Sure, Las Vegas is all about thrills, but gambling can come at a price, and while the shows are dazzling they're always a passive experience. If you want to take control of your own kicks and really ramp up the adrenaline, there are a couple of Sin City experiences that will simultaneously put in you in the driver's seat – literally - and take you out of your comfort zone.
My own first encounter with serious speed is at Exotics Racing. Upon pick-up from the Strip I'm seated with enthusiastic would-be supercar drivers eager for their chance to floor it in one of ER's 30-something vehicles. The fleet includes Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis, some of which can reach 200MPH. Naturally, everyone is excited and talk turns to speed and engine sizes: things I know absolutely nothing about. I've not owned a car for some years and have never watched any kind of motor sport; if you mention horsepower I'll drift off and picture Shire horses pulling hefty carts, but have no idea what it actually means.
For most of my acquaintances on the journey to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, driving a real, fast, expensive sports car on a custom track is about fulfilling a long held dream, but at this point it's merely a potentially fun day out for me. I'm not nervous exactly, but I do feel out of place.
Arriving at the venue for orientation, I ease up when I notice that while there's a fair share of petrol heads, there are plenty of geekier guys and girls too, and the customer age ranges from 20 to 70. Maybe this is everyone's dream. I'd not thought too deeply about the buzz of sheer velocity before, but as I see the wide-eyed looks on others' faces as the instructors bring the mean machines up to the building, the appeal suddenly starts to become palpable.
Our briefing is given by Ken and Dave; the former explains all the background details and the layout of the track, which is 1.2 miles long with seven turns, a couple of which look pretty hairy to me. Dave takes us into the 'science' of racing track technique, "See everything, look at nothing", and also acts as entertainer and hype builder. "You wanna go crazy fast?" he asks - I'm one of a small handful in the room who keep their mouths shut and hands down. "No?" he addresses us, "Why not? It's not your car!"
Before we get helmeted-up, we take a "discovery lap" with Ken in a Porsche SUV. He shows us exactly where we'll be accelerating, braking and turning and everything starts becoming real. Even at a leisurely 50MPH, the bends seem pretty sharp but I know he's navigated them thousands of times and is making it look easy, and I begin to wonder how I'm going to handle them.
When I meet my instructor, Joe Madden, (almost) all the apprehension fades away. He's so calm and reassuring that climbing into the extremely low seat of the shiny Ferrari 430 Scuderia seems like the most natural thing in the world. When I turn the engine on it fires up instantly in what sounds like a heavy growl, though it feels more like a purr. Perhaps it's the soothed state of mind Joe's put me in, but I'm suddenly very comfortable and start to realise this beast of a car is only as fierce as I will allow it to be. Joe tells me that even when I think I have the accelerator floored he'll keep saying "more gas, more gas…but you're free to ignore me." I tell him I'll see how it goes.
Suddenly we're out on the track, and all that matters are the turns. I grip the wheel tightly, look for my braking cues, listen to Joe's simple pointers and concentrate on doing everything right. After the first couple of laps, I feel secure: I know I can do it, now I just need to do it a bit faster. With each successive circuit I start looking forward more and more to the long straight and pushing down the pedal a bit harder than the last time round.
Just as I'm about to tip over from confident towards cocky, Joe instructs me to slow down and head towards the tent where we started. I've lost count, my five laps are done and I feel like I've only been out there for about a minute. But then all the best experiences are the ones that leave you wanting more. Even when I learn I only got up to around 100MPH, the mild disappointment is a very long way from kicking in. I leap out of the car elated and shake Joe's hand vigorously. Next time I'm going for 150.
Exotics Racing driving experiences start from $199 (about £125) for five laps in a Porsche Cayman R. The same deal in the Ferrari 430 Scuderia starts at $349 (about £220) with other experiences priced according to your choice of car and number of laps. For more information, check out the complete list of available cars and prices. If you want to feel the thrill of the track without being behind the wheel, buddy up with a professional driver for the two-lap Ride-Along experience in a Corvette ZO6 for just $99 (about £60).
