Thursday, March 15, 2012

Changing the rules

Really interesting article about the guy who won millions playing blackjack against the Atlantic City casinos. He did it not by counting cards, but by bringing a huge bankroll, playing perfectly, and--most importantly--literally getting the casinos to change the rules of the game. I had read a bit about how casinos will change the payout structures for whales in Double or Nothing, the book about the brief ownership of the Golden Nugget, but this article goes into more detail.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ferrari man

As promised in my previous post, today I went out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (do they really need to specify "motor" when they're talking about a "speedway"? I mean, is there a horse-drawn "speedway" somewhere?) and took a few laps around one of the auxiliary tracks in a Ferrari F430. Here's how it looked from the cockpit:

Random thoughts:

I made several mistakes, which I guess isn't surprising for such a new experience:
  • Once I hit the wrong paddle and downshifted when I meant to upshift. You can hear the engine whine in protest and the instructor (Brandon, who was great) chuckles at me.
  • For the first couple of laps I kept lifting off the gas when it was time to shift, unable to break the habit developed from years of using a clutch pedal. Dang these new-fangled infernal machines!
  • I couldn't figure out the geometry of the hairpin turn combination near the start of the course. On the second time through, you see Brandon reach over and grab the wheel to force me more left than I thought it looked like I should go. I got it right just once, on the fourth lap, and could definitely tell. It was kind of amazing how getting the line just right felt so much different than getting it wrong, and you'll see me smile and hear me comment on the "aha!" moment. It was like hitting the ball with the sweet spot of a tennis racket. But then I missed it again the last time around. Slow learner.
I don't really know if overall I was going faster or slower than most. I got passed a few times (though one of them was by the stunt driver, about which more later), and passed only one other person. Watching a bunch of people before it was my turn, I could tell that there was a pretty broad range of speeds. What I couldn't tell was whether that was mainly due to the bravery (or lack thereof) of the drivers, or due to some instructors being more restrained than others. Probably a combination of both.

In fact, if I had one critique of the experience, it was that I'm confident I didn't get anywhere near the outer limits of the car's capabilities. Cornering never felt more violent than when I take freeway off-ramps a little too fast just for fun, and braking was never even close to maximal. The cones to indicate braking points are very conservative; I really wanted to keep accelerating longer and braking later. And I really, REALLY wanted to attack that last combination before the straightaway a lot more aggressively, something close to the car's limits of adhesion. But instead I was a good boy and tried to be compliant to the rules. Later I'll post some video of their scare-the-passenger Corvette driver, and he's hitting the corners 20, 30, maybe 40 mph faster than the customer-drivers. The other exotics are all at least as capable as the Vette, but they're not being pushed hard. I understand perfectly well why they set it up with cushy parameters: They want to keep a large margin of error and not have people spin out their expensive cars. But the consequence is that you never get a real sense of what these amazing pieces of engineering can do, except for a few seconds of flat-out acceleration each lap.

(Speaking of flat out, here's Jeremy Clarkson extolling the virtues of the 430 on "Top Gear," plus Stig wringing every bit of performance out of it on a timed lap. Part 1 and Part 2.)

How fast did I go? I honestly have no idea. I never once looked down at either the speedometer or the tachometer. It took all of my attention to attend to keeping the proper lines around turns and paying attention to Brandon's instructions. But the layout of the track simply doesn't allow one to come anywhere close to its straight-line top speed. I only got into fifth gear once, sixth never, so there was a ton of top end left unexplored.

I think I got shorted a lap. The gift certificate was for five, and they give locals an extra one for free, making six. But I just watched the video again, and I counted only five. Oh well.

The guy doing our pre-drive instruction encouraged us to buy extra laps ($50 each). I'm sure they're glad to bump up the ticket price, but he said that the reason to consider it is that it takes about five laps to learn the course so that you can really start paying attention to getting things right instead of just "what's coming up next?" A commenter on yesterday's blog post said basically the same thing. And they're right. I was, in fact, just kind of getting into the groove of it when it was time to go home. But would it have been a dramatically different or better experience going around seven times than five? No. Just a little icing on the cake.

While watching others do laps before my time slot, I heard one man snicker to another about a woman out on the course, who was going rather slowly. "That's a woman in the green Ferrari that can't get around corners." Except that that green Ferrari was a Lamborghini. (Which suddenly gives me a flashback to what must have been the first World War II joke I ever learned, back in junior high school, the punchline of which was, "Yeah, but this Fokker was a Messerschmidt!") You never look dumber than when you show your ignorance while trying to look smarter than everyone else.

The drive home felt really weird. Five laps was enough--probably because of the intense concentration--to change my brain's expectation about how driving should go. I kept reaching for paddles to shift, looking for cones to aim at in corners, and feeling like I should really be flooring the accelerator. It reminded me of the first time a friend took me skeet shooting--I did it for so long that session that as I drove home and saw birds flying overhead there was an amazingly strong impulse to shoulder a gun and take them down. (For the record, despite all my time with firearms, and tens of thousands of rounds expended, the only time I've fired one at a living creature was to put down a severely injured deer that I had hit with my car about eight years ago. I have no interest in hunting. The birds thing was just a conditioned reflex, not reflective of any underlying desire.)

Overall it was hella fun. I don't think you can go far wrong giving somebody you love a gift certificate for a drive at this place (Exotics Racing--and while you're on their web site, I strongly suggest you entertain yourself with the "screamer of the month" videos, taken inside the drifting Corvettes). Or the next time you're in Vegas, just treat yourself to a completely different kind of afternoon than you'll ever get on the Strip.

I call this magnificent portrait "Dork with helmet":

(They require the stupid hairnet thing, I assume, to keep people's nasty hair goop and lice off of the expensive helmets.)

Me and my speedy steed:

(Thanks to Brandon for graciously agreeing to snap these two photos.)


Just after posting this, I checked Yahoo for the day's news, and found this story of a man who did a dash-cam video from his Ferrari--with results even more embarrassing than mine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Here's what I'll be doing tomorrow afternoon:

I get an orientation lap around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway as a passenger in a Porsche Cayenne, then five laps driving a Ferrari 430. A gift certificate for this experience was Cardgrrl's present for my 50th birthday last April. I put off scheduling it, hoping that she would be in town at some point during the year, but that didn't work out. So tomorrow is finally the day. I'll probably throw them a little extra money for the in-car video of the laps. If so, naturally I'll post it on YouTube and here. Unless I, y'know, spin out and die in a fiery crash or something. (Here's one guy's video, though he's in the 430 Scuderia, which is a slightly racified version of the 430:

All you Vegas locals will be packing the grandstands to watch, right?