Many years ago my wife surprised me with a Mario Andretti Racing Experience at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was a lead-follow affair in an Indy-style race car. I can still vividly remember the g-forces on my body as I pushed into the corners at 150-plus mph, thinking at the time how punishing it must be on the real pros to sustain it for 200 laps at more than 200 mph with other cars often mere inches away. Although I’ve always had the utmost respect for drivers who risk their lives every time they get in a car, those laps really altered my perception of what it takes to be a pro racer.
More recently and right after I arrived at Automobile, I took a trip to a makeshift track carved out of a parking lot at SoCal’s Auto Club Speedway for a very different experience called Exotics Racing. Unlike the Andretti and similar Richard Petty race-car-centric operations, Exotics (which has a much bigger setup at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) is about elite street cars, namely Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, et al.
They’re the kinds of cars that seem so much more accessible — and drivable — to many people. After a safety session and track orientation, you don a helmet, hop into a car with an instructor, and off you go. At the Exotics Auto Club experience, the track is small with virtually no elevation change, large runoff, Tecpro barriers, no drama. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, doing a few hot laps in a car you’ve always dreamed of driving.
In my line of work, I’ve spent a lot of time at racetracks over the years in all manner of vehicles as part of the evaluation process. I’ve always understood my limits, but the more you lap, the more you want to get better, to push yourself and the car. It’s human nature to some extent. And the danger is ever present. You fail, or the car fails, and you’re potentially in a very bad situation.
Which brings me to our friends at Speedvegas, which we featured extensively in the May issue as part of our 2017 All-Stars coverage. After the issue went to press, there was a terrible crash at the facility that claimed the lives of two men, Craig Sherwood of Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, and respected Speedvegas instructor Gil Ben-Kely, who had been with the facility before it opened last March and was in the passenger seat at the time. Sherwood was at the wheel of a Lamborghini Aventador that went off the track, hit one of the walls, and burst into flames. The track was closed after the incident for 11 days, and an investigation by the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still ongoing. (It’s been classified as an industrial accident.) My sincere condolences go out to the families and friends of both men.
Speedvegas is similar to Exotics Racing in that drivers can walk in or make a reservation, go through a safety briefing, grab a helmet, and hit the track in a car they’ve always wished they could drive at speed. But unlike Exotics and other experiences, Speedvegas is a purpose-built facility with top-flight amenities and a challenging 1.5-mile, 12-turn track. I’ve gotten to know Speedvegas CEO Aaron Fessler a bit, and he struck me as a sincere guy and an automotive enthusiast who truly enjoys what he does. I’m sure this has been an extremely difficult time for him on both a personal and professional level.
“In the last 11 days, we’ve made a top-to-bottom, fine-tooth-comb review of the track design, track safety, track implements, vehicle condition, vehicle training, all those sorts of things,” Fessler told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the day the track reopened. “We’re open today because we have comfort that while there are certainly areas that we can improve, and we always will, that those were not the likely causes of the incident.”
Tragedies like this certainly make you think. Although rare, this isn’t the first time someone has died in a similar situation (a 2015 incident at a Disney World exotic-car experience killed an instructor a few months after a man died at a Rusty Wallace Racing Experience in Kentucky), and some may call into question the model of allowing inexperienced customers to come off the street and onto the track. But by all accounts, Ben-Kely was doing what he loved, and I’m guessing Sherwood could not wait to get behind the wheel of that Aventador.
Whether you agree with the model or not, their deaths serve as a reminder to us all: Even accounting for how far car safety and safety equipment have come, the dangers are real, no matter if you’re a weekend racer, a seasoned pro, or just someone looking to experience a few hot laps. But if you never take the chance, you’ll never know how much joy driving at or near your limits can bring.