Finding My Inner Speed Demon At Indy

Never knew I had a taste for speed. Never chewed up Jersey Turnpike miles singing “Born to Run,” never flipped the bird at the drivers I left in the dust. Nope. Though I drive a traffic-cop-magnet red car, I have never gotten a speeding ticket; I just go with the flow of traffic.
But something happened when I arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Anticipation. Excitement. Something new was about to happen at this place where racing rules, where drivers and their zillion-dollar cars roar around the 253-acre oval, and where 40 million fans worldwide scream for their favorites. Yes, I’m one of those who love to watch, but today wasn’t about watching; today I would actually see and feel what it was like to be in an Indy car, barreling around the track at speeds I’ve never experienced.

My warm-up would be a ride in an Indy pace car with superstar Sarah Fisher, who retired as a driver in 2010 after competing in her ninth and final Indy 500 – the most number of starts for a woman in the 94-year history of the event. To me, Fisher is an icon, the first and only female team owner in the IZOD IndyCar Series – and the first female team owner to win an IZOD IndyCar Series race. My pulse quickened as I walked toward the pace car, a modified Chevy convertible. Introductions out of the way, I asked how fast we would go, hoping I didn’t sound too much like a wuss who feared getting car-sick. About 120-130 mph, she replied. This sounded, well, fast, for an open car. “Girls drive smoother than guys,” she said by way of reassurance. Okay, superstar driver trumps doubts.

I belted myself into the passenger seat. Removed scarf, jewelry, sunglasses – anything that could be whipped off my person. Engine starts, we peel out – and OMG, my hair stands straight up on end, the G force plasters my body to the seat as we round the first turn. I’m forced to the right and stay stuck there until I’m pushed to the left. My eyes shut; my jaw clenched. But OK, the ride was smooth.

As we went round and round, I opened my eyes. Fisher was relaxed, smiling, enjoying the drive. And suddenly I was, too, energized by the experience of going really fast, yet feeling safe in her expert hands.

Still, when the ride was over, my legs wobbled a little as I got out of the car. I thanked Ms. Fisher for the experience. Yeah, it was really smooth, I said, and she smiled.

And then came the main event. For the Indy Racing Experience, I was going to climb into a two-seat IZOD Indy Car for the ride of my life. And “my” driver would be IndyCar Series veteran and two-time championship runner up, Davey Hamilton.

I’d had to sign a whole bunch of releases that said if something bad happened, it would be on me and not the track. Fair enough, though it did feel funny to give my medical information, the name of my doctor, the name of the person to be contacted in case of emergency. Then I had to suit up, just like the drivers do. I got myself into a way-too-big fire suit that wasn’t made for a small woman, but OK, it was protection. Fire gloves, too. My head was bound in a knit balaclava and on top of that came an enormous helmet with a face shield.

All this stuff was wearing me; I felt like the little kid in “A Christmas Story” who complained he couldn’t put his arms down. By the time I came face to face with Davey Hamilton, I couldn’t speak – and I couldn’t lower the big fat package I had become into the very skinny and low-slung seat. Someone’s arms lifted and pushed me into the car, strapped me into a harness so tight, I felt as if I had become part of the car. It was actually a good feeling – snug and secure with no room to move.

And then with a thunderous roar, the car shot forward and was soon hurtling around the track at 180 miles an hour. But this time I was one with the car, no shifting from side to side, no lurching stomach, no feeling the push and pull of G force as we rounded the oval.

Eyes wide open, I watched empty grandstands fly by, imagined them crowded with screaming people and pulsing with life on race day. I laughed aloud inside my face mask, high on the thrill of speed. So this was what it was all about. This is what makes professional drivers risk life and vehicle time and again, what makes crazy teenagers take crazy risks on hot summer nights at the Jersey Shore. This was a fantasy I’d never had, but living it felt great! And much too quickly it was over.

Drivers do 200 laps around this track during the Indy 500; the Indy Racing Experience, which I’d just sampled, costs $499 for a three-lap ride. The rides need to be booked months in advance as they’re offered only on select dates for people 18 years of age or older, under 6’5″ in height, and under 250 lbs.

