Get your kicks (on Route 15): car racing in Las Vegas

Richard Torregrossa is a San Diego-based novelist and journalist with a weakness for fast cars and the open road

Petrol-heads will know that the acronym NASCAR stands for National Association of Stock Car Racing. This fabled body governs a multitude of auto racing sporting events around the world and in the United States only the National Football League commands higher ratings.

But NASCAR isn’t just for professional stock car racing drivers and super speedway icons like Jimmy Johnson. It also oversees the amateur stock-car races that are held at the Las Vegas Speedway from March through November.

A stock car is an ordinary car that is modified for track racing, and many are a sight to behold – flashy, gassy, big and brassy. A typical stock car race will feature 79 laps or more of cars in all shapes and sizes, nicknamed according to their vintage and style. Bombers are the beat-up and battle-worn bruisers of the racing world. They’re usually cars twenty years old – a ’72 Caddy or an ’86 Crown Victoria. They’re not pretty, but they’re popular. Bandoleros are colourful and sleek, a cross between a car and a go-kart, and the drivers are usually kids between 8 and 16. Their beauty is that just about anybody can compete in them. Legends are a step up, a retro race car created to add excitement to the sport while keeping production costs low. Body styles are replicas from the Thirties and Forties, powered by a motorcycle engine.

But no matter the power or prettiness of the race car, there is one indisputable fact: it’s the driver, not the vehicle that makes the difference. So if you prefer to be a participant rather than a spectator, you could always consider booking one of Richard Petty’s stock car driving experiences (hop behind the wheel and circuit the iconic Vegas Speedway or ride shotgun at up to 165 mph).

Alternatively, why not rent an ‘exotic car’ (Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche cars are all available from Vegas Luxury Rides) and head out to the desert, where you’ll find nothing but blue skies and the joys of the open road ahead. The desert air is hot and dry, the sunlight sharp and golden, and when the road dips, the dusky mountains of the Mojave seem to rise up even higher.

At first glance it might seem like a desolate stretch of moonscape, but there’s lots to experience if you know where to look. Oddball monuments include The World’s Largest Thermometer in Baker, CA (about an hour and a half’s drive out of Vegas), built to commemorate the record-breaking heat – 57 degrees Celsius – on July 10, 1913 in nearby Death Valley.

Area-51, a section of top-secret military installation Edwards Air Force Base, is famous for its UFO sightings. It’s off-limits to civilians, but for an out-of-this-world snack much closer to Vegas, stop at Alien Fresh Jerky, a store with a flying saucer and ornamental green aliens out front, or spend the night at The Little A’Le’Inn, also in Baker, CA.

Continue driving south to Zyzzx, a name made up by Curtis Howe Springer when he established his bogus Mineral Springs and Health Spa there in 1944 (the site is now home to the Desert Studies Center, managed by California State University and devoted to research into the Mojave).

Keep going for another hour on Route 15 (Mojave/Barstow Freeway), and you’ll eventually come to the historic Peggy Sue’s 1950s Diner, on a dusty road, in the shadow of the Calico Mountains, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The walls and halls are filled with TV and Hollywood memorabilia, including autographed photos of the stars who have eaten there. The freshly baked pies are outstanding and the Marlon Brando Mushroom Cheeseburger and Frankie Avalon Philly Steak Sandwich are pretty good too.

Time your visit right and you’ll drive home under a blanket of stars through the legendary Mojave Desert night.

Photo by Ocean/Corbis

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