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RICHARD PETTY DRIVING EXPERIENCE

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway

7000 N. Las Vegas Blvd

Las Vegas, NV 89030

800-BE-PETTY

website

$99-$3500

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Motor Sports

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AT A GLANCE

What is it?

A full-blown racing experience that puts you behind the wheel of a 600-hp NASCAR style race car complete with training, a pace car, photos, and more. They also have ride-along experiences if you're too chicken to get behind the wheel yourself.

Where is it?

At the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, about 15 miles north of The Strip. You'll need a car or cab to get there, or you can pay extra and get a ride from your hotel to the race track (no, not in a race car, sorry).

Is it worth the cost?

It is expensive, to be sure, but there are very few thrills like this in the world so I say yes, absolutely!

Why should I go here?

Because you want to be just like Jeff Gordon when you grow up.

What else do I need to know?

Getting in and out of the cars is not the easiest thing in the world and once inside, it is cramped and uncomfortable. People with claustrophbia issues may want to sit on the sidelines and watch. Also, sorry... no automatics. You have to know how to drive a stick shift.

What's the bottom line?

Gentlemen (and ladies), start your engines!!

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FULL REVIEW

There's no truly accurate way to describe 140 miles per hour. It's really fast, sure. Exhilarating, absolutely. Scary as all get-out, yes siree. But how do you really explain that kind of blurring, headlong rush toward a concrete wall with not much more than your decisions and a five-point harness between you and oblivion?

Okay, maybe that's overly dramatic but now that I've completed the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway I don't want to hear about your roller coasters and bungee jumps anymore. This is the ultimate thrill-seeker experience that people of all sanity levels can get a kick out of.

The Richard Petty Driving Experience currently operates at more than 20 tracks nationwide, allowing normal folks like us the chance to slip behind the wheel of a 600-horsepower NASCAR style stock car and take it for a little jaunt. The company was founded in 1994 by Petty, driver of the legendary #43 in the NASCAR circuit with 200 career wins under his big belt buckle.

Although the programs and prices vary at each track, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway edition offers experiences ranging from a simple "Ride Along," where you get to sit in the passenger seat of a professionally piloted car at about 165 miles per hour, all the way up to an Advanced Racing Experience that allows you to drive 40 laps of competition-style NASCAR combat.

I showed up bright and way too early on a Saturday morning for their most popular program, "The Rookie Experience," which provides you with instruction and eight laps around the track. Note that they have a free shuttle service that picks up from several major Strip hotels - ask for details.

After signing and initialing a bunch of forms that essentially warned me of my impending doom a sharp-eyed RPDE employee sized me up for a racing suit, which is worn over whatever clothes you are in (moral of the story: dress accordingly.)

Each experience is done with a group of other drivers that range in size and makeup. We recommend you visit during the week if you can swing it because most of the weekend dates sell out quickly and can be crowded if you get in.

Because it was painfully early on a Saturday morning in Vegas, my group only had 9 people in it of all different types: there were a couple of good 'ole boys, some "pushing middle-aged" guys that you just know wear suits during the week, some curious and quiet types like me, and a woman. That's right race fans the RPDE (and NASCAR in general) isn't just for men anymore.

Our group had a wide variety of skill levels as well. There were a couple of weekend drag racers and a guy who had done some amateur competition but most of the people were like me, with my only racing experience coming from frequent trips on Interstate 15 from LA to Vegas.

An affable crew of instructors started the program by showing us a brief video about what to expect, reassuring us the entire way that the RPDE was built for fun but with a great deal of safety in mind. In other words, "you're not going to be crashing our expensive cars into any walls while we're on duty." And we believed them.

They divided our already small group into two smaller groups that would be "competing" against one another in the timed laps. Each group was assigned to an instructor who led us out to the track where the cars awaited.

Our instructor, an easy-going yet confidence-inspiring sort, walked us through the basics of the cars, which with the exception of some additional safety equipment are virtually identical to those driven by the pros. We got lessons on how to climb in and out through the window (there are no doors) without making a fool of yourself, how not to get impaled on the steering wheel stalk, the manual shift patterns (sorry, no automatics here), the emergency fire system and engine kill switches, and a host of other minor details.

Next we were loaded into vans for a cruise around the racetrack itself. The mile-and-a-half oval at LVMS is marked with a series of white "dots" that indicate the path you are supposed to follow. Although each driver would get a car all to him or herself, the instructors would be in front of us in another car the entire way. This allows them to set the pace and keep you going in the general direction that you're supposed to be going.

Back in the drivers' area at pit row they covered the flags that might get waved at us as we were barreling along the oval and then they pumped up the volume on the trackside tunes because it was time to race.

After getting fitted with a safety harness and helmet I patiently waited my turn and then somehow managed to cram my ample behind through the window and behind the wheel of the yellow and black #97 car, a replica of the one driven by champion racer Kurt Busch.

It's pretty stark and very tight inside there. A few simple gauges line the dash (although I can pretty much guarantee that you'll never look at them) and then the rest is the shifter, the steering wheel, and lots of foam encased roll cage type stuff. If you're at all claustrophobic this might not be the best idea for you since there is basically no room to move, especially with all of the safety equipment holding you firmly in place.

The instructor's car got in front of me and I was signaled to go, stepping on the accelerator and easing off the clutch. A bit of clarification... although the thing vaguely resembles a Ford Taurus, it isn't one... a fact that will become readily apparent as you are pinned back against the driver's seat from the power of that 600-hp engine.

The next few minutes are pretty much a blur to me - both literally and figuratively. Although the cars are being monitored by a computer at pit row, there is no speedometer inside so I couldn't tell how fast I was going while I was in there. Not that I would've had the presence of mind to actually look at the speedometer. My though process was pretty much this: "Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!" Or something more manly.

They encourage you to get within four car lengths of your pacing instructor's car, which at about 140mph brings a whole new meaning to the term tailgating. On my first two laps, the flagman waved me to get closer to my instructor, something my brain refused to allow me to do out of abject terror. It also refused to allow me to get as close to the wall along the backstretch as my instructor was getting.

By the third lap I had started relaxing a little bit, getting the feel for the car and learning that even though it seems like an uncivilized brute of a machine, it is really, really good at doing what it was built to do. Once you start trusting the car - something the instructors hammer into you repeatedly - then you can let go and really have fun.

I got faster on each of my laps, ending with a high of almost 140 miles per hour, about the limits of what they will allow us amateurs to do. It was all over way too quickly and as I rumbled into pit row I had a moment picturing myself blasting through pit row and back out for a few more laps but I figured they would probably frown on that.

A final ceremony presented us with a certificate, a printout of our lap times, and the opportunity to purchase some posterity photographs that they snap of everyone. The whole thing took a little more than two hours but seemed to fly by much too quickly.

I can't say enough positive things about this experience, from the instruction to the staff to the actual driving and everything else in between, this is one of the most unique and enjoyable entertainment destinations in town.

For a complete list of the programs offered at the LVMS (and their other tracks around the country), plus a listing of available dates and prices, visit the RPDE website or call them at 1-800-BEPETTY.

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