NASCAR: What it's like to race a stock car
As "tea-with-milk" kind of Brits, the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a souped-up Dodge Charger NASCAR entry - the triple espresso Americano-style epitome of American racing - isn't something our island-born brains ever conceived would be a reality. Let alone the chance to actually race one, no holds barred.
Having raced cars before it's no secret that it's a hoot, but then we're talking about European supercars. Think Ferrari, Lamborghini and Audi - all of which need continual gear shifts to keep the car glued to the ground - and you're on the right track. NASCAR? The closest we've come was Sega's Daytona USA back in the 90s. Yup, the computer game.
Real NASCAR is a whole different thing. Indeed this isn't a game at all; any car where the steering wheel is put on after making your entry - through the window no less, given that there are no doors - sure is enough to get the blood pumping. And then some.
Before all that we had to limber up into the various safety gear to ready ourselves for the ride. A brief moment of pretending to be Neil Armstrong felt only too apt, as this gear feels more like preparing for a space shuttle launch - there's the head-to-toe firesuit, tight-fitting helmet and let's just say "cosy" harness that more than hugs from groin to shoulders. Warm is definitely the word; this attire was enough to heat up our Brit buns something toasty.
Once inside the car bodily movement is borderline nil for safety's sake. Yes, safety is that boring word, isn't it? But when lobbing yourself around in Dodge Charger stock car shell complete with a 600bhp V8 engine at around the 140mph mark we can see the necessity. It's a far cry from jumping in the car to fetch some milk from the shops.
Our previous astronaut analogy may sound a little silly, but it really isn't all that far fetched. When we kicked the car into gear it felt like it went into launch. There may be no rocket boosters, but driving a NASCAR is a bit like piloting a rollercoaster, only you tell it where to go. Every 4000rpm a swift dip of the clutch followed by a shift on the extra-long stick got the car up into fourth in no time and then - boom - it's up the banked track and foot back to the floor time. We have lift-off.
Unlike most race courses, an American Speedway's standout feature is its banked track. At the Las Vegas Speedway corners hit a 12-degree angle, which really doesn't sound like much but it's more than a 20 per cent gradient. When's the last time you saw that sign on the open road? No, we thought not. It's steep, and it sure does feel it. Believe us, when whipping into a corner at 130mph and pulling upwards of 2gs of force it's abundantly clear that the tarmac itself is what's helping keep the car on the so-called straight and narrow.
Here's what we found oddest of all about NASCAR though: the cars don't drive in straight lines, they pull to the left. But this doesn't mean the cars quite drive themselves around the anti-clockwise, left-turn-only courses. It's not the same as using a Segway because you can't be bothered to walk; this left-pull design makes sense to ease up the pressure on the corners while keeping the hands in a firm position on the wheel. Still, it feels as strange as a Brit trying to get his chops - and mind - around eating bone-in ham for breakfast and just why one would want a biscuit as an accompaniment it. It takes a few goes before it clicks, but we got there.
The Las Vegas Speedway's banked track is a super-smooth ride, but as our pedal-to-metal foot was holding this Charger back it was more a case of chainsaw than knife through butter at first. The trick to speed - as we came to learn - is to keep all movements firm and smooth, with the gas pedal the main control.
Brakes? Pft, who needs 'em. But in all seriousness, they're really not needed for the kind of driving we did, with only four cars on the track. A dip or slam on them could whip the rear wheel drive Charger into a spin. Instead it's all about smoothing on and off the gas at the right point of approach to each corner. Wax on, wax off - it begins to flow naturally as each lap passes. We may not have maxed out the 180-200mph that this stock car was capable of, but part of that was down to the course, as well as the nerve-shredding adrenaline... and our cautious professional co-pilot mumbling something about having a wife and kids.
After lap eight - and just as we feel we're getting the hang of it all - it's game over, time to pull into the pits and hang up our racing boots. It's that lull after the bang of fun, made all the more poignantly sad - or possibly amusing - by the way we then force our way out of the Charger's window like a sack of spuds.
If one thing's clear it's this: Sega, you got it wrong. Less of this button-bashing nonsense we say; the real-deal NASCAR experience was a seat-of-yer-pants action ride unlike anything we've ever experienced on four wheels. We've got a whole newfound respect and love for this American motorsport.
Our NASCAR experience was provided by the Richard Petty Driving Experience which offers a variety of driving experiences throughout the USA