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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Vegas: Dream Racing my five-minute Ferrari


My instructor said he could sense I was a safe driver because I kept instinctively reaching to signal a turn with the car’s blinker.

The car was a $250,000 Ferrari F430 GT. It didn’t have a blinker.

And I know just how picky that sounds.

I pride myself on being a courteous driver. I always use my turn signals and do things like wave when someone equally courteous lets me merge ahead of them.

For a while I would try to convey to other drivers their blinkers were on by pulling even with them, making eye contact and then deliberately blinking one eye to inform them of their oversight.

I stopped doing this because it confused drivers, both male and female, into thinking I was hitting on them moments before I’d nearly hit into them.

So far, the Dream Racing Experience at fabulous Las Vegas Speedway is the Extreme Vegas activity that is inspiring among my friends the most fierce resentment. It was a three-hour, $499 experience that featured simulator lessons and five laps around the speedway's 1.1 mile road track. The ultimate package is $1,999 and includes 20 blazing laps (so it's about $100 per lap).

“That’s wasted on a guy like you,” one said. “You don’t even like cars.”

That’s not true.

I don’t like are my cars. I’ve had just five of them over the last 30 or so years. They’ve been mostly reliable, especially the three Tennessee-made Saturns.

But I have no romance for them the way I do my darling wife. I never find myself sitting here in reflective moment thinking, “Gee, I’m really lucky to have my Saturn Vue. I love the time we spend together. Maybe I should more often tell the Saturn how much I care for it.”

In fact, just two weeks ago, the Saturn turned 100,000 miles and I didn’t for an instant think I should buy it a nice gift, something I’ll certainly do when Val turns 100,000.

And I’m not a gear head. I don’t care what kind of engine it has or any of that stuff that gets the pulses of the NASCAR fans, well, I guess we should say, racing.

All I know about cars is how to drive ‘em and wash ‘em and I never wash ‘em.

The only things I care for in my car is that it has a really rockin’ stereo, is fuel efficient and it will go where I point it.

The Ferrari is one-for-three with those; no stereo and the gas mileage would infuriate guys like Al Gore. And that the Ferrari would go where I pointed it was a considerable drawback because we’d get to where it was pointing in a real jiffy.

This I learned in advance from the simulator, a fairly accurate rendition of the actual vehicle in that it doesn’t have blinkers either. Me and my guys found the simulators more difficult than the actual Ferraris.

The cars are fully functional. The instructor -- mine was a professional European racer, a great guy, who works for Dream Racing in the off-season -- doesn’t have a student driver brake and he’s not going to reach over and wrench the wheel from your hands.

In fact, having these guys as actual student driver instructors would be the insurance industry’s dream.

Their in-car instruction is basically boiled down to two words: Go faster!

“It’s impossible for you to wreck the car,” he’d say. “Just ease off the gas going into the turn and step on it going out.”

This again conflicts with experience. I haven’t had a wreck in 20 years, but I see a colossal wreck of some sort every day either on the news or on the highway.

Being cautious has served me well. Here’s another tip to reduce the odds of road rage: if you see someone driving like a maniac, charitably assume he or she is racing to the hospital to help deliver triplets.

I swear, it helps.

The Dream Racing Experience is the one bucket-list activity from last week I wholeheartedly endorse. The instructors were fantastic and even now I’m enjoying a serene recollection of driving a true sports car 140 mph down the stretch.

My unofficial best time for the 1.1 mile-track was 61 seconds, four seconds better than the average and just 12 seconds off the track record.

Even though it’s over in about five minutes, it’s well worth the $499 for the experience.

I asked if anyone ever tried to get more bang for their buck by circling the track really, really slowly -- and I saw nothing saying you couldn’t.

But what fun would that be?

It’s like life in that it’s more fun if you go at with the pedal to the metal.

Even when that means it seems like it all goes by in the blink of any eye.



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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Vegas: Sore from soaring in stunt planes


By anyone’s standards, it’s been for me a gaudy week of excitement, adventure and splendor.

It was four days of Extreme Vegas adventures -- SkyJump, Ferrari racing, moonlit helicopter dashes above the Strip, machine gun experience, lavish meals and entertainment with gorgeous women.

For the first time in my life I felt like James Bond could ask me, “So what’d you do today?” and my answer wouldn’t bore him to tears.

And that puts me in an awkward position.

I realize by trumpeting my participation in so many audacious activities I risk alienating my core constituency: that would be buddies who read my blog to revel in my many miseries.