Is the ride worth five hundred bucks? If you can afford it, hell, yes. If my check book were fatter, I’d do something like this regularly, step outside my comfort zone, jump out of a plane like George Bush did every year on his birthday.

Experiences like this are available all over the country. The Richard Petty Driving Experience puts you in a NASCAR race car at more than 20 venues, including such celebrated tracks a Bristol, Daytona and Talladega. Or, you can do a ride-along. Prices range from $159 to $3,499, depending on the length and complexity of the driving experience.

At the Mario Andretti and Jeff Gordon facility, prices range from $129 to $2,299. Prices at the NASCAR Racing Experience start at $129 for a NASCAR ride-along and go to $364.99 for driving a race car that had once been driven by such NASCAR favorites as Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr.

For speed lovers with big budgets, the Richard Petty Fantasy Racing Camp in Las Vegas (March 10-13, 2013) is four full days in Las Vegas; it starts with meeting Richard Petty and Dale Inman and includes getting behind the wheel of a 600 HP NASCAR race car, learning short track driving skills, road course driving skills and participating in a speedway challenge at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Spring Mountain Motorsports Racetrack Road Course. The price is $10,500, with a limit of 12 participants.

As for me, I’m back to just watching and driving with the flow – for now.

[Photo Credits: Lillian Africano]

Top American Destinations To Avoid In 2013

Just as useful as a list of top tourist destinations for the upcoming year is one that gives advice on where in the world you should avoid. The truth is, we’ve all had bad experiences, and they can really affect our perceptions of a place. When I solicited social media users for suggestions on domestic destinations to avoid this year, many lively conversations were sparked – and several individuals audibly spewed their disdain for certain cities across the country.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m a pretty open-minded traveler. I’ve had plenty of unpleasant run-ins, transportation failures and otherwise terrible experiences – it comes with the territory. But I’m also not one to throw an entire city into the negative category. Instead, I took the most complained about places and looked into why they have a stigma, and conversely, wrote about what might make the social media users change their minds. Maybe the bad taste in these travelers’ mouths will never go away, but hopefully this will end up changing some perceptions.Detroit, Michigan
Complaint: “just plain depressing”
The Point: Once one of America’s most prosperous cities, today Detroit seems more like a post-industrial ruin. Corrupt city officials, economic decline and budget mismanagement have caused law and order to break down in the city. In October, the Detroit Police Officers union went so far as to warn visitors to enter the city “at their own risk,” and ALT (Alternative Luxury Travel) travel agency called Detroit the “Most Dangerous U.S. City to Visit for Gay Travelers” because of its increase in crime and the shuttering of a high number of landmark gay bars.
The Counterpoint: If you’re looking for trouble in Detroit, you can easily find it – but that doesn’t mean it will find you. The city still has a thriving music, art and theater scene, drawing creatives from around the country and world to live and visit here. And if you like cars, you can visit museums dedicated to both Ford and Chrysler, take a tour of the former estates of auto barons, or check out one of the many automobile-related annual events. There is still a lot of hope for this city, and earlier this year Gadling even wrote about it as a sustainable city to watch.

Reno, Nevada
Complaint: “ZERO attempt at a culture”
The Point: Reno makes the list of cities to avoid because, as one Twitter user put it, “it felt like where old gamblers go to die.” It bills itself as the second largest tourist town in Nevada, and can’t seem to shake the runner-up epithet of a tame, rundown version of Las Vegas. Most people sell the city by pointing out how close it is to Tahoe, which isn’t really a reason to stay in Reno at all.
The Counterpoint: If you don’t like casinos – Reno’s number one tourist attraction – it might seem you are in trouble. The truth is, this city has the same good eats, music, nightlife and boutiques you find in any other major metropolitan areas – you just have to search a little harder to find the gems. The Nevada Museum of Art also has a surprisingly prestigious collection and is well worth a visit (even if it’s just to kill some time during your layover to another destination). Yes, the pace of life is slower here than other major metropolitan areas, but many visitors might find that a redeeming quality instead of a negative one.

