That shopworn slogan about "What happens in Las Vegas" doesn't apply to Vette owners. It's not that we can't keep secrets; we just don't really care whether somebody knows what we did or not. Subtlety is not a virtue when it comes to driving a Corvette. (If you want to keep a low profile in Las Vegas, take the monorail instead.) In fact, we'd be kinda upset if we didn't get noticed.
Which leads us to our recent tour of Southern Nevada in a watch-me red '11 Grand Sport. Even though GM loaned us the car for publicity purposes, we could at least pretend to be high rollers for the weekend. So when I pulled into the airport to pick up our distinguished editor, we cranked up the Elvis tunes on the satellite radio and headed for the nearest resort casino for some action. Hey, the Rat Pack has got nuthin' on us!
Unlike Hunter Thompson's seminal work on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which for some is a much more apt city slogan), we stayed relatively sober. After all, driving a 430hp Grand Sport Corvette with a wide-stance body and flared fenders is intoxicating enough.
Indeed, that's why we also included a visit to the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in nearby Pahrump, about 45 minutes west of town on State Highway 160. Ron Fellows, who heads up the driving school there, has some impressive Corvette credentials under his belt: He did the initial testing and development of the Corvette C5-R and is a technical advisor to GM Racing. Campaigning Corvettes since 1999, he's stuffed his trophy case with three American Le Mans Series GTS Championships, two 24 Hours of Le Mans wins, and 19 SCCA Trans-Am wins, just to name a few. His blunt observation about endurance racing: "You're so glad when it's over."
Pahrump and other outlying...
Pahrump and other outlying areas of Nevada offer numerous gun-barrel roads that aim at a distant horizon. It's the ideal place for blasting out the pipes.
We took several hot laps around the winding track there, and appreciated the expert coaching on how to get the most out of a Corvette in the curves. (Our last press junket there a few years ago involved thrashing a Honda S2000, which by comparison feels like pedaling a bike around the course.) We came away wishing we'd spent an entire week at the track, stirring the gears and mashing the throttle, even though Pahrump lacks the lures of Las Vegas (aside from the legal brothels, if you're into that sort of thing). We never could find any remnants from the alien landing in Mars Attacks! All we saw were wide-open stretches of smooth, inviting highway. (Incidentally, Nevada's roadwork is rated the best in the U.S.)
So on the way back to town we did what comes naturally to our itchy right foot—and stood on it. Taking a photo of the heads-up speedo display is kinda tricky while driving at triple digits, so if it looks like we had an egg underneath our size 10 loafer (since the mph readout was slightly lower for the photo) it's only because we were juggling a camera at the same time.
Fortunately, the Grand Sport's ride feels as smooth as silk sheets in a high-roller suite, thanks to the Magnetic Selective Ride Control. It's now available on Grand Sport models, with a dual-setting control to stiffen the suspension for twisty roads or a more compliant ride for city driving and freeways. If you're not already familiar with how it works, an electromagnetic coil is located inside each damper piston. To make the damper fluid more resistant, an increase in electrical current bonds the ferrous particles together. For a softer ride, the electromagnetic field is reduced so the fluid flows more freely.
Watch out for wild burro crossings...
Watch out for wild burro crossings when driving on the 13-mile scenic loop (SR 159) through Red Rock Canyon, a short drive northwest of Las Vegas.
Speaking of fluids, before we stir up the saucier side of Vegas, we'll point out a few other routes outside of the city for cruising in a Corvette. Northwest of town, there's a lofty palisade of colorful rock formations, rightly described as Red Rock canyon. It's a visually stunning experience, with several scenic stops along the way on the loop of Highway 159 (which intersects with Route 160), including Bonnie Springs (an Old West–style tourist attraction) and a number of trails for stretching your legs after a long drive. Watch your speed through here, though, as wild burros frequent the area, and you don't want to end up with one as a hood ornament.
For some faster and more challenging touring, we'd recommend a drive to Death Valley (west of Pahrump and the I-95, just across the California border). What's interesting is that despite its forbidding name, Death Valley is neither dead nor merely a valley. Larger than the state of Connecticut, it's actually a great desert sink with some surprising contrasts in elevations, from a low of -282 feet at Badwater to a high of 11,049 feet at Telescope Peak. And although the hottest temperature recorded here was 134 degrees, it also can drop below freezing. Hundreds of species of animals and thousands of plant types survive these formidable conditions, usually at the occasional springs dotting the eerie terrain.
Of course, Death Valley can still be a deadly place to visit, and that's part of its appeal, especially for Corvette owners looking for the ultimate test of their cars' capabilities. On a July day, a person needs 9 quarts of water just to stay alive in the shade. People have been known to perish on short walks in the noonday sun.
In the old mining town of...
In the old mining town of Tonopah, a few hours north of Las Vegas, this statue pays tribute to its founders, Jim and Belle Butler, who discovered rich deposits of silver there in 1900. Jim reportedly married Belle after killing her previous husband in a gunfight.
Yet visitors from all over the world go just to experience the blast-furnace heat and utter bleakness. They don't always encounter that, however. A friend of ours from Germany went home disappointed. Anticipating a vast, bone-dry vista, he instead stumbled across colorful fields of desert wildflowers that occasionally pop up for a few days after a rainstorm. That's a rarity, though, since Pacific storm clouds are depleted of their life-giving moisture while crossing two mountain ranges before drifting over the area.
Each of the ranges—the Panamints and the Amagosa—hides a valley, the starkest of which is the area's namesake Death Valley, a narrow, 150-mile long swath of desert, most of which is below sea level. Places of interest in the valley have colorful and descriptive names, such as Dante's View, the Devil's Golf Course, Deadman Pass, the Last Chance Range, Dry Bone Canyon, Devil's Hole, and the Racetrack (not to be confused with Spring Mountain's, though—this is the home of those mysterious sliding rocks).
If Death Valley isn't your cup of hemlock, then stay on Highway 95 toward the old mining areas. There's not much to see on the way to Tonopah, except for some abandoned boomtowns and odd "art cars" built for Burning Man (an addled celebration of radically creative excess held in northern Nevada). And don't stay at the cheapie Clown Motel in Tonopah, unless you absolutely have to (or just want to see the seemingly mummified founder sitting in the lobby in full circus garb). It's a fast and pleasant drive, but the local police have speed traps, so use your judgment and a radar detector.
Red Rock Canyon provides awe-inspiring...
Red Rock Canyon provides awe-inspiring views you wouldn't expect to see near a major city. In contrast to the bright lights and hype of the Strip, Red Rock offers spectacular desert beauty, towering red cliffs, and abundant wildlife. The sandstone rocks get their vibrant, crimson color from iron oxide.
Head east from Tonopah on Route 6, and you'll intersect with the Extraterrestial Highway (SR 375). Alternatively, you can take I-15 northeast from Las Vegas, then head northwest via Route 93 to this fabled corridor that travels through mostly unoccupied desert terrain and parallels the northern edges of