I get this.

Many of my favorite books involve forlorn 18th century innocents who’ve been press ganged into sailing on behalf of the King for some mercenary mission so ill-conceived the poor sailors get devoured by either whales, island primitives or calorie-starved shipmates too impatient for their next Happy Meal.

So here’s a bit of a bone for that group.

I totally wussed out on one high adrenaline activity. My colleagues made fun of me. Ridiculed my caution. Questioned my manhood.

Under any other circumstances, the charges would have made me sick.

Instead my accusers were the ones who got sick.

I tell you, I’m on a roll.

And it was all because I sought to avoid excessive rolls at the Sky Combat Ace experience in Hendersonville. Each of us would go up in SCA’s 330 horsepower Extra 330LCs.

The powerful planes are nimble staples of any quality air show and we were going to fly them. The SCA planes are rigged so the upfront guest pilot can safely fly the plane while the actual pilot has a handy override in the rear.

Other than take off and landing, an hour of ground training can bestow anyone with the ability to fly an actual stunt plane and conduct actual stunts -- snap rolls, flick rolls, hammerheads, etc.

Everyone was fired up for it.

Everyone but me.

I’d had some experience with high-performance stunt planes. I’d once for story purposes been a passenger in a bi-plane that did many of the same stunts we’d be eligible to try ourselves at SCA.

That 30-minute flight led to me spending the next 14 hours on the couch feeling like I was going to die. The stunts had completely scrambled my innards. 

We’d pulled 4 Gs, or four times the weight of normal gravity.

The SCA planes are capable of pulling 8 Gs.

“Man, this is going to be so much fun,” gushed one young guy.

I told him I wasn’t so sure. 

“You’re not afraid, are you?”

No, I’m experienced.

He immediately peeled off to begin making diaper jokes about me.

Here’s what happened: the first guy went up and vomited in the air sickness bag.

He was the lucky one.

Then two more went up. One of them came back looking like I remember feeling after my initiation into the the world of aerial acrobatics. He was white as a sheet.

The other guy, the one who’d been incredulous at my timidity, was Maverick from “Top Gun.” He was utterly euphoric.

“That was the greatest thrill ride ever! I did every stunt there was! Loops! Stalls! I did it all!”

Then it was my turn. I pointed at the ashen faced journalist and said to my pilot, “Your mission is to do everything you can to ensure I don’t wind up feeling like he looks.”

“You’re the boss,” he told me, even as I sensed his disappointment.

When we reached 5,000-foot cruising altitude, he executed a series of quick 4G  turns that left me feeling faint. I told him I him that was my limit.

It’s his job to give customers a great experience so I don’t blame him for what he said next.

“Well, let’s try just one more so you can get the real flavor of the plane. It’s called a hammerhead.”

He drove the plane spinning straight up until it swooned into a stall. Then in compliance with gravity it began plummeting to earth until he gunned it out of its death spiral.

I didn’t scream. I didn’t say any prayers. But as soon as I recovered I told him in a very calm voice that if he did that again I was going to fill his cockpit up with so much vomit he’d need to take it to an industrial dry cleaner.

Then it was my turn to fly the plane. It was like I’d turned this precision stunt plane into a little red wagon with wings. We flew so perfectly straight and level he warned me we were about to enter Arizona air space. 

Upon landing, I felt blissful. It had been wonderful and none of it would jeopardize any of the remainder of my Vegas visit.

And what added to my good feeling was being able to watch in real time the physical degeneration of my colleague who’d hinted my decisions were sissy.

Yes as the day progressed he became the sickest of them all. I understand it makes me appear small to grow gleeful over the misery of my fellow man, but I found the emotion irresistible.

And -- who knows? -- maybe the lost lunch will wind up being a net gain.

Maybe one day he’ll learn that life offers plenty of opportunities to soar while still remaining properly well-grounded.



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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Vegas: Enjoying a good long jump with Playboy Playmate Claire Sinclair


Four nights, five waivers, three jumpsuits  and, oh, about 24,000 surplus calories.

For me, being invited to participate in Extreme Vegas was like winning a really cool “Price is Right” Showcase and getting to meet a B-list celebrity who’s even more cuddly than Drew Carey.

So let’s start with SkyJump at the Stratosphere because it was the most exhilarating  activity and the only one that involved at least a little nudity.

Not mine.

Even better. Way better.     

I’m talking the nudity of luscious Claire Sinclair, the 2012 Playboy Playmate of the Year.

