- Gobles, MI
Finally, this past September, I finally got to find out.
I'm a passionate traveler during my vacations, and on this occasion my journey brought me to the Las Vegas area. I was coincidentally there when the Area 51 Raid was supposed to (but didn't) happen, but it was the furthest thing from my mind. I was on my way to California to see Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, but I had reserved one morning in Sin City to visit Exotics Racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Several of my co-workers had already been here before; and knowing of my addiction to IMSA, Indycar, and other car-related interests; they made sure I was bound to stop at Exotics Racing and get my first real taste of driving on a race track.
If you're thinking, "Driving a supercar on a race track doesn't sound cheap", you're not wrong. Some of the fastest cars will cost several hundred dollars to be able to drive for five laps. So when I made my initial reservation, I opted for one of least expensive options: a Chevrolet Corvette Z51. I've been a Corvette fan as long as I can remember. I grew up a NASCAR fan, but I can definitely credit seeing the C5R in Gran Turismo 3 as being a "gateway drug" to IMSA, Le Mans, and Sports Car racing in general. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to drive a Corvette for myself.
However, the cars at Exotics don't live easy lives; and a few days before my drive I received an e-mail to inform me that the Corvette was sidelined with a mechanical issue. That disappointment was quickly eased by what I was offered for a replacement: a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Porsche 911 GT3, or a Ferrari 430. For me, the choice was easy. The Lamborghini would have style. The Porsche would have motorsports heritage. But the Ferrari would have both in spades. So the 430 it would be for me.
Or so I thought.
I arrived that morning, a bit nervous but quietly confident that I was up to the challenge of driving a supercar on a race track. There was some time before the driver's briefing and eventually the supercars began to file into the paddock area adjacent to the Exotics Racing building. At first, the other customers and I respectfully stood off to the side and watched from a distance. To which one of the attendants told us, "Go on, get up close, take pictures, sit in the cars, it's no extra charge."
So I got to sit in the driver's seat of a Lamborghini Gallardo, a Mercedes AMG, and an Audi R8. Not a bad way to spend a morning already. Then came time for the driver's meeting. Here, we were given an introductory course of road racing technique and what to expect from the track. I could see other would-be drivers in the room showing signs of nervousness, hunched forward and their legs fidgeting. I was doing my best to exude Dale Earnhardt levels of confidence, laying casually back in my chair as I took in the lesson. After all, it was more or less a refresher of what I've been trying to practice in sim-racing all these years. I understood the concepts, just a matter of putting it into practice, right?
The next step was a couple of familiarization laps of the "Playground Circuit" at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This came from the passenger seat of a Porsche SUV with an instructor at the wheel and another customer in the backseat. (Our instructor asked us where I was from. I replied, "Kalamazoo, Michigan" thinking I was a long way from home. The young woman behind us made me think again when she replied, "Australia.") Now, I do tend to scoff at "SUVs", as I think they're neither sporty nor utilitarian. Well, as the Porsche leaned through the corners seemingly about to capsize like the Andrea Doria, it was something of a hard reset to my internal navigation. I was expecting my driving experience to be double or triple what I was used to taking a spirited drive in my 2014 Buick Regal AWD down some twisty roads. The Porsche SUV already had exceeded those expectations by a wide margin.
Then came the biggest surprise of the day. I went to check in for my appointed drive for the Ferrari 430. The receptionist then informed me that the 430 had been sidelined with mechanical problems as well that morning. And so I had received a free upgrade to one of the fastest and most expensive cars in their fleet: The Ferrari 488. She then commented that I seemed alright with this arrangement, perhaps from watching my eyebrows bounce off the ceiling.
On one hand, I was extraordinarily lucky, getting one of the most expensive cars to drive at a significant discount. On the other, it was pretty much like putting a rookie pilot in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat. The nerves were starting to climb at this point, but no way was I going to wuss out now. After selecting a helmet that was probably a size too big (over-estimating the thickness of my skull), I was then introduced to my instructor: Romain Thievin, an experienced touring and stunt car driver. From here, perhaps it's best to let the video and telemetry tell the story:
So first thing to address, the gas and brake pedals were so close together in the 488 that I found the edge of my right sneaker was getting caught on the brake pedal when I lifted off the throttle. I had initially intended to use my right foot for both throttle and brakes like in my everyday driving, and in how I was using my Thrustmaster T150 on my PC. But with this new issue, I quickly decided that I would have to start left foot braking for the first time ever while in the fastest car I'd ever driven on my first time on a race track.
The other thing that a racing sim can't prepare you for; no matter how good its physics or how fancy your rig, are the G-forces and how they affect you. My brain and body did feel like they were operating on overload and it took everything I had to hit my marks and listen to what Romain was telling me. (To the point where he had to remind me to breathe at one point.)
Don't think I did bad, though. We were told beforehand that if your instructor is telling you to push more, it means he likes what he's seeing from you and is trying to get the most out of you and the car. Without him there, I would have never broken the 1 Minute mark on the track, much less get 59 Seconds flat. Even when the car was under what felt like intense g-loads exiting the corners, he was telling me to get back on the gas. There were several moments where my brain was telling me, "The car is going to spin," and I just had to ignore it and listen to what Romain was telling me. As he mentioned in the end of the video, my big breakthrough was breaking a bad habit I had in racing sims; where I had to stop staring down my braking points and instead focus on the corner ahead and aiming the car towards where I needed to go.
So to sum things up; driving a Ferrari 488 was absolutely one of the most incredible experiences I've had in my life, and I highly recommend Exotics Racing to any car and racing fans that find themselves in the Las Vegas area. It's a bit expensive, sure. But compared to giving away the same amount of money to a slot machine at a casino, this is a much better use of your money. My advice: if you can afford it, do it.
Although it has had one side effect. I don't want to wait until my next time in Las Vegas to be back on a track again. Like I might want to finally get around to taking my sports sedan to a track day. In fact, this poster may have been downright prophetic: