I’ve never been a thrill-seeker. I will never run with the bulls in Pamplona or jump out of an airplane. At 72mph, I’m always the slow driver on the Interstate that everyone else is passing. So how the heck did I end up in a race car at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, doing laps at 160mph?
Truth is, I was offered a comped tour by Viator so I could write an article for their blog. I had my pick of tours. I could have chosen something more sedate, like a Red Rock Canyon Tour. But something compelled me to get outside of my comfort zone and try something I wouldn’t normally do on my own. Riding in a race car at 160mph? Yeah, that fit the bill.
When I booked the Las Vegas Richard Petty Ride Along Experience (3 laps around a track in a racecar with a professional driver), I upgraded to the “tour” option, which included hotel pickup and drop-off. I loved that they offered that, since I never rent a car in Vegas and the track is 15 miles off the Strip.
I’ll admit, I had a preconceived notion of the kinds of people who do the Richard Petty Experience. I figured it would skew heavily male and would be full of NASCAR fans. Not true. Of my tour group of seven, four of us were women. At least 3 of us were not NASCAR fans. We were there because we thought it was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Our first stop was the Richard Petty Garage. It smelled like rubber and oil, exhaust and gasoline. Two walls were lined with rows of thick tires. There were a few stock cars for us to look at. All the cars they use are 600-horsepower Chevy stock cars.
Christian, our guide (an autocross racer), explained how race cars differ from the cars we drive daily. I’m not all that interested in how cars run, so that was filler for me. But I paid close attention when he demonstrated the safe way of climbing in and out of a race car (through the window, since the doors are welded shut).
After this “appetizer,” it was on to the main course: The Superspeedway, a 1.5-mile oval track with a 20-degree incline where NASCAR races are held. It’s one of 10 tracks covering 1000 acres at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway complex. I’ve never been to a racetrack before. I had no idea how massive they could be.
We were given wrist bungee cords with USB drives on them for recording our ride. There was a special that day where you could upgrade to six laps for half-price. I thought three laps would be plenty of excitement for me, so I declined to upgrade.
As we approached the pit area, I started to understand the attraction for race fans. Along with the overpowering smell of exhaust, there’s a sense of excitement in the air. From the whining buzz of cars circling the oval, zipping in and out of sight in seconds, to the upbeat country music blaring from jumbo speakers, to the staff in red, white and blue uniforms milling about with headsets monitoring the cars and drivers, you almost feel like you’re at a real race. Except there’s no one in the stands.
We were each fitted with a zip-up, grey-and-black racing suit over our clothing (mine was very baggy), a “head sock” (to keep the helmet clean), and then the helmet. Then we settled in for a long wait while the track was cleared of debris (paper and such that had blown onto the track) and other riders did their laps.
July is probably not the best time of year to do the Richard Petty Experience. Wearing a heavy helmet and two layers of clothing in 100 degree temperatures is very hot. There were jumbo fans circulating air in the shaded area under the tent and coolers of ice water with plenty of paper cups for everyone. But it was still hot, hot, hot. In a perverse way, I sort of liked it because it was all part of the experience.
Finally, it was my turn to go. My stomach was riding the waves of nerves and excitement. Christian escorted me to the car and fitted me with a neck brace. Between the helmet and the neck brace, I was wondering how my head was going to fit through the car window.
I followed his instructions, though, and slid into the passenger seat easily. Once there, he reached in and adjusted my harness to lock me in tightly and pulled up the safety mesh over the window. I really couldn’t move much at all, except to turn my head slightly and shake my driver’s hand.
Some people might find this very claustrophobic. I actually am a little claustrophobic, but I didn’t have time to dwell on the tightness of the space. My driver, Don, a 20-year racing veteran, pulled the car out of the pit area, and we took off. It’s amazing how fast those cars pick up speed. Gravity pushed me back in my seat.
Have you ever had an experience where time goes really fast and really slow at the same time? That’s what this ride was like.
First, the world sped up. The racetrack blurred by on all sides. The car started moving to the outer lane, very close to the wall. I stopped breathing for a few seconds, wondering just how close we were supposed to get to it. I pictured us smashing into that wall and shattering into thousands of pieces strewn across the track. But Don had everything under control.
Once I realized I wasn’t going to die in a fiery ball of twisted metal, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. The track was still a blur, but I started to notice details, as if I were in a slow-motion dream: Don’s red gloved hands on the steering wheel. The mesh over the windows, flapping in the wind. The red, white and blue seats in the bleachers. Billboard advertisements scrolling past. The faded purple mountains in the distance, peeking up over the racetrack wall. The nonstop roar of the engine in my ears. The tiny grin creeping up on me.
Was I actually having. . .fun? Why yes. Yes, I was.
The three laps were over all too soon. Don began slowing the car and moving to the center of the oval to pull into the pit area. I suddenly wished I’d upgraded to six laps.
In short, it was a blast.
If you’re frugal (like me), you might question whether it’s really worth the price ($108.99 on Viator, as of this writing). I would have questioned it before doing it, too. But now? Oh my God, are you kidding? Look, many Vegas visitors don’t hesitate to spend that much on a single dinner at a nice restaurant on the Strip. And while you may or may not remember that nice meal twenty years from now, you will never forget your ride in a race car. I’ll be bragging about it for the rest of my life.
I’m still not going to go cage-diving with sharks any time soon, but I’ve got to admit, that adrenaline rush was a good reminder of what it feels like to be alive. The ride lasted less than 4 minutes, but I was so hyper-aware of everything that was happening during every second of those 4 minutes. I’m already thinking about where I can find my next adventure….
Tips for Recording Your Experience
If you’re with a buddy, put a stranger between you in line so you can get photos of each other doing the whole experience. (There’s no time otherwise.) If you’re solo, make friends with someone further back in line and ask them to take photos for you. A staff photographer will take your souvenir photo once you’re in the car, but you’ll want more pictures than that. I was lucky; a woman in my group was there with a friend, but unable to ride herself due to a back problem. She offered to take photos for me with my camera and did a great job.
The video starts recording your ride before you even climb into the car, so don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your mom to hear! Here’s the video from my ride.
Other things to know:
- The Ride Along Tour lasts three hours, from pickup to drop-off.
- There are only a few pickup points on the Strip; you’ll have to make your own way to the nearest one.
- If you have access to a car, you can drive yourself to the Speedway and purchase the Experience without the tour.
- There is also a driving experience for those who want to take a turn behind the wheel of a race car. Two of the men on my tour did both. They told me they were glad they did the ride along, too, because they just couldn’t get the car up to the same speeds as the pro drivers. It was hard for them to control the car going around the oval at those speeds.
- The photo and video of your ride are not included in the cost of the tour. I bought mine, because I really wanted mementos of the experience. Together, they cost $99. The photo is mounted on a plaque of sorts and is now hanging on a wall in my home.
- At the end of the tour, there is a stop at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway gift shop, where you can buy all sorts of racing memorabilia if you’re into that sort of thing.