Daytona Beach, Florida
Complaint: “dodging trucks that were allowed to drive on the beach”
The Point: When you imagine a day along the shore, you probably don’t conjure images of laying your beach towel next to cars and trucks. On parts of Daytona Beach, automobiles are allowed to park in the sand during select hours of the day, making the beach vibe turn from tropical to tailgating party.
The Counterpoint: Here’s the thing: Daytona Beach is the home of NASCAR, so if you’re visiting for a racing event, you probably don’t mind a few cars on the beach. In fact, you might even enjoy the novelty of it. If you’re not into it, that’s OK too: there are plenty of other stretches of sand in for you to discover.

Salt Lake City, Utah
Complaint: “boring and flat”
The Point: Salt Lake City doesn’t top many travel bucket lists, mostly because the local culture isn’t too supportive of those who like to imbibe. Just a few years ago, the capital of Utah lifted a prohibition that limited the number of bars on each city block to two, but the city can’t seem to escape the conservative stigma.
The Counterpoint: Fostered in part by the Sundance Film Festival, Salt Lake City has a growing film and art scene. Summer visitors can watch live bands outdoors during the annual Twilight Concert Series, and those who come in winter should know that the city is known for its close proximity to the slopes – 14 ski resorts are within an hour of Salt Lake City. Year round, the city has many small businesses worth seeking out, which makes it a great destination for those looking to skip chain restaurants and big box stores. And if your complaint is that the city is flat, take a trip to the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats, and you might be surprised to find out how beautiful a flat landscape can be.

Los Angeles, California
Complaint: “smoggy and snooty”
The Point: Los Angeles is notorious for its smog, a haze produced by millions of vehicles operating in a low basin surrounded by mountains. It’s also an expensive place to visit, and the people who live there have a reputation as struggling actors, models and rock stars who will do anything to get ahead.
The Counterpoint: Multiple California government agencies have been working to reduce smog. It’s still a major problem, but it’s not a reason to avoid the city’s numerous landmarks and other attractions. Besides, the nearly 4 million people who live there don’t seem to be too turned off by it. And that sheer number of people discredits the “snooty” point. Choose your company wisely and you can avoid self-important people with stars in their eyes – or at least learn to roll your own eyes and walk away.

Do you echo these social media users’ sentiments, or can you get behind one of the cities above? Similarly, if you had a bad experience in a U.S. city and think it should be on the list, let Gadling readers know in the comments below.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, the population of Los Angeles was incorrectly identified. The article has been updated to accurately reflect the current population of the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ben Amstutz]

Hiking in Spain: Santoña’s rugged coastline and Napoleonic forts

Santoña, hiking in SpainOne of the great things about hiking in Europe is that many trails pass places of historic interest. Whether you’re hiking along Hadrian’s Wall or to a medieval castle, you can learn about the past while living in the moment amidst beautiful scenery.

Spain offers a lot of these hikes. One is an 11km (7 mile) loop trail near Santoña in Cantabria, northern Spain.

My hiking group and I set out early on Sunday morning after Carnival. Costumed drunks were still staggering home as the sun rose. One guy dressed as prisoner lay passed out in a doorway. At a police checkpoint three men dressed as priests were being arrested for drunken driving. I would have felt morally superior for exercising while all this debauchery was going in, but a bad hangover kept me from passing judgement. Except against the drunk drivers, that just ain’t cool.

Santoña is a port in a bay of the same name. It was an important military post during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and the seafront is dominated by a large fort. Built in a horseshoe pattern, dozens of cannons once covered the entrance to the bay. The peninsula that forms the western boundary of the bay is studded with several Napoleonic-era forts and artillery batteries and the combined firepower of all these defenses must have made the place all but impregnable to a sea attack. Some of these forts existed before Napoleon’s invasion, of course, and many were modified in later years, making a trip around them a good lesson in the history of military architecture.

Also on the seafront is a monument to a different era of naval history. A soaring monolith flanked by statues with religious themes stands as a memory to local boy Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. He was one of General Franco’s must trusted men during the dictatorship and was slated to succeed him. Admiral Blanco was assassinated by ETA in 1973. Franco died less than two years later and with those two hardliners gone, the path to liberalization and democracy was open, although far from smooth.

Ignoring the steady drizzle and clammy temperature, we set out to hike around El Buciero, the mountain that shelters the Bay of Santoña. Much of it is reserved as a natural park. Thick woodland is broken only by outcroppings of rock and the occasional farm.

