Back behind the wheel

When the swag peddlers at Chevrolet offered me a chance to enter a media racing competition at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station called "Rev it Up" and basically rod the piss out of their entire 2008 lineup last Friday, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Earlier that week, a suspected drunk driver smashed into my dearly beloved Pontiac as I waited at a red light. The car, which I had owned for 12 years, was irreparably mangled and is now cruising down the ethereal winding highways of Shangri-car-la. Its sad carcass sits in my garage serving as the only reminder of a fading memory; a Ford Focus careening into me out of nowhere. The driver fled on foot and the Costa Mesa cops haven't given me any word on whether he's been located.

Memories of sweating away long summers on a tractor in North Dakota while my friends drank beer at the lake come back to me; that's how I paid for it. I drove that car from the Midwest to the East Coast and back again, and then westward, 26 states in all. On those trips, sometimes up to 34 hours of marathon driving, I was alone. Practically hallucinating from a lack of sleep and an excess of energy drinks, I had nothing in this world, save for my clothes and that Pontiac.

So after a few days of being that guy with no car, always whining for a ride, I was ready to get back behind the wheel.

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They say sometimes after a traumatic event, it's best to just jump back on the horse. Not only was I going to get back on the horse, but I also planned to jockey whip living hell out of it. The ultimate prize in the competition was a 2008 Corvette; I momentarily fantasized that I would take the cup and the championship. Like a Cinderella story, the poor guy who was nearly killed by a drunk driver comes back days later to win a Corvette, a perfect twist of fate. I was dismayed to learn the media weren't eligible for the prize. A separate competition with a general buy-in admission was being held simultaneously. If I couldn't win a new car, however, I planned to go fast.

Upon arriving at the event, the competitors had to go through some cursory race-car training, which was about when my eyes glazed over with boredom. There's nothing about handling a car race I hadn't already learned from about 20 years of video games. Racing at high speeds was an old shoe, even though I had never actually done it physically.

After one practice run on a track laid out with orange cone barriers, it's time for competition. A busty blonde representing the Nitrous Oxide company Nos is handing out energy drinks of the same name. "The have caffeine, taurine and ginseng," she says.

"No kidding," I reply. "Give me one of those."

I chug a 24-ounce Nos while wearing a 10-pound, oversized racing helmet. The amphetamine-lite rush hits instantly, and I begin to pronounce Nos like an ironic surfer from an early 1990s television commercial, while waving my thumb and pinky finger: "Let's chug some Naahz!"

The group of about 10 of us media types, mostly from gearhead mags and websites, had only one car to share for the final time trials. Eighth in line, by my turn, I was nauseated. My hands trembled. The time to beat so far was 31 seconds to complete one lap. I planned to break 30.

I pull the No. 12 car to the starting line, and this guy with a ponytail says, "Go."

"What? Go? Can't I get a countdown?"

"No, just go," he repeats.

"Well, start the time over — like, five seconds have gone by," I demand.

"It doesn't start until you go, so just go."

I put the pedal down. The tires shriek and smoke. The first set of obstacles is easy, just a little deft zigzagging through the cones. I'm really picking up speed, totally ignoring the brakes. I figure the other competitors were slow because they wanted to avoid the cones, a two-second penalty. The hell with being careful, I think; if I'm going to win, I can't play it safe. Once I'm at the far end of the track, my concentration breaks down. The road curves in a constant half-circle, then a sharp angle and a zigzag. I'm going too fast and don't want to brake. A cloud of white smoke is behind me as the car drifts off to the right. I overcompensate by steering left and spin out. The finish line is right in front of me. I put the pedal down again, and the car's acceleration seems weak. I look at the clock: 35 seconds.

I get out of the car and violently pull off my helmet; I want to throw it. I think to myself, the race was rigged. They added more time because they think I was being reckless. It's fixed.

Although there was a cathartic release to my demonic driving, I just kind of got more pissed-off at losing than anything. I'm not a racer, never have been. I've been driving since age 12 ­ with a license since 1,4 ­bu tI had never been in an accident until some dude hit me while I was sitting still. Speed kills. Buckle your safety belt, and be safe out there.


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