Forgive me, Mother Nature and hapless tourists, for revving this 662 horsepower engine in an area overlooking one of the most serene spots in Southern Nevada.
But I’m not doing it on purpose. It’s been nearly 20 years since I drove a car with a manual transmission. I have no problem shifting gears second through fifth. It’s the first gear that’s giving me problems. Boy, is it a doozy.
“Looking good, Shelby,” the in-car radio crackles with positive feedback from World Class Driving instructor Warren Roberds. He’s watching me lurch around the parking lot of the Red Rock Canyon Overlook just off state Route 159.
“Shelby” is my name for the next 20 minutes or so as I drive the 2013 Mustang Shelby GT500 on this leg of the American Muscle Car driving experience. The car is Grabber Blue, appropriately named because the color seizes your attention the second you spot it.
Our caravan — the Shelby, a Corvette Z06 and a Dodge Challenger SRT8 — is idling in the overlook parking lot, waiting to re-enter highway traffic and continue our trip toward Blue Diamond. We’re also waiting for me to get the hang of this clutch thing.
While a small group of people takes in a peaceful vista stretching as far as the eye can see, the thrum of my engine punctures the air. I know what I would be thinking, if I were those sightseeing tourists: “show-off jerks,” but in more colorful language. I barely keep myself from shouting apologies out the window. Instead, I offer one to my passenger.
“Sorry. It’s not supposed to do that. I will get the hang of this,” I say.
We are the first people to take this American Muscle Car tour with World Class Driving, a company known for its exotic car tours.
In 2011, World Class began offering car trips daily in Las Vegas. It’s not so much a rental car company as it is a tour provider. Customers sign up for various packages in which they can drive several cars, including Ferraris, Porsches, Mercedes and Lamborghinis. Driving instructors take them along Highway 159, past the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This allows people the chance to drive cars they might never be able to buy, says CEO Aaron Fessler, while taking in some of the valley’s most spectacular scenery.
Earlier this month, the company launched the American Muscle Car Tour. The demand for such a tour is there, Fessler says, and American muscle cars haven’t been this pumped up in a long time. Car companies have recently revived old sports models, such as the Dodge Challenger and the Chevy Camaro, and people want to drive them. With sticker prices in the mid to high five figures, these cars remain inaccessible to many.
You can’t even test drive most of these models, says World Class Driving director of operations Darren Strahl.
“There’s a very strong culture of people in the U.S. who live, eat and breathe all things automotive,” Fessler says. “Las Vegas is a very strong market for (us). The typical tourist is looking for unique experiences you can’t find anywhere else on the planet.”
For $299, you can drive three American muscle cars on a 30-mile trip through Red Rock Canyon, along the section of Highway 159 designated as one of Nevada’s Scenic Byways. Add $100 and you can drive four cars. For an additional fee, you can also bring a passenger.
On a recent Thursday, our group starts off in the Red Rock Resort parking garage, where we get a safety briefing and decide who can and cannot drive a stick shift. The road we will drive is popular with cyclists and joggers, so be careful of them, Strahl warns us. There are also wild horses and burros that sometimes hang out on the side of the road.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is off of Highway 159, also called Red Rock Canyon Road. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
It has a 13-mile scenic loop for cars and is designated as a multiple use site where people can hike, bike, drive, picnic, ride horses and rock climb. Those uses spill out onto the state route, too.
We won’t be driving through the park’s scenic loop, because the speed limit is only 35 mph, much too slow for these cars. But that doesn’t mean that the park is not impacted by the presence of these high-performance machines. Activists and hikers say that traffic is getting heavier in the area, presenting challenges to everyone who wants to use the park. Eventually, they say, it will have to be addressed.
“That’s the thing about the cars (tours). They’re always out there,” says Heather Fisher, a local cyclist and hiker. “It used to be quiet during certain times of the day but not anymore. It’s made a real impact already.”
Fisher runs her own tour company, Escape Adventures. She takes people on bicycle tours through the canyon. The last thing she wants to do is criticize another tour business owner, she says.
But cars and Red Rock are a sensitive issue for her. In 2005, her friend and fellow cyclist, Don Albietz, was struck by a vehicle while he was riding his bike on Highway 159. He later died from his injuries.
Fisher helped organize Save Red Rock Canyon, a grass-roots group that fought to lower the speed limit on Highway 159. In 2009, it was reduced to 50 mph from 60 mph, thanks to the group’s efforts.
When Fisher started advocating for safer roads, she also fought for a better bike path. At the time Albietz died, the road’s shoulder was only a few inches wide. Her group’s efforts led to an expansion of that shoulder where pedestrians and cyclists can operate more safely.
It is still not without its dangers, she says. And that is apparent as I drive along the road, passing cyclists who are within inches of the car.
Red Rock is one of those places that practically begs people to drive through it, says Jane Feldman, conservation chair for the local group of the Sierra Club. When she arrived in Las Vegas 19 years ago, she would put the top down on her little red Mazda Miata and drive around the canyon.
“This kind of activity seems to be out of step with a national conservation area,” Feldman says. “But it’s not. They’re an urban park so they may have things in that park that may be totally out of place in other national parks.”
Would-be drivers are cautioned about speed limits and laws, Fessler says. This tour is about the scenery and getting to operate a dream car for about 90 minutes.
“That’s something we’re very passionate about,” Fessler says. “There’s a place and a time to speed and do fun things, and the public roads are not the place to do those things.”
In each World Class Driving tour, there are opportunities to “test the car’s acceleration” within the speed limit, an instructor says during our drive.
I start out in the black Corvette Z06, which comes only with a manual transmission.
Its clutch is more forgiving than the Shelby’s, Strahl says, and this will give me a chance to practice before I graduate to the more powerful Mustang. The Challenger on our tour has an automatic transmission.
I’m not a car aficionado. I am also really not a fan of driving. Vegas drivers can make it a tense activity. But as I drive these cars, I come to understand their appeal, especially after I get the hang of the clutch. It’s fun. Exhilarating, even.
My favorite car was the Shelby. My favorite part of the tour? That came at the end, when we headed back to our own inferior cars.
The Shelby’s engine roared as we glided down the highway and I could feel the car’s power while I sat in my favorite seat: the passenger seat.
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.