While I consider myself a somewhat adventurous traveler, there's a class of adventure that has never particularly appealed to me. On one hand, I joined an overland expedition from Nairobi to Tangier in the 1980s, visited North Korea in the '90s and took Austrian Airlines' inaugural flight to Arbil, Iraq, in Kurdistan during the aughts. But I've never had the least desire to try, for example, skydiving.
I would rather, as has happened, find myself unintentionally in violation of a curfew in Kashmir and deal with threatening soldiers than go bungee jumping off a bridge in New Zealand. I'd rather have a lion pacing around my little patched-up nylon pup tent in the Serengeti than go parasailing on a beach in the Caribbean.
With the exceptions of roller coasters and a strong interest in space travel -- I'd hop atop a rocket anytime -- I have not been drawn to the pure, physical adrenaline rush of zooming. I've long been told that speed for speed's sake can be exhilarating, but given the option, I have typically chosen to pursue a cultural challenge over pure sensation.
That might not always be the case going forward.
Earlier this summer, I found myself behind the wheel of a race car, going very fast around an oval track, and loving every second of it.
Both in the spirit of full disclosure and to explain why I was in this uncharacteristic circumstance, BV Investment Partners, which owns Travel Weekly's parent company, Northstar Travel Media, also has an investment in the Richard Petty Driving Experience. I met its management team, which recently began focusing on travel agency distribution (they pay 15% commission and have organized corporate and incentive programs), and they invited me to try it out.
The Richard Petty for whom the company is named is known as "The King" of NASCAR drivers, and the Richard Petty Driving Experience offers civilians the opportunity to get behind the wheel of souped-up, NASCAR-style stock cars at any of 21 tracks nationwide (including well-known tracks such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Daytona International Speedway and the Talladega Superspeedway).
My experience was at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando. After donning a jumpsuit and being issued a helmet, I was given a half-hour training session. A significant portion was given over to safety-related instruction, though the most significant danger seemed to be writer's cramp from initialing all the paragraphs on the release form.
The website said drivers could reach speeds up to 120 mph on the mile-long oval track. Participants follow a lead car, trying to maintain a gap of only three car lengths. The leader gradually increases speed, using taillight signals to indicate whether to speed up or back off.
There are three flags to watch for, my instructor said: the green flag that starts the race, the checkered flag that ends it and one with the number 4 on it. The cars have four-speed manual transmissions, and apparently enough drivers forget to shift the final time that they've created a reminder flag.
Before getting behind the wheel, I was invited to try a "ride-along," an option where an experienced driver takes guests on high-speed laps. I was glad for the opportunity to become more familiar with the track and felt reassured that the car would actually remain stable at high speeds.
As with traditional NASCAR vehicles, the doors don't open -- you have to scramble up and through the front windows. My initial goals were simple: not to look too foolish getting into the car, not to kill the engine (I had been warned the clutch was touchy) and not to forget to put it into fourth gear.
I succeeded in the latter two.
The most difficult part was staying only three car lengths behind my leader. It's tough to overcome the drivers-ed teacher's voice in your head reminding you to always leave one car length for every 10 miles per hour that you're driving. It takes a lot of concentration to tailgate at high speeds, but the lead driver won't increase speed unless you do it.
I found the experience absolutely thrilling -- the noise, the vibrations and the pure pleasure of pushing down the accelerator and feeling a high-performance engine respond as you come out of a curve. I was able to top 120 mph in the last four of my eight laps.
Though the website said you could reach speeds "up to" 120, I felt that the driver on my drive-along ride hit speeds much greater than I did, and I was disappointed when I saw the checkered flag: I was just getting the hang of it.
I was told that the Las Vegas track is considerably faster. I was in Las Vegas last week and tried to arrange to drive laps there, but the track was unavailable on the day I had free time.
It was only when I recognized the depth of my disappointment that I realized: I am hooked.
The chance to drive very fast is marketed to agents as a vacation "add-on," and I'm glad to have discovered that there are entire categories of travel that I can still "add on."
I'm not sure skydiving, bungee jumping or parasailing are in the cards for me, but I recently have found myself daydreaming about learning to fly.
Zooming, I've discovered relatively late, is fun.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This column appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of Travel Weekly.