake horsepower – three or four times the output of most cars. But there’s nothing sleek about them; everything has a purpose.
Because Nascar tracks are simple loops with left turns only and banked corners, the cars are built with a weight bias. Vegas Speedway is a 1.5 mile D-shape, with most of the corners on a 20º banked track that sticks the cars on the surface via a bit of gravity – so on the straight the car will actually veer right. That means the standard hand position on the wheel isn’t nine and three o’clock, but a firm 10 and four. I think it’s going to take some getting used to.
I greet the pit crew, put on my helmet and clamber in through the window. The pit boss leans in and straps me into the seat before attaching the steering wheel and fastening the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device between my helmet and the seat back. While it will keep me from breaking my neck in a crash, it also means I can barely turn my head. Webbing is fastened across the window. As I take in the no-frills cockpit, the heat hits me. By now it must already be around 120ºF on the track itself.
I flick the ignition switch and the engine snarls into life in a second. The lead car starts to move away and the pit boss motions me to follow. I wrench the gear stick into first and lurch forward after it; the clutch is stiff but I climb quickly through the gears to fourth as we leave the pit lane for the track.
The session is divided into three parts – eight laps, then 10, then 12 – each progressively faster, I’m told, as I get more comfortable with the car and the track. At first it’s completely bonkers; I can’t move my head even two inches to look either way, and the ten-four o’clock hand business feels all wrong. The first few turns are wobbly, and on the first straight the car lurches out to the right.
I’m also battling my natural urge to leave a safe braking distance, while looking out for the cones in the corners that designate throttle points – places to ease off the gas, and others where I should hammer it. The light on the instructor’s car is blinking green; I’m driving too slowly, but I already feel pushed, so I steel myself to try to catch up. Just as I feel I’m getting comfortable, it’s time to go into the pit lane for my first debrief.
“Hoooo-WEE! Ready to go fast yet, Jack?” the pit boss crows as he sticks his head in through the window. “You were drifting a little out of line there. No, don’t get out – you’re going straight back out on the track. Here, have some water. And don’t be afraid to push yourself harder; these babies are built to go.”
Right then. Deep breath, engine back on, no messing about. The second session is better; after a few laps of drop-behind, speed-ahead yo-yoing, I start to get a sense of the rhythm of the track. I drop a bit more shoe leather on the accelerator and with a taut grumble, the car leaps forward – I’m suddenly right behind the instructor: yellow. He opens the distance between us again, accelerating harder. Hands clutching, teeth gritted, actually yelling at myself not to wimp out, I push forward as well. Moments later we pull in again, 10 laps done in what feels like a minute. I’m barely listening to the pit boss. From the abject nerves of my faltering first few laps about 15 minutes ago, I’m now itching to get straight back out and find my speed groove. I don’t want to see a single green light.
Starting the engine for the last time I get a complete rush. I’ve got the bug; my foot is not going to come off the accelerator. The lead car and I hit the track in unison; the walls whoosh past as I eat up the miles. The final six or seven laps are a dream. I forget the heat, noise and discomfort; it’s just me and the car in front, a perfect moment of speed and adrenaline. We scream out of the corners, up the track and just inches from the wall before swooping back down into the next one, carrying more momentum with each turn. I’m laughing aloud with excitement as, with just a few laps to go, I realise that my shoe feels like it’s melting and my right heel is burning from the heat of the transmission. “Worry about it when you stop,” I tell myself, gunning the motor and going faster still.
All too soon, it’s over. The pit boss leans in, unclips the HANS and unfastens the wheel so I can get out. He grins and waves a piece of paper at me. “These are your lap times, Jack. Your first session wasn’t so good – you lagged a bit, 126mph – then scraped 135mph on the last lap. Just now, though? No green lights, no yellows, and your last two laps were nearly perfect – top speed of 144mph, and a 41.97-second final lap.” I can feel myself grinning, but I’m not taking it in. My head is still whizzing round the track. I clamber out unsteadily, the available bit of my brain focused on a gin and tonic.
Back on the strip, I wander over to Caesars Palace for a massage. Afterwards, I catch part of a Nascar race on the TV. They’re doing 200- and 400-lap races, literally inches from one another. It’s impressive, and I have a new respect for the sport.
My reward is a 17-course lunch tasting menu by José Andrés – the man who’s credited with bringing the tapas concept to the US – prepared in a private dining room of Jaleo, his restaurant at my hotel. It’s epic, from the sea-urchin brioche to the miniature spiced-wine “balls” that burst in your mouth. Hours later, it’s up to pack, then catch the late-evening redeye back to London.
Heading back into town, I’m stiff, and seem to have pulled my right butt cheek – probably a bit of over-clenching when heading towards the wall at top speed.
On a morning conference call, feeling distinctly fidgety, and distracted by thoughts of the in-car video of my driving I’m to receive in a couple of weeks. Probably more gurning madman than Jenson Button, but it’ll be fun to watch.