The SkyJump takes place from an exposed deck 855-feet above the concrete patios at the Stratosphere, the second tallest freestanding observation tower in North America.

I’d twice been skydiving 25 years earlier. Both were solo jumps, a distinction that gives me bragging rights over those who skydive strapped tandem snug to dudes who answer to daredevil nicknames like “Psycho” and “Mad Dog.”

I stress to our elementary school daughters that trying too hard to appear cool is the opposite of true cool.

I say this even as I devote my entire existence to doing everything I can to keeping my cool alive. It’s my juvenile compensation for not having things like a job, stability, income, realistic prospects, etc.

See, if guys like me don’t have cool, we don’t have zip.

So, one week after turning 50, there I was on the Stratosphere’s 108th floor observation deck with three other reporters, our gracious host, and to add a dash of Vegas surreal, the voluptuous Claire Sinclaire.

I’ll be captioning the picture you see above, “Four guys, one gal = six big boobs.”

Sinclaire has the pleasant kind of demeanor you’d expect from a person who is so far in life enjoying fame and fortune simply by smiling and removing her clothes.

Two other details I noticed about her: she has what seems to be an instinctual habit of provocatively turning her left knee in anytime anyone points a camera at her. At least that’s what happens when she’s upright. I can’t say if this reflex kicks in when she’s being photographed either lying on her back or posing on all fours.

Further research is required and I’m game for the duty.

Also, she speaks almost entirely in double entendres.

She kept asking who’d be jumping with her, if any of us were experienced jumpers and what excited us most about the anticipation of a really good, long jump.

It got even worse when she told us that the resort’s Roxy restaurant had honored her by offering a Claire Sinclair Burger.

“Will you eat my burger?” she asked.

It’s a question no woman’s ever asked me before. I was confused enough to seek a little Sinclaire-ity: “Does ‘eat your burger’ mean the same thing in Las Vegas as it does in Pittsburgh?”

She pretended she didn’t hear me. One of the other guys told me it was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.

I disagreed and think it was the kind of question any refined gent would ask.

Either way, I told my wife I think her question meant she was hitting on me.

It’s a common misconception that this is a bungee jump. In fact, it’s considered a controlled decelerator descent. You’re tethered to three wires that govern how fast you fall. A jump costs $109.

After a brief safety session, they zoomed us jumpers to the top and led us to a little pen where maybe a dozen people took pictures and turns telling us we were crazy.

As pep talks go, it wasn’t exactly let’s go out there and win one for the Gipper.

I’ve never been so scared in my life. 

When it was my turn, they opened the booth security doors and led me in. I felt like I was sleepwalking.

The wind was roaring. In fact, the last guy in our group was the last guy to go. The howling winds had made jumping too dangerous.

For an extra $30, they strap a video camera to your wrist. You can watch the video here if you want to see how I look when I’m terrified out of my mind, a condition I describe with a careless profanity I in hindsight regret.

I’m not going to say jumping off that exposed metal plank was the greatest thing I’d ever done, but surrendering to my fears and walking away from it would have been the worst.

Cowardice in any form is deplorable.

Sure, I’m not without my flaws, but I proved I’m no chicken and yesterday I fielded calls from envious guys who thought what I did was the coolest thing in the world.

I think so, too.

Just call me Mad Dog.


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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Re-run Sunday: Having a cow over imported milk

Is it just me or does the topic for every fifth Sunday re-run involve something bovine? I try and pick re-runs that are non-controversial and have nothing to do with stressful news. That usually means moo. This one's from May 2011. I'm returning home tomorrow, still alive -- maybe more alive -- with a head full of fun stories from Extreme Vegas. I ask your indulgence while I let a few of them play out over the next week.



