My history with race cars began in Florida when I was 13.
On the tail end of a trip to Disneyworld in Orlando, NASCAR-obsessed younger brother Peter begs mother to stop in Daytona on the way back home to New Jersey.
Nice Italian mother indulges son. Since I'm not old enough to drive myself anywhere, we all spend the day watching cars tearing around an oval ring. For endless hours. And hours. Brother in heaven. Me bored to tears.
Age 18, New Jersey
Racing down route 130 from my best friend Jessie's house in East Brunswick to my house in Hamilton. Me in my Ford Taurus, Jessie and younger brother in her VW Golf. New Jersey State Trooper (officers notorious for their bad-ass take-no-prisoners-alive attitude) clocks us doing 142 kilometres per hour in an 80 zone.
Jessie pulls up alongside me, rolls down window and says, "Cop. HIDE." Fast thinkers that we are, we pull off road into abandoned lot, drive to the back of a decrepit building, and park between abandoned trailers.
Cop follows. "Girls," he says, "did you think I wouldn't find you?" Miraculously, no speeding tickets are issued nor moving violations filed, much as they're deserved. Jessie, Peter, and I think it's all very exciting. My prosecutor father, less so.
Age 27, Rio de Janeiro
Fiance at the time takes me to see Formula 1 races outside Rio. It's a hot spring Sunday, and all I can think about is the feijoada I'd rather be eating and the waves I'd rather be body surfing in Ipanema.
Then-fiance takes six rolls of film of cars speeding by, totally enthralled. For hours. And endless hours. Me bored to tears.
Two Weeks Ago, Las Vegas
On the runway at JFK, I post an Instagram picture and mention that I'm on my way to Las Vegas for a wedding. When I land, Kurstin Christie, a publicist who I know casually, has sent me an email asking if she can connect me with her hotel client and, "totally out of the box — I also work with the Richard Petty Driving, so I can also get you behind the wheel of a NASCAR race car and on the track if you want. "
Thanks, I write back, the client isn't right for Fathom. But, um, hello, DID YOU SAY RACE CAR DRIVING? Because while I may have no interest in watching cars go speeding past me at top speeds, I absolutely do have an interest in being the one doing the speeding.
As coincidence would have it, Jessie, she of the only racing experience route 130 a few decades ago, was meeting me in Vegas for the wedding. I couldn't imagine a better partner in crime.
Done, Kurstin replied. You and Jessie are all set for tomorrow at noon. Pick-up is at the Paris casino at 10:45. Have fun.
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It's a gorgeous sunny Saturday, a perfect day for a drive. I had spent Friday night with the wedding party bragging to everyone I came into contact with about the racing except the one person who really needed to know: my brother. Coincidentally, Saturday was his birthday. How could I break it to him that I'd be spending his day in the NASCAR way?
Jessie and piled into the van for the half-hour drive from the Strip to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Several companies call this track home and let you have the driving experience you want: in a Ferrari, in a NASCAR. As we're walking into the office, we meet two guys who had done the morning class.
"How fast did you get?" someone asks, which is really the only question everyone cares about.
"143," one of them says. "It was a good run."
Preparations for the drive involve signing my initials nineteen times on an 11x14 double-sided document labeled "WARNING!" wherein I release Richard Petty from any responsibility should I, you know, perish. "I hereby personally assume all risks of any nature for any death, injury, or other damages to myself," it reads.
Pretty exciting stuff!
Jessie, a doctor with four children and more responsibility before 9am than I have in a month, raises an eyebrow and wonders about our safety and, specifically, our necks. I've suffered massive head trauma on vacation before in a moving vehicle, but she's the one who is using her brain.
She's assured that we will be fitted with sophisticated neck and head protective gear in addition to the helmet and the very sexy fire suits we've all been issued.
Safety is a major theme of the day, as is clear as soon as our instructor, Ryan from Wisconsin, begins the 10-minute class that teaches us what we'll need to know about what we'll be seeing on the track: acceleration and deceleration cones and gates, the marks on the track designed to give drivers the fastest line on the track.
"Hold the wheel with finesse at 10:00 and 3:00 because the cars tend to pull left," he says. "And hold it gently, like a pool cue. And be nervous, that's okay. Just don't be cocky. Cocky is when you get into trouble."
Of the nine of us in the class, only three are women. Several men have brought their wives who are there to watch but not drive. "I'd rather spend the $500 shopping," one of them tells me.
Speaking of numbers, let's get down to speed. The custom-made cars have a V8 engine and manual transmission made for speed, durability, and safety but essentially built solely for the purpose we'll be using them for: driving really fast around a track.
The cars are capable of going 290-305 kilometres per hour, but if we do between 185 and 200, we've had a great round, Ryan tells us. "Anything above 125 is just awesome."
We're then shown a video starring the actual Richard Petty, former NASCAR champion, who's wearing a giant black cowboy hat and explaining that he started his company in 1992 because he wanted to share how it felt to be in a stock car.
Even in the classroom, I can't stop jumping up and down because I'm so excited. We head out to the track and are fitted with helmets. We take our turns on the track, getting into cars according to our size. I'm called before Jessie into car 43.
I take this as an amazing omen, since 43 is my lucky number and is the age Peter is turning today. There's no door (something apparently everyone knew except me), so I jump in, Dukes of Hazzard style, and shake hands with Chip, the right-seat driving coach. He's there to make sure I don't die or wreck the car. The steering wheel is placed into position and we're off.
I have eight laps around the track, but it's a giant blur. My heart is pounding; my body is on sheer adrenaline overload. I don't know how fast I'm going because there's no speedometer, but I wouldn't have noticed anyway because all I'm doing is watching the track, looking for the cones so I can accelerate and decelerate when I'm supposed to.
I never touch the brake; I control speed with the accelerator. At a certain point, I think, screw it, I'm just going for speed. I'm in an oval, but I can't tell where I am at any moment: It just feels like I'm whizzing around a giant circle.
When I'm sure I must be finished, I ask Chip how much longer. "You're halfway," he tells me. "And you're about to pass this guy coming up." Which I do, which also feels pretty bad-ass.
And then it's over. I get out of the car. I jump up and down a few dozen times, give everyone in my extensive pit crew a giant high five, thanking them for what was easily one of the best things I've ever done.
Jessie gets into car 43 after me and has a terrific run. I time her laps: about 45 seconds a spin. It felt much longer when I was behind the wheel.
We get our certificates at the end, which clock our speed. We had both hit 132. We're feeling pretty good about it. I call my brother to wish him a happy birthday. "Yeah," he says. I saw the photos on Instagram. Since when do you like NASCAR?"
I don't, I tell him, but I sure do like driving them.
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This article originally appeared on Fathom.
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