%Gallery-147993%The loop trail took us around the mountain and along some beautiful coastline. A beach to the west was mostly taken up by a large prison. Putting the prisoners within sight of a beach seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me, not to mention a waste of a good beach! Heading around the peninsula we got some fine views of the sea and passed a small lighthouse.

The most impressive sight was the sea cliffs. Along much of the northern coast of the peninsula the land dropped off sheer, plunging a hundred feet or more into emerald water that crashed and foamed against jagged rocks. Even with overcast skies it was captivating. I’m planning on returning on a sunny day to see it again.

The hike ended, as hikes in Spain generally do, at a local bar where we had a few pintxos (the northern version of tapas) and some wine. I skipped the wine even though my head was feeling better.

The hike is low intermediate level although if it’s raining there are a couple of slippery spots where you need to watch yourself. Santoña can be reached via regular bus service from Santander and Bilbao.

On the Fast Track with Richard Petty at Walt Disney World


I’m very interested in loud cars that go really fast, even if I still don’t understand NASCAR. Earlier this summer, I drove my road trip ride around the speedway in Watkins Glen. As much fun as it was–lots!–I was itching to get a vehicle up to triple-digit speeds. Near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, I had that chance at the Richard Petty Driving Experience.

Traveling the American Road – Driving with Richard Petty


It works like this: After plunking down $449, fellow drivers and I got a fairly serious driving class, complete with info on how to operate our 600-horsepower stock cars, what to do in the unlikely event of a fire and why drivers should stay on the line that racers in front of you are following. (Hint: It keeps you from crashing into the wall.)

Considering what a war zone Central Florida’s highways have become, it was easy to believe my instructor’s reassurance that this driving, even strapped in to a super-powered race car, would be the safest I’d do all day. Nevertheless, the more warnings my fellow racers and I received, the more nervous I became. What if I forgot to throw my car into fourth gear? What if I followed the car in front of me too closely? What if I started skidding toward the wall at 120 mph? Putting on a helmet and HANS device to protect the base of my skull in the event of a catastrophic accident sadly did not make me more comfortable.

The upside to the experience is that you’re guided through the eight laps by a faceless but presumably over-qualified “instructor,” who you never meet and whose movements you follow on the track. The more precisely you handle your car, the faster he or she will drive in front of you–meaning you’ll go faster too. I would’ve liked to meet my lead driver, but instead, I was being buckled into a five-point harness inside the rumbling number 11 car, helmet on, HANS on, and GoPro camera mounted to the dash. A crewman gave the sign, and we were off, jerking forward, as I figured out the clutch on the way out of pit road.

The first lap was ragged, a chance to get a feel for the car–which does not handle like my Ford Explorer–learn the racing line and get used to the deafening noise of the engine at track speed. Stock cars don’t have speedometers, only tachometers, but I later learned I averaged 78 mph on the first go-round. A good start.

As I loosened up, I learned to trust the car and its fat, sticky tires. My instructor sped up. I started to smile around lap four. By lap six, I was tearing into turns, letting off the throttle at the last possible moment to keep distance from the car in front of me and revving back up on the turn exit to burn through the straights. The banked turns seemed to flatten as we accelerated. My tunnel vision expanded just in time to see the flag signaling the end of my eight laps.

I watched more drivers take their turns, soaking up the sounds and vibrations in the pits. Data from a USB stick plugged into my car was downloaded. My top speed was 122.38. Not bad, but I’d like to go faster.

VIDEO: 50 state stereotypes in 2 minutes

Enjoy poking fun at other American states? You might enjoy this video posted by our friends at Huffington Post Comedy covering all 50 state stereotypes in 2 minutes and change. From Alabama

Our state bird is the NASCAR” to Wyoming

We don’t have any gay cowboys, alright? Okay, maybe a few gay cowboys…”, no state is left unparodied (read the video transcript here). Lest you think video creator Paul Jury is making snap judgements, you may want to read his new book States of Confusion, chronicling his post-college 48-state road trip.

Have a good sense of humor about how others see your state or country? You might also enjoy this map of US state stereotypes as well as maps from other countries. Follow Gadling and AOL Travel’s Road Trip Across America this summer and see how the states live up to their reputation.