When I heard the FDA was banning the importation of suspect Japanese milk, my first thought was sympathy for the milkman who has to hump milk from Tokyo to L.A.
Then I felt silly for thinking milkmen still existed. There haven’t been milkmen for 40 years.
Those were simpler times. Now we all get our own milk that comes to our neighborhood grocery stores.
From Japan!
If the act wasn’t so redundant, it’d be enough to make me have a cow.
Is America in the midst of a cow shortage? I guess it wouldn’t surprise me to learn American cows were being outperformed by Japanese cows.
We’ve for years heard stories about how our moronic children are falling behind the Japanese in things like math and science and, more depressingly, how to slap a stand-up double to the right field gap.
Now, if I understand correctly, even our cows are inferior.
I’m an utter -- and that’s utter, not udder -- innocent when it comes to international agricultural trade, but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to just import the whole cow?
Maybe there are obscure cultural issues. Perhaps the Japanese cows have trouble fitting in. It’s possible American cows share some of their unappealing bigotries stereotypical of some teet-tickling farmers. But I’ve never seen any urban street cows so fair comparison’s impossible.
If that’s true, it offends me to my very core. Asian, American, Latina -- underneath, we’re all the same. Excepting, of course, cows have five stomachs.
And imagine for a second if the reverse were true. I wager it would be impossible for a single all-you-can-eat restaurant to survive if the average American had five stomachs. Any evolution in that direction would surely doom the bovine population.
But until that happens, the thought of America needing to import even a single glass of milk boggles my mind.
Only water is more pedestrian. If we ever run out of aqua, we’ll all be washing our cars with milk.
It is one of the few substances that’s yet to be infected with any hoity-toity pretensions. There are designer olive oils, salts, and vinegars that get treated like fine wines.
But no one’s ever going to goad consumers into participating in a televised taste test between Japanese milk and American milk.
No one 100 years from now is going to be trading a boutique gallon of milk at Sotheby's. If milk goes even a few days past its expiration date, we dump it down the drain and just run and get another gallon that, I guess, for some consumers comes all the way from Japan.
Like many enviro-conscious consumers we try and buy local. We get organic eggs from free-range chickens raised on a farm I can see from my house (if I ever erect and scale a pole about 3,500-feet high).
One of these days, I swear, I’m going to drive 20 minutes to that farm and personally thank all those chickens. 
That cow-rich America is importing milk from Japan, a nation which I guess is about the size of greater Cleveland, says something is seriously out of whack.
It’s enough to drive a man to drink.
I wonder where I can find a good stiff belt of locally distilled Scotch.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hungover in Vegas



Not me.

No, I’m feeling fit as a fiddle, a 17th century phrase originally intended to conjure admiration for how often tuneful violins improved any situation.

The knowledge now has me wondering if one day four hundred years from now cliche-prone happy people might often announce they’re feeling dandy as Xanax.

So the most hungover man in Las Vegas is bound to be Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. 

He’s one of the other three writers with me on this press trip to experience what they’re calling “Extreme Vegas.” Yesterday that included driving $225,000 Ferraris 140 mph.

I swear I could have gone faster but the entire time I was racing the Ferrari I was distracted by the knowledge that the vehicle I was operating for five minutes was worth more than the sum total of the all the crappy vehicles I’ve owned since 1985.

Shaughnessy is from Canada, the international neighbor Americans view the way Jerry Seinfeld viewed Kramer -- eccentric, entertaining, a bit of a mooch, but ultimately harmless.

Which naturally means Canadians must view us the way nervous people in parts of rural Michigan must view their neighbor Ted Nugent -- scary, reckless, prone to hysterical conspiracy theories and armed to the teeth.

Yesterday he was the most hungover man I’d ever met.

Maybe not in a purely physiological definition. Sure, he looked like hell and said he felt like hell, but he was at least ambulatory while truly hungover people were scattered in darkened Vegas hotel rooms moaning over and over things like, “Never again, never again.”

He was the hangover champ because the other sad souls had set out to get drunk.

Shaughessy’d set out to get hungover.

Why?

He’s writing a book! A book called “Hungover.”

It’s the history of hangovers, hangover cures and how hangovers have altered world history.

He entertained us all with stories about how entire empires have turned because generals were too hungover to read things like rightside up maps.

Part of his visit to Vegas involves getting a hangover so ghastly he’d be a perfect candidate to check out the services of Hangover Heaven, a Las Vegas clinic that for  about $100 claims it can cure your hangover through intravenous methods.

I told my wife all about it and she was chagrined I hadn’t thought of writing a book on hangovers first.

“You’d be perfect for that,” she said. “You’re always hungover.”

Her comment once again reminded how if the Rodells were interested in earning real money, Val and I would co-write a blog that on one side of the page would detail how she perceived me while on the other side I’d write about how I perceive myself.

I haven’t had a “never again” hangover since, geez, I think it was last Tuesday.

We all spent a good bit of the day monitoring Shaughnessy’s well-being.

He’d done his part. He’d stayed up drinking like a maniac through about 4 a.m. He took a cab to Hangover Heaven. The place is nothing fancy, he said. Just a few chairs in front of a TV that plays an endless loop of the 2009 viva Las Vegas movie, “The Hangover.”

