Visitors take laps and clock their times at the speedway.
Sitting on the pit road at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, cinched into a recently retired Formula One car, I've got good reason to be spiritual. This is no ordinary race car — more like a hand grenade with a steering wheel — and a significant driving error here could end in a six-figure pile of carbon fiber. I'm recumbent in the cockpit, with my butt about 2 inches off the pavement. After the technicians check my belts, they install a large foam horse collar around my helmet that locks my head in place. I can see the track; I can see the jet fighters taking off from nearby Nellis Air Force Base; but mostly I see the beer-keg-sized front tires, so soft and sticky that pebbles are embedded in them.
A technician taps me on the helmet. I squeeze the throttle slightly — a row of LED lights winks from a display on the suede-covered steering yoke — and the mechanics start pushing the car for a rolling start. When they yell "GO GO GO," I drop the clutch. And then: that sound, that awful, wonderful wail that does an ice-water crawl down your spine, that ferocious F1 howl, like a nursery of colicky leaf-blowers — wwwWHAAAAANNGGG!
I believe I speak for my fellow man when I say: Yikes.
Velocity for rent
Some come to Vegas to visit the town's fleshpots or to enrich its fleecing parlors, or simply to pass out drunk by the pool. But in a nation obsessed with cars, sex, speed, diversion and the unholy mingling of same, perhaps it's no surprise that the city of demiurges has become a major destination for people who want to get their wheel freak on.
Here you can rent a Ferrari by the hour, drive a rooster-tailing sand buggy, go roundy-round on the Las Vegas speedway in a 650-horsepower stock car, learn to ride the sickest racing motorcycle the deviants at Honda or Ducati can devise.
At the top of this particular pile of coin-operated thrills, however, is LRS Formula USA, a company that sells mere mortals the chance to wedge, and I do mean wedge, themselves into an honest-to-Odin, full-on F1 car.
"I don't have little cars," says LRS principal Pierre-Louis Moroni. "They're not toys. These are as close to a race-ready F1 car as you can drive, unless you buy one yourself."
Moroni's business partner, Laurent Rédon (a former F1 test driver), started LRS Formula Europe four years ago. When Rédon and Moroni partnered to open up a sister operation in the U.S. in 2006, Las Vegas was the natural choice. "The weather is fine most of the year," Moroni says, "and the clientele is here."
By that he means rich middle-aged guys looking to check off another item on their lifetime to-do list.
What is a Formula One car, anyway? Briefly, it's a single-seat, open-wheel car built to the specifications of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de L'Automobile) for competition in grand prix racing, universally regarded as the pinnacle of motor sports.
The cars are stupendous. Here's the key statistic: With 750 horsepower at the rear wheels and a race-day weight of 1,331 pounds (driver and fluids on board), the typical F1 car has a power-to-weight ratio of 1 horsepower per 1.77 pounds. A Nextel Cup stock car (3,400 pounds) has about the same horsepower, but it's required to move 2 1/2 times as much mass (1 horsepower per 4.53 pounds). Did somebody call a taxi?
An F1 car can accelerate from 0 to 186 mph and back to 0 in less than 12 seconds. That sound you hear is your cheeks flapping.
In short, F1 cars are amazing machines. They are also unbelievably twitchy and nervous vehicles that tax the superhuman reactions of some of the most elite athletes on Earth. In F1, even great drivers turn into car-killing weenies.
For this reason — and the fact that it costs about $300 per mile to operate them — getting in one of these machines is difficult. I've been an automotive journalist for almost 20 years and have begged my way into all sorts of race cars, but an F1 drive has eluded me. Until now.
On a brilliant Friday morning in January at the track, driving instructor John Mefford is briefing his charges about the day's schedule. After three practice sessions in smaller open-wheel cars (called F2000 cars), we'll go to lunch and then, "You can get into the big boys," Mefford says. Clients get a grand total of four laps. "You can actually say you're one of only about 3,000 people in the world to have driven an F1 car."