Life In The Fastest Lane

Even as a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I liked cars. In first grade, when my friend Jana brought over her new black and pink patent-leather Barbie wardrobe, stuffed full of evening gowns and handbags, I asked her which kind of car she thought Barbie drove. She shot me a look not unlike the stares I get from friends now when I rhapsodize about someday getting behind the wheel of a C4 Porsche. The truth is, I suffer from a common California ailment: automotive obsession. And after a lifetime of managing my need for speed, I discovered a way to indulge it.

My salvation came at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School in Sonoma, Calif. This is no fantasy camp. It is a rigorous, demanding driving course. But it's also an extremely high-speed version of one of the hottest travel trends: controlled danger. There is a variety of popular and costly ways to risk your neck--piloting a high-performance racing boat, canoeing down the Amazon, snowshoeing in Greenland. At the Russell School, you spend three days behind the wheel of a Formula One race car, burning around a track at speeds up to 120 mph. And at the end of the day, you can head to a nearby spa in the Sonoma or Napa valleys for a massage and mudbath. The Russell School understands that many people who want to skirt close to danger also want to be rewarded afterward. They call it Speed and Spa. But let's be honest: it's all about speed.

Class began the first day at 8 a.m. In my group of 16 speed freaks (including three women), half planned to take this thing a step further and join the pro-racing circuit. The rest just wanted to learn how to downshift at the speed of light and whip around corners pulling six G's. First, we put on flame-retardant jumpsuits and white Bell full-face helmets. With cool-looking racing patches sewn onto our duds, we almost looked like real drivers. We spent an hour in a classroom, learning something confusing called heel-toe downshifting (sort of like double clutching) and basic instruction on how to master a tight corner. Then we walked the curvy two-and-a-half-mile track. Instructors pointed out where our tires should hit on every turn. They noted places where we should let it wail, to curves and banks that would allow 90 mph or more.

Finally, they strapped us into our open-cockpit, open-wheeled Formula One cars. For most of the first day, we performed lead-follow exercises in which we tailed (more like tailgated) instructors' cars to learn where and when to brake and downshift. Most important, the instructors wanted us to see how they entered corners, where to nail the proper racing line--the path your tires follow to pass through curves at maximum speed. When they thought we wouldn't necessarily destroy the cars, they let us solo.

The flag went down, I pulled out onto the track. I saw the man in the pit hit his timer to record my performance. I remembered my instructor's warning: "Don't get too close to each other, because if your wheels touch, one of you is going eight feet straight into the air." As if I needed reminding. Nearly the entire time I was on the track, I replayed in my head TV footage of tumbling race cars, some of which cartwheeled two or three times before landing upside down and bursting into flames. I wondered, don't people die doing this? I made sure to keep my distance from the others, even when it meant losing a few precious seconds from my time.

Not killing yourself--or other drivers--takes concentration. I could actually feel my eyeballs bulging most of the first day, out of fear that if I blinked, I'd miss a crucial turn and fly into a concrete barricade. The truth is, when you're only an inch from the ground and whipping around 14 tight corners in just over two miles doing between 75 and 120 mph, you don't relax, you don't zone out, ever. I maintained this level of concentration for the full three days of class, which ran from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was exhausting--and exhilarating.

There was a faint scent of motor oil everywhere, which was oddly alluring. And a lovely high-pitched whine from a fleet of Formula engines. But the sensation I remember most vividly is my head being jostled by a gale-force wind. Driving more than 100 mph without a windshield was something my neck muscles didn't bargain for.

On day three, I spun out. To my surprise, it wasn't terrifying. It was, though, embarrassing. A spin-out meant you'd gone into a corner all wrong. But I was thrilled to learn that in spite of that "little problem," as my instructor delicately put it, my track time was improving. It was an all-consuming thought, that time. And at the end of the three days, I had cut it by about 20 seconds, to 2 minutes, 8 seconds. I was faster. I was bolder.

I saw my classmates grow more confident, too. Mary White, 32, was at the school with a former college buddy. "By the third day, I really felt like I was a better driver, like I knew how to balance my car in dangerous situations," White says. She and her friend Andrea Sinner opted for the driving-school vacation because it offered something for both of them. "I felt the need to have a nutty, exciting vacation, and Andrea wanted to go someplace where there were spas and a nightlife," White, a single mother, says. "This vacation offered results-oriented days and relaxing nights."

Like all adventure vacations, this one was pricey. The Formula One class runs $2,395. "I think this is an awesome vacation, but let's be honest, it's for people with more money than God," says Sinner, 32, who flew to Sonoma from London, where she works at Andersen Consulting. "But I want to go back, I want to go faster." Still, one must slow down sometime. Speed and Spa offers discount packages that include three days of racing, lodging and spa treatments at a nearby inn for only a few hundred more than the cost of the class. I stayed at Meadowood in Napa, about an hour from the speedway. There are wine-appreciation classes, dozens of relaxation treatments, massages for sore necks and much-appreciated 24-hour room service. You can build up a big appetite driving in circles all day.

Back at my day job now, it's easy to see the allure of becoming a race-car driver. Very few things in life are as exhilarating as ripping around a twisty speedway in a Formula One car. Of course, my friends just shake their heads and look down when I talk about it. But hey, let them pack up the minivan for a three-day tour of Sea World. I'm going back to the Russell School for an advanced course. I'm old enough to admit it; I have a speeding problem.