Crash Course

I'm a nervous driver. I always wear my seat belt. I bought my Saturn for its safety rating. I avoid left turns without a light. And for the first two years that I lived in Houston, nightmares about speeding 18-wheelers and crazed commuters kept me off its freeways.

Ironically, I'm still quite accident-prone. Friends tell me that's precisely because I'm so cautious. To be a good driver, they say, I have to get aggressive. So when the people at the new NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway at Katy Mills Mall called to see if I'd like to test-drive a virtual stock car, I took it as a golden opportunity to conquer my nerves in a perfectly safe environment. After all, it's nothing more than a glorified video game, right?

Right. A video game that requires me to sign a form releasing Silicon Motor Speedway from all liability for any foreseen or unforeseen injuries. "It's just like the release forms for roller coasters," the nice, if slightly aggressive, crew member says in an attempt to comfort me. But I don't ride roller coasters. People die on roller coasters. And when's the last time you signed a release form before you stepped onto a roller coaster?

Once I've signed my life away, I'm ushered into a room where NASCAR legends speak to me quickly and incomprehensibly from a video monitor: steer with pressure, not force, don't go above the white line until you've gained the right level of speed, don't accelerate too quickly or you'll fishtail, don't try to steer in a spinŠ I have the urge to take down some notes, but the crash course is over too quickly. Now it's time to get behind the wheel of a four-speed, 700-horsepower, hydraulically lifted, perfectly replicated 4/5 scale NASCAR stock car.

Rusty Wallace, 1989 Winston Cup champion and an adviser on the simulator, tells me about how hard they worked to get the feel just right. "You just have to remember that you're not actually out there on a race track with a bunch of nuts," he says. Then he laughs: "A lot of people get sick." I make a mental note of the location of the emergency stop button on the dash.

The massive machine closes its doors and rises several feet above the ground. Three video screens wrapped around the nose of the car light up with a 3-D view of the track before me. We're off andŠ crash. Somebody in a car behind me, no doubt impatient with my tentative start, is ramming the back of my virtual car, which no longer feels at all virtual. I realize that it's time for some aggression, but I forget the Yoda-inspired words from the instructional video. I steer with force instead of pressure, which sends me into terrifying, out-of-control doughnuts in the grass just below the track. I know I'm not really spinning, but my inner ear is convinced. (I'm embarrassed to say that I think I even took my hands off the wheel to cover my eyes.) Just when I get the hang of it and venture above the white line onto the bank, there's a three-car pileup right in front of me. I try to stop, which at 200 miles an hour is a fool move. At the last minute, I careen up to the rail and nearly flip over. At least that's what it felt like.

Before I know it, the car has stopped shaking and jerking. It's over, and not only have I survived (both virtually and physically), I've come in 19th out of 32 human and drone drivers. Not too shabby for a nervous Nellie like me. Maybe I don't need to become a shut-in until Metro builds a light-rail system. Maybe I just need to spend a little more time practicing at the Silicon Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway at Katy Mills Mall is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Each ten-lap race costs $8, plus another $2.50 if you want to take a passenger. A $5 membership makes races and merchandise a little cheaper.

 
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