A Solstice on the track
A Solstice on the track. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

By Jil McIntosh

Las Vegas, Nevada – Las Vegas is popularly known as “Sin City” due to its time-honoured pastimes: gambling, drinking and watching shows where very few rhinestones are expected to cover up very much flesh. But all of that can wear thin quickly, and in order to keep tourists around for more than a day or two, the range of attractions has increased considerably since the Rat Pack’s days. Now, on top of the circus shows and canyon tours, you can get in some track time at General Motors’ new attraction: The Drive. The company calls it “autotainment”, and says the experience is unlike anything else offered in the United States.

This unique, hands-on driving facility is new on the Vegas strip, having opened on April 10, 2006. I visited on April 11 and was surprised to see it well-attended so soon after opening; GM spokesperson Christi Conti said that a little over 600 people went through on the first day.

The Drive sits on eleven acres of land that was originally an overflow parking lot at the Sahara Hotel & Casino, at the north end of the Vegas strip. It’s leased to GM for a minimum of six months and word is that the company will monitor the attraction’s popularity and possibly extend it after that. It’s an easy site to access, as it’s located at the last stop on the city’s monorail, and guests at the Sahara can be eligible for two-for-one discount tickets.

The Drive
The Drive is on the last stop of the Vegas monorail and easy to access.

The Drive
The cars are neatly lined up, waiting for drivers. Photos: Jil McIntosh. Click images to enlarge.

The attraction consists of three tracks: a 0.8 km paved performance route with jogs, turns and chicanes, and two off-road trails with dirt hill climbs, V-ditches, sloped banks, moguls and obstacles. The company calls the laps “experiences”: one performance experience is two laps of the track, one off-road experience one lap. A US$10 ticket buys two experiences, which can be four laps on the performance course, two laps on the off-road course, or a combination of two performance laps and one off-road lap.

Currently, thirteen vehicle types are offered, although the mix will be changed and expanded as more products become available. On the performance track, you have your choice of a 2006 Cadillac CTS-V or STS-V, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet SSR, Pontiac GTO, Pontiac Solstice or Saab 9-3; on the off-road courses, you can select a Chevrolet Silverado diesel, Hummer H2, H2 SUT or H3, Cadillac Escalade or Chevrolet Tahoe. Planned future vehicles include the Saturn Sky, GMC Yukon, Chevrolet Suburban and the Buick Lucerne.

For something that was set up in only six weeks, The Drive is an impressive attraction. You enter through a huge tent, which contains several automotive displays, an OnStar booth and a GM Performance Parts booth. Despite all that, there’s no pressure; questions will be answered if you ask, and there’s a rack of dealer brochures, but there’s no sales pitch.

Drivers must be 18 or older, show a valid driver’s license, and pass a zero-tolerance breathalyzer test. Once you’ve paid your money, you’re fitted with a wristband; tabs are pulled off it each time you drive, until all your laps are used up.

Once you’ve picked your track of choice, you then choose your vehicle from a line-up of freshly-washed cars and trucks. You’ll be accompanied by a professional driver, who sits in the passenger seat; if the vehicle allows, you can bring your friends along at no charge.

The Drive
A Pontiac GTO prepares to take to the track. Photo: Jil McIntosh.Click image to enlarge

“I’m amazed at how people are reacting to it,” Christi Conti says. “We even had an Australian couple, who read about it in a Hawaiian newspaper. It’s both a test-drive and entertainment; it’s an opportunity to promote the products, but there’s no pressure to buy. People come for fun, and at the same time, we’re exposing our product in a new way.

“We’re the only manufacturer in the U.S. doing anything like this. A lot of manufacturers go on tours, but this is the only one where people come to us. We couldn’t build something this big on a tour.”

The company makes the most of the space given, fitting the tracks together in a way that’s safe for all drivers while allowing the longest possible driving distance. The off-road hills are huge and, in keeping with the city’s strict rules on dust control, the soil is coated to keep it from blowing away in the arid desert breezes and is regularly watered down. As a way of thanking the city for quick permit turnaround to build the event, GM lets local Nevada residents drive for free, but on the first day, some 60 per cent of business was paying customers.

I started on the performance track, where I chose a Cadillac CTS-V, and was accompanied by Verena Mei, a professional drifter driver in from Long Beach, California. The staff has a wide range of backgrounds, including driver training, race driving and special automotive events; they give advice on how to navigate the course and keep drivers on track.

The Drive
Cars on the performance track. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

We started at a racer’s Christmas tree, where an attendant ensures that the cars are evenly spaced. You aren’t allowed to abuse the cars, of course, but you’re encouraged to push them harder than you might on the street. Once through the twisting course, I’m directed back for my second lap on a straight-through, so I don’t have to enter the pits between laps. Depending on the model, automatic or manual transmissions are available.

Everything moves smoothly, with very little waiting time to get into the vehicles, and people seem genuinely thrilled to be able to drive “dream cars” like the Corvette or Solstice. Conti says that she’s had a request from a man who wants to start his bachelor party at the track; the company is also looking into promoting it as a destination event for conventions or companies.

For my second “experience”, I go over to the off-road course, which is accessed by a bridge that crosses the performance course.

The Drive
One wheel comes right off the ground on the off-road track.

The Drive
An H3 crests the track’s hill.

The Drive
The off-road course is placed in the middle of the performance track. Photos: Jil McIntosh. Click images to enlarge

Here, Jared Krause takes the passenger side of a Hummer H2 SUT; he’s an off-road instructor from Michigan. These may be big manly trucks, but it’s not all about testosterone. “On the off-road track, we get about 50/50 male to female drivers,” he says, in answer to my question. He gives some hesitant thought to my second question, and then carefully replies, “I have to say the women are better drivers. They’re more cautious.”

I certainly am, as the first step is to take the Hummer up over a massive curb. From there, we tilt sideways until one wheel comes off the ground. We climb the mountain in the middle of the course and drive across a corduroy road made of railway ties before returning to the pits. This course is reserved for the Hummers; those who want to experience Escalade bling or Chevy diesel power take a less strenuous path in another area.

There’s no limit to the number of times you can drive the courses, as long as you buy enough tickets; Conti says that one man purchased six on the first day. Compared to many other entertainment prices on the Strip, it’s a deal. Conti points to the nearby Stratosphere, a tall structure dominating the Strip’s north end. “You can pay $9.95 to go to the top of that, just to look at the view,” she says. “Or you can spend the same here and have something to do.

The Drive
The author’s husband with professional drifter Verena Mei, one of the many driving experts who accompany patrons onto the track. Photo: Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

“This is the number one travel destination in the U.S., and it’s the perfect combination. People come off the track and say, ‘Wow, that was fun, and it’s longer and less expensive than the roller coaster.’ The best part is seeing people getting out of the cars, and they’re just grinning.”

The Drive is open seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; tickets can be purchased on-site, or in advance at www.vegas.com. Tickets are also available at 26 of Vegas.com’s concierge and retail locations at many Strip hotels. For more information on The Drive, visit www.thedrivevegas.com.

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