8:00 am rolled up with Tara and I positioned in our car outside Wide Open's pit, my nerves frazzled, the cool desert air filtering in through the net like the icy fingers of a ghost. Tara gave me a few final suggestions, such as to remember to breathe. We had everything we needed, so we were ready to head to the starting line. Being strapped down and made “one with the car” made me feel like an ant on a camel’s back, barely noticeable. Being inside the car was definitely different than standing next to it. It wasn’t as loud, and it didn’t shake as much as I expected it to. I could hear Tara as clear as a bell speak over the microphone, “Ready to head out?” I gave her a thumb’s up and turned my head as much as I could to see her, which proved to be very difficult with everything I was wearing, and we started to move. THERE’S the growl I was expecting. It must have been somewhat muffled inside the helmet, but there wasn’t a chance we could miss this. Tara took me over the part of the course that was in front of our pit, made of a series of bumps, barely warming the engine up. It was clear she wasn’t going very fast, she was simply showing me what to expect. Up and down, with an overly exaggerated bounce, thanks to the monstrous shocks this car carries. I couldn’t help but giggle since it wasn’t as rough as I thought it would be, almost a slow motion version of what I had anticipated. Between the giant tires, luxury shocks, cushioned seats, neck braces and helmets, it felt like the greatest rollercoaster on Earth. We passed Pit Row where a few other cars were getting ready to head over, and that’s when it occurred to me this car was probably one that the crowd was looking forward to seeing. Other pit crews were taking pictures of us shoot past, and I saw quite a few conversations seize as the sound of our engine closed in. I was feeling pretty confident knowing we had such an advantage, and then Tara told me we’d be starting off last.
I didn’t know what she meant; the only races I’d seen had started with an all-encompassing “GO!” Not this one, we were staggered with the other cars, each starting about 10 seconds after the car in front of us. And yes, we were scheduled to begin in last place. This really took away any buffer space I had for messing up. I felt butterflies start to flutter in my stomach. Parked in position, waiting for our class to be called, Nick and the crew found us and went over everything one last time. He was giving the lesson of a lifetime, and he clearly had tons of experience with first-timers. He pointed out a few cars that we’d need to watch out for, and said they were pretty fast, and have drivers who have been practicing since they were kids. Great. As we sat and waited, several photographers walked by and captured the purple beast on film. A few spectators posed in front of us for pictures. I told Tara I was really worried I’d let her down. She calmed my nerves by telling me she’d already driven the course once, and she’s totally capable of driving this car alone; I was only there to help. That made me feel a little relieved, but still, I didn’t want the race to end and wish I could have done more. No regrets! I told Tara not to hold back, that I’ll probably never get another chance to do this, and I’ve got the rest of my life to heal. I wiped off the visor of my helmet with the back of my glove, adjusted my neck brace, and took one last sip of water. My net went back up with a loud snap, and we pulled in line to leave. My vision started to rattle with the car, and I did one last pull on my harness straps. I’m sure my vision will relax a bit once we get to a speed the car’s comfortable with. I planted my feet firmly on the floor of the passenger side, zoomed my GPS screen to a viewable size, and we pulled up to the starting line. I felt like all eyes were on us. I saw photos later that proved all eyes were on us. This is what the crowd had been waiting for. The car cleared its throat.
The Race of a Lifetime
Green flag! Tara eased into the race so as not to spin the tires, and we grew into a comfortable speed almost immediately. With over 240 cars entered in the race, we passed camp after camp for at least a mile, spectators and fellow enthusiasts cheering us on as we flew by. I could barely focus, let alone honk the co-driver horn to thank them. That comfortable speed turned into a full blown lift-off, and we were still battling the initial bumps and jumps before the course leveled out for the real speed zone. Everything I had known was telling me we need to slow down, but this is my one chance at racing a car like this, and everything was set up for me to come out alive. I closed my eyes and talked myself out of being afraid. Our speed continued to increase, and the snarl of the beast under the hood convinced me that given the chance, it would love to jump out and ditch the car to finish this race on its own. The hood wouldn’t contain it much longer unless we let it perform, and kept our speed up. The cool breeze of our air tubes produced the strangest sensation in my helmet; I was hurling through the desert with dirt bucketing through the windshield, but I could breathe better than ever, hear Tara perfectly, and my contacts were tip top. My helmet had its own atmosphere. This is surreal! I heard static over the main radio frequency, interrupted by shaky voices calling in flat tires and mechanical problems, and it sounds like there had been a roll already. Tara continued to increase speed. We landed our first jump right into a cloud of stirred-up dust, not slowing down for a second. I couldn’t see a thing. It was as if we drove right into a tornado. On the streets, I would have pulled over, or at least slowed my speed to a crawl. You never know who’s in front of you with their lights off, not thinking twice about standing in the middle of the road. Well Tara wasn’t hesitating; she actually continued to accelerate, blinded by the dust and not entirely aware as to what lay ahead. I later learned that off-road cars have orange lights on them to pierce through any dust clouds. But I was completely out of my comfort level. Clouds poured in through the windshield, and right out the side windows. I glanced down at my GPS, and I could barely make out a thing. I was bouncing like a rag doll. I put one hand on the computer for support, wiped the screen and my visor with the back of my glove, and tried my best to comprehend what I was looking at. I’ve GOT to get it together. I couldn’t get my thumb to stand still long enough to push the zoom button, so I felt around with my fingers until I found it, and walked my thumb over it. We were going so fast, as soon as I’d find us on the map, and let Tara know a curve was ahead, we’d already be turning. We left the dust clouds and two slower racecars behind, looked ahead for a clear shot of our competition, and then Tara really opened up the engine. I was told after the race that we hit 71.9 mph!