After I squished myself into the jumpsuit and shoved my head into a gigantic helmet, I was ready to go: three laps around the Las Vegas Speedway at 160 miles per hour. Outside temperatures hovered at about 100 degrees. I was sweating like a pig. My cell phone dug into my right thigh. The noise of the cars racing around the track rang in my ears. But my nerves held steady. I could do this thing.
I am by nature a cautious person. I don't do rides. I don't even do swings. For one thing, I get motion sickness. I've been known to feel nauseous on an elevator. For another thing, I'm a chicken. I've never liked seeking out man-made thrills of any kind. As a child, I screamed and cried hysterically until the operators of a small ferris wheel at Playland, in Rye, N.Y., stopped the ride just for me. I humiliated my teenage sister who was waiting at the gate.
"Oh my God, it was barely moving," she hissed as we slunk away. I didn't care. I knew I would've died if I'd had to go around one more time.
As I got older, my tendency towards caution held me in good stead. Kids grabbed on to the backs of cars in the snow, and took long rides through the neighborhood. I skittered back home and got the hot chocolate brewing. Kids jumped off of high dives, cannonballed from low cliffs, belly flopped from all different levels. I treaded water down below and watched. Accidents occurred daily. But not to me.
When I was in college, a close friend of mine died while we were hiking. Well, we weren't actually hiking—at least, I wasn't. We were swimming at the bottom of a beautiful waterfall out in the middle of nowhere in rural Virginia. Crabtree Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, also known as "Killer Falls," since so many people had died there. My friends and I laughed at the warning signs but I took note. I stayed in the water down below while three of my friends hiked up beside the falls. One of them slipped and fell to his death. On that day, I knew death was a reality. Warning signs should be heeded. You can be having fun one minute, and dead the next. I always thought this might be true, but now I knew for sure.
My children have all grown up with my dire warnings of what can happen when you're just having fun. "Don't get so close to the edge!" I would shout to them while hiking. "Don't run! You'll trip on a rock!" or "Take your hands out of your pockets—you'll need to catch yourself if you fall!" Dangers lurk everywhere, both out in the wilderness and on our city streets, and I've told my kids about most of them. Has this kept them all safe? Not really. Do they avoid all dangerous activities? Probably not.
Over the years, I've gotten tired of being a complete chickenshit. Yes, I've kept myself safe, most of the time. I've never been in a serious car accident, never even gotten a speeding ticket. I've never been hospitalized for anything other than having a baby. But I've sat on the sidelines a lot.
I've watched other people hang-glide, skydive, snowboard, skateboard, ride roller-coasters, high dive, you name it. I haven't tried any of it. Friends come back from vacations talking about zip lines and bungee jumps—and finally, at age 58, I envy them. I admire their free-spiritedness. I wish I had more of that devil-may-care attitude. Let's face it, I may not have that much time left. Even at my luckiest, more than half my life is already over. I'm tired of admiring the courage of others.
So when I found myself at a business event with my husband at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week, I was in a new frame of mind. I saw the more daring of his business associates, and their spouses, suiting up to ride around the track—at speeds up to 200 mph—with professional drivers. Can I do that? I asked myself. Well, it's not the edge of a cliff. I won't fall off. It's not a carnival ride. I won't throw up. I might wet my pants but I haven't had much to drink. I might die, but probably not—these guys drive this track all the time. I'll do it! Just so I can finally say "I did it!" And so I did.
After I suited up, one of the speedway workers literally picked me up and shoved me, legs first, into the race car. (I guess the doors don't open so you have to climb in.) I sat really low to the ground, my big helmeted head barely peeking over the dashboard to the track in front of me. My driver beamed a smile and said, "You good? Ready to race?" I gave him a double thumbs-up and off we shot. I didn't feel nervous. I told myself to not feel anything. I saw the car in front of me. I saw the hazy purple clouds. I almost closed my eyes, but stopped myself. I wanted to see this thing all the way through. Three times around the track without blinking an eye.
It went really fast. But my story about it will be really long, because at last I tried something outside my comfort level, and I plan on bragging about it for the rest of my life. Maybe I'll even try something else to brag about. Those zip lines over the Vegas strip do look pretty fun.