Drag racing in a Shelby Mustang
Drag racing sounds like the easiest motorsport in the world. Accelerate in a straight line for quarter of a mile then stop, and if you're in the fastest car you'll have won.
But as I found out at the Las Vegas Speedway last week, there's a hell of a lot more to it than that - especially when you're behind the wheel of a 540bhp Shelby Mustang GT500.
This iconic model has been updated for 2010 with more tyre-shredding power and extra-aggressive looks, and it's perfect for quarter-mile drag racing, where it should be able to set a sub-12 second time.
Unlike most American cars, the 5.4-litre V8 GT500 is a manual not an automatic. Normally this would be a good thing for a race but, to be honest, the first time I pulled up on the start line, I was left wishing there wasn't a clutch to worry about. The perfect launch is all about balancing high revs with a sharp drop of the clutch to dart away from the line - you can win or lose the entire quarter-mile race here, and it's tricky to get right.
Unfortunately, my boy-racer approach of dialling in 5000rpm and side-stepping the clutch turned out to be a little excessive for a GT500 and I found myself merely creeping forward, engine roaring, smoke pouring off the rear tyres as they spun up wildly. Onlookers pointed and laughed and my opponent sprinted off to victory in an automatic Ford Taurus, which I don't mind telling you is a bit embarrassing when you're driving an angry-looking muscle car.
Second time around I left the traction control in sport mode (to avoid any further bogging-down embarrassment) but I was so busy fiddling with the settings, I missed the green light and set off about 2 seconds after my rival.
Third time lucky, and while I was queuing up to start I remembered watching US drag racing on ESPN, where the pros performed a smoky burnout on their way to the line to warm the tyres and get more grip. I copied the idea, scaring the marshal at the start lights half to death as the Mustang fishtailed wildly towards him. But seconds later the green light flashed and I was away with my best launch of the day.
The next few seconds were spent powering along the runway with the bonnet of my opponent's identical Shelby occasionally drifting into peripheral vision. Two gear changes are needed - you finish the race nearing the redline in third - but the Mustang's so powerful that, unless you execute each shift smoothly, it'll spin its rear tyres and bog down again. Finesse under pressure is required - every split second counts here.
With quarter of a mile covered and having rushed up to 120mph, we cross the line and I glance at my mirrors, only to discover that my rival fluffed his last gearchange and has dropped right back. Then I look forward again and realise I've now reached 130mph and need to get on the brakes hard before the wall at the end of the track gets any closer. My time is a very beatable 13.1 seconds (nowhere near our 12-second target) but I had won and the adrenaline was pumping, which was all that mattered.
If you can't get out to America to do some drag racing, check out the UK's Santa Pod drag strip, which operates 'Run What You Brung' days most weekends of the year. And if you ever move to America, where fuel is cheap and roads are wide, get yourself a Shelby Mustang GT500.