As NASCAR drivers take their warm-up lap around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Feb. 28, a shiny Shelby GT350 will lead the way.
The pace car's trip to the racetrack will be remarkably short because it was built -- or, more precisely, modified -- right across the street at Shelby American, where workers convert Ford Mustangs into Shelby GTs and assemble the legendary Cobras from scratch.
Former race car driver Carroll Shelby began making sports cars in Los Angeles nearly 50 years ago but relocated to three buildings just off Interstate 15 -- about 20 minutes north of the Strip, on Speedway Boulevard -- in 1998.
If you go
THE MUSEUM AT SHELBY AMERICAN Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The museum and the daily 10:30 a.m. tours are free; (702) 942-7325, www.shelbyautos.com.
THE LAS VEGAS CYBER SPEEDWAY
Part of the NASCAR Café Entertainment Center inside the Sahara Hotel & Casino. Tickets cost $10 for a six-minute race. Drivers must be at least 48 inches tall; (702) 737-2111, www.saharalasvegas.com/ NASCAR.
On weekdays, tourists can visit Shelby's museum and tour the adjacent factory. It's one of the ways in which fans can get a fix in Sin City, and not just during the 400-mile NASCAR race sponsored by the Shelby folks.
Among the two dozen people taking the tour on a Monday morning is Tim Roeve, the proud owner of a 1969 Shelby GT500 convertible.
"Back when I was in high school, it was the car I wanted to own someday," recalls the 44-year-old businessman from Washington, Mo. "I thought the profile was one of the sleekest, most attractive I've seen."
Roeve is at the front of the pack as the tourists are led to where several Mustangs -- and even an F150 pickup truck -- are being restyled and given engines with up to 750 horsepower. The place looks like the repair shop of a large car dealer.
"We still build them the way Carroll built them in the '60s," tour guide Steve Mansell explains as guests visit the much-smaller room in which Cobras are made. At separate work stations, employees produce only a couple of curvaceous Cobras each week.
"It looks like it's 1964 or '65 again," says George Ognibene, a racing enthusiast who retired to Las Vegas. "The little dollies that they've got the Cobras sitting on -- that's exactly the way it was done. There was no assembly line."
A Cobra with a handcrafted, fiberglass body will set back its buyer $200,000. That's chicken feed compared with the combined value of the models displayed in the museum. Twenty-one custom cars, in shades of blue, green, orange and red, are parked on the museum's black-and-white checkered floor. Right up front, near the entrance, sits a row of Cobras.
There's a blue one -- No. CSX 4239 -- that bears Shelby's autograph on the dashboard. Tour guide Mansell points out that it's for sale. The asking price: $99,500.
"If anybody's interested, give me your name after the tour, and I'll pass it along to the owner," he says.
Two cars farther along, there's another blue Cobra that has seen better days. Large chunks of the vinyl upholstery are gone, exposing the yellowing foam beneath.
"Now I know it looks a little worn and tattered," Mansell begins, "but it's worth more than all the other cars combined."
It turns out this is the first car Shelby built, back in 1962. Despite its condition, it's apparently priceless. The guide explains that Shelby -- who's 87 and still active in the business -- flatly rejected an offer of $23 million.
"I would've asked, 'Where do I sign?' " Mansell tells his visitors, as they break into a chorus of laughs.
"I've always loved the enthusiasm Carroll brings to the industry," says Roeve, the visitor from Missouri. "He was a racer, so he did it the right way as opposed to just putting a badge on a car and calling it special. It's nice to know there's substance behind the name."
Roeve's '69 GT500 is just one of 30 sports cars he's amassed over the years. But for folks with more modest incomes, the rush of driving a race car can be experienced right along the Strip for just $10.
The Las Vegas Cyber Speedway is inside the Sahara Hotel & Casino, 14 miles south of the real racecourse.
Carrie Giverson is losing control of her car, leaving it facing the wrong way on the computer-animated track that's displayed on a large screen.
"Turn around, turn around, turn around!" she screams, even though verbal commands accomplish nothing. Her car -- a simulator modeled to look like a real race car -- is mounted on a hydraulic base, so it rocks as the Las Vegas woman turns the wheel.
"I didn't realize the car was actually going to move while you're in it," Giverson says after reaching a top speed of 127 mph. Despite her 180-degree gaffe, she comes in first in a three-car race.
Although she finished last, after repeatedly crashing into the wall, fellow Las Vegan Rachel Diehl hopes to return with friends.
"Now that I know how to do it," she says, "I want to try it again."