I wish I could say he experienced a miraculous cure, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

In fact, as we drove from the race track to lunch I thought we were going to have to ask the limo driver to pull over so our Canadian friend could vomit on the desert.

This might be unfair. I’m sure no one at Hangover Heaven would have prescribed their patients drive race cars pulling several Gs around the Las Vegas Speedway.

It’s bound to be an unsettling exhilaration to bodies of even sober folk.

Thus the excessive drinker’s holy grail -- the instant hangover cure -- appears to remain elusive.

In my experience, the only thing that eases a real hangover is lots of couch time and TV Land marathons of the old Andy Griffith Show. You just lay there and recuperate in a state that can best be described as nauseous bliss. 

I’d usually start feeling a little better around 3 p.m. or when they ran the episode about when Barney and Andy try to save Otis, the town drunk, from detonating a dynamite-eating goat.

Val and the kids would never let me get away with a day like that again.

The recollection has me feeling nostalgic for the old days when I was single and free of parental responsibilities.

My very own hangover heaven.



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Friday, February 22, 2013

Extreme Vegas . . . and me!


The kids’ goodbye hugs were extra precious and squeezy. Val called our insurance agent to check if my term policies were up to date. And the boys in the bar argued about exactly who gets the motherlode of my unused free beer poker chips.

I embarked yesterday on a trip that for five days would court nearly a dozen different types of death.

“Don’t kill yourself,” Val said as I left for the airport.

I wasn’t planning on killing myself. My fear was being killed by others.

Yes, I’m in Las Vegas.

Don’t take that as a reference to the high-profile slaying of a low-profile rapper about two blocks from where I’m staying on the 27th floor of the MGM Grand or a string of other violent crimes linked to the Strip.

No, the Las Vegas Convention & Visitor’s Association invited me and three other writers to what they’re calling “Extreme Vegas.” So over the next three days I’ll be bungee jumping off the Stratosphere, racing a Ferrari, choppering across the desert, zip lining down canyons and spending a day target shooting with assorted automatic weapons Joe Biden would rather I didn’t.

And, of course, to add to the fun I’ll be doing all this in various stages of inebriation.

Like an increasing number of the 40 million annual tourists, I don’t enjoy coming to Las Vegas to gamble. I figuring living my life as a freelance writer with a wife,  two kids and no real job is a big enough gamble. That, I guess, makes Val gutsy enough to be considered the Minnesota Fats of holy matrimony.

She just keeps letting it ride.

But I love Vegas for the food, the entertainment and for being a reliable cornucopia of human excess.

I wrote about various aspects of it nearly a dozen times from 2010-2012 when I was doing travel stories for msnbc.com before they slashed pay to levels too insulting for even me -- and some day when I’m feeling particularly bitter I’ll get around to telling that story.

But not today.

Today, I’m feeling great.

Our hosts threw us a lavish introductory dinner last night at Craftsteak here in the hotel, with 6,852 rooms the third largest in the world. As the theme for the week is “Extreme,” every meal will involve some sort of extreme consumption.

Last night it was steak and Scotch. Fact: Two of the men at our table drank Scotch that was older than they were. And we’re just getting started.

Today’s lunch will be at Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR at Planet Hollywood. The place boasts it is home to the world’s largest burger, a fallacy that will give me the opportunity to be extremely boring as I tell them about Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, the true home of the world’s biggest burger.

It promises to be a wonderful weekend, a great time if living it up doesn’t kill us all dead.

One guy is going to swim with sharks at Mandalay Bay and fly vintage pilot combat. There’s so much of this adventure stuff out here.

For subversive reasons, I’m looking forward to our afternoon at Guns & Ammo Garage Shooting Experience. Most of you know I believe America is plagued with too many guns and too many bullets.

The itinerary says we’ll be there for 90 minutes. It is my intention to in that time fire every last bullet in America so that the next mass killer will have to use as his lethal weapon a blunt instrument.

And by blunt instrument, I’m talking tuba.

Of course, there’s a chance I’ll enjoy it so much, as so many others do, that I’ll renounce the more than 10,000 words I’ve written on behalf of sensible gun legislation and start using my blog to write poems of admiration for Wayne Lapierre.

Heck, anything to grow the readership.

So how I did I prepare for this testosterone fest? What did I do to ramp up my meager macho?

It wasn’t easy.

Yesterday, I spent five hours enduring one of the most soul-challenging ventures known to man.

Yes, I survived a non-stop Pittsburgh to Vegas commercial flight.

In the middle seat!

I’m extremely proud.


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