While on assignment in Las Vegas, I spent a few hours at Dream Racing, about 40 minutes from the strip. For $500, I was able to rent a Ferrari F430 GT, and take five laps around the track.
Dream Racing, led by former Formula One driver Enrico Bertaggia, has other options (Porsches, McLarens and BMWs), but two things steered me to the Ferarri:
1) The other cars are street legal.
2) I'm Italian.
The 430 GT is powered by a V8 engine pumping out nearly 512 horsepower. It has more vents than I can count and weighs much less than the commercially available version.
The modifications make it faster than any Ferrari you can buy at the dealership. The engine is optimized for air intake and the streamlined body is so aerodynamic it seems not even dust could cling to it. A piece of carbon fiber on the rear exterior called a rear diffuser changes the airflow, creating a suction-like effect that pushes the chassis down to the ground at high speeds. Another piece in front called the "splitter" also helps glue the car to the track.
After a quick espresso with Bertaggia, I make a beeline for the track. Not so fast. My producer nearly tackles me. "Where do you think you're going?"
Not to the racetrack, it turns out, but to a dark room where I watch a training video and learn about the so-called racing line — the fastest route into a corner a driver can take without spinning out.
To maintain maximum speed, the driver generally needs to use as much of the track as possible going into the turn, cut close to the sharpest part of the inside bend called the apex and come out of the turn wide again. Enter or exit the corner too wide or too tight and the car bleeds speed.
About 15 minutes later, I'm inside the tiny cage of the race car simulator, trying to put the lesson to work. I quickly fly off the virtual track. The simulator starts shaking to reflect the cyber "gravel" under me.
I feel a little twinge in my stomach and think, "These guys aren't going to let me in their cars!"
My instructor pulls me aside to calm my fears. The exercise, he says, is somewhat academic. It's nearly impossible to steer without depth perception. Dream Racing uses the machine as a tool to tame male clients who arrive with far too much testosterone in their veins.
Finally, all the formalities are behind me. Nothing stands between me and the possibility of going 200 miles an hour in the Ferrari.
I put on a flame retardant suit over my street clothes, racing shoes, and a balaclava, which is basically a headsock to prevent burns -- although my instructor assures me I'm wearing enough hairspray to light me up like a torch.
I jam on a heavy helmet and then the crew straps me into the driver's seat, which sits inside a metal cage. To reduce the car's weight, every possible luxury has been stripped out of it. That includes the air conditioning.
Out in the desert the temperature is nearly 100 degrees, but inside the car with all of my protective gear, it feels like I'm roasting in a furnace.
On the first straightaway, I wring everything I can from the accelerator with the tips of my toes while upshifting. The car responds instantly. The surge forces my body against the firm seatback. Within seconds, I hear my instructor's calm voice in the helmet earpiece: "full brake."
"Whaddaya mean full brake?" I nearly shout at him but I'm not risking a spin out. I jam down the brake pedal and the car goes from 120 miles an hour to 40 in seconds, forcing my body against the straps of my seat harness. I finished my first turn and I'm still on the track -- victory!
Sweat stings my eyes but I'll take it. The car is so light, it feels like there's nothing between me and the 512 horsepower engine.
Was it worth the $500? Not if you're expecting to learn how to race cars competitively. That kind of training will cost you thousands of dollars.
But I'm not sure most of Dream Racing's customers are interested in competitive techniques. I saw a lot of guys opt for the cushy, air conditioned streetcars.
Even still, for me, blowing $500 at Dream Racing was certainly better than blowing it at the tables.