The Las Vegas Motor Speedway is about a 25 minute drive from the Strip. Try Presidential Limo for comfortable round-trip transportation if you don't have access to a car.
Sky Combat Ace
While the track had me pumped full of more adrenaline than I'd ever known, nothing could really prepare me for my next day's adventure with the Sky Combat Ace team. I might look the part in my aviator shades, but the real reason I'm wearing them is because they're the only sunglasses that vaguely suit me. At least the natural high of the drive had kept me from being hungover, the last thing you'd want to be while in the front of a tiny two-seat light aircraft at the mercy of a trained US Air Force fighter pilot.
SCA deal in extreme thrills of the Top Gun variety. Their Afterburner experience will find you strapped in for a spin-filled, loop-loaded aerobatic trip, but most other packages will allow you hands-on-the-joystick kicks. For my half-hour in the air, I'm assigned the Adrenaline Rush – aerobatics and aerial dog fighting - along with the tough nom-de-cockpit "Toxic", which I'm fairly sure I fail to live up to.
While you don't need any flying experience to sign up for any of the packages, I quickly learn you will need to have your ears open and brain in gear. My induction training with SCA president Richard "Tex" Coe includes a dizzying scale model run-through of the "basics" of offensive and defensive combat manoeuvres, all of which I immediately forget.
Fortunately, once I'm in my jumpsuit, my parachute is on and I'm strapped in, it's in front of Bill "Stroke" Tracy, a man with 2,500 hours fighter plane experience and probably the most cool and composed demeanour I've ever encountered.
Stroke has seen all kinds of customers and while it's all a breeze for him, he knows that plunging and plummeting inside the tight space of a stunt plane isn't an everyday occurrence for most. By way of vague comparison, he asks if I like rollercoasters; I tell him I do just before he tips the plane 90 degrees and my stomach stays behind.
When I'm straightened out, he takes us up, fast. I must make some kind of sound, as he's quick to reassure me: "I'm trying to keep the Gs low". Of course, I think, as my cheeks become one with my neck. Then it dawns on me that I'm looking UP at the ground. The sensation of being upside down is grin-inducing, though I'll admit to not being too into the getting there.
Next, Stroke tells me it's my turn and as I take hold of the stick I find out that a tiny tilt will make the plane move a lot. For a minute or so, I take control and the shakiness inside subsides, even if the plane is going all over the place. We have a combat 'engagement' with Tex to get to though, and I decide that rather than keep him waiting I should hand our fate back to my experienced supervisor.
What happens over the next 10 minutes or so, I'm not sure. Who hits who and how is unclear to me, all I know is my mouth is bone dry and I'm never quite certain which way up we are or where we are in relation to anything. And my eyes are open the whole time. Cruising back down we get a fantastic view of the mountains we've been flying between which restores some serenity to my mind. My body meanwhile is still somewhat shaken and stirred, but in becoming so aware of it, I've never felt quite so alive.
As you'd imagine, Sky Combat Ace fighter pilot experiences don't come cheap, but these are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to fly real high performance planes with real fighter pilots over the Nevada desert. Prices start at $399 (about £250) for the Afterburner package which includes a full briefing and a 25 minute aerobatic thrill ride with a trained instructor pilot. The $599 (about £370) Top Gun Experience includes a 45 minute flight with more of the same manoeuvres and the opportunity for YOU to fly the plane.
Challenge a friend and hone your combat tactics with the Sky Combat Experience ($999/£620 per person). You'll engage in air-to-air combat with YOU at the controls, in the ultimate competitive challenge. And for the most extreme thrill of your life choose the Adrenaline Rush package (from $1299/£810) featuring all of the above, including a 50 minute briefing, 30 minutes of dogfighting, 20 minutes of aerobatics and dynamic low-level mountain flying. All packages include photos before take-off and video captured by one of four airplane-mounted cameras.
For more information visit Sky Combat Ace.
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Las Vegas from London Gatwick.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.