Get behind the wheel
I am not, it seems, a very good race car driver. At least not in the simulator. Robbie, my instructor, stands with his elbow resting on the roll-cage around me, waiting for me to find the right spot on the digitized track to make a turn. ‘You’re missing the apex’, he says, which is true, because at this point I’m off the track and driving over the pixelated gravel. The racing simulator is like something out of a video game arcade, and I’ve missed the apex nearly every time. ‘You’re braking too soon’, Robbie says with a hint of frustration.
The instructors promise that the simulator is harder than driving the actual track. Driving a race car requires depth perception, which is tough to replicate on a 2-d monitor, and the mind has a difficult time gauging when to turn and brake without the sensation of g-forces. I, for one, hope that’s true, and I sense that Robbie feels the same way.
It turns out, they’re right. After donning a helmet and a racing onesie, I’m squished into the driver’s seat of a Ferrari F430 GT. The ignition, a flip switch and a quarter-sized red button, brings the engine roaring to life. I snake out of the pit area and gun it onto the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the throaty sound of the V8 behind me overwhelming the car. Nearing a turn, my instructor’s Italian-accented voice comes through a pair of helmet-mounted speakers: ‘Brake hard’. I happily oblige, because this is the fastest I’ve ever driven – the car feels as though it’ll be ripped from the track, but I quickly sense the tires’ grip on the road.
The Ferrari F430 GT is a proper race car, fitted with a front splitter, a rear wing and a rear diffuser, all of which function to hold the car to the ground. The effect is immense. The 19in racing-slick tires magically stay on the track. This is not your average Ford Focus.
‘Go, go, go!’ my instructor is saying. I’ve left the turn and the track is open in front of me. I press hard on the accelerator, seeking the apex of the next turn.
Top tip: Book a time around noon, when the sun is high. The glare of a low sun can effectively blind a driver. And for an additional fee, Dream Racing (dreamracing.com) will time your laps – a necessary bit of info when you can hardly look away from the road to glance at the speedometer.
Fire automatic weapons
The cracks of gunfire stutter out of a small brick building. I have arrived at Machine Gun Vegas (machinegunsvegas.com), and the violent sounds emanating from indoors are enough to get the blood flowing. But this isn’t your typical gun range: the arsenal here includes everything from small handguns to automatic rifles to lightweight machine guns (plus a minigun). This is, according to the party of young men next to me, a chance to live out your favorite Schwarzenegger moments.
My range safety officer, a former Navy servicewoman named Jackie, explains the proper use of my first weapon – a semi-automatic pistol similar to ones used in militaries and police departments around the world. Safety is clearly a priority here. Each range stall is managed by an instructor who’s never more than a foot away from the shooter.
I pop off a few rounds, and the effect is immediate: I’m grinning like a schoolboy. Once my magazine is empty, Jackie flips a switch that brings my paper target fluttering into view – 10 shots mostly placed where they were meant to go.
Next up is a powerful tactical shotgun that obliterates a zombie silhouette I’d picked to disperse next. All this destruction is not without a twinge of discomfort. The gun tourism industry has come under intense scrutiny since a 9-year-old was given a fully automatic Uzi (which allow multiple shots to be fired by a single squeeze of a trigger) in Arizona, resulting in an accident that left a safety instructor dead. In spite of the danger, gun tourism is rising in popularity, and gun ranges across the US are drawing visitors from gun-restricted countries, as well as domestic tourists seeking the rush of firing 50 rounds out of a lightweight machine gun.
Whatever your stance on America’s gun culture, Machine Gun Vegas is a chance to embed yourself right in the thick of it.
Top tip: Wear close-toed shoes, properly laced. A hot shell casing can burn bare skin. Also: listen to the instructor, and follow standard gun safety rules. The range isn’t a time for showy bravado. You may know your guns, but the instructor knows them better.
Fly an aerobatic plane
‘How hard do you want to take this?’ Denis, my pilot at Sky Combat Ace (skycombatace.com), asks. Denis' call sign is 'Smokey', which I'm hoping wasn't a name bestowed as a result of a malfunction or aeronautical accident.
‘Let’s crank it up to 11,’ I say. A mistake, probably, fuelled by the macho aura of the fighter-jet hangar. Waiting around in the hangar in a borrowed, black flight suit has left me itchy, hungry to get into the air.
As we taxi out to the runway, Denis weaves the plane over the tarmac like a drunk swaying home after a long night out (he later tells me he does this to see over the engine cowl). He oscillates between chatty energy with me and cool professionalism with air traffic control.
Soon we are rushing down the runway, the plane’s engine like a distant, vibrating hum over the relative quiet of my noise-canceling headset. Without warning, Denis pulls back on the control stick and we are rocketing into the air.
The sky is a crisp, desert blue, sharper in the prism-like curve of the cockpit’s windshield. We fly out to where the Federal Aviation Administration has given Sky Combat Ace a space to work their magic – anything from a simulated dogfight with friends to an easy sunset cruise in an old-fashioned biplane. Today’s exercise is the Top Gun experience, which gives passengers a feel for the aerobatic plane’s abilities. Once over a nondescript space of desert, Denis begins his maneuvers, after which I’m given the opportunity to execute each myself: hammerheads, tail slides, tumbles and something Denis calls ‘The Rockstar’, which swings the horizon in perverse twists and spins.
Back on the ground, the rush of adrenaline subsides and is replaced by county-fair queasiness – my body slowly catching on to what it’s been through. I take a moment to sip from a much-needed can of ginger ale.
Top tip: Blacking out is a very real possibility, especially if you ask your pilot to take it to 11. Body size, age and fitness can affect the chance of blacking out, but tensing your lower extremities can reduce the amount of blood draining out of your head during positive g-forces. Luckily most trips with Sky Combat Ace come with footage from a cockpit-mounted camera, so any blackout-induced memory loss is supplemented by video evidence.
Alexander traveled to Nevada with support from Travel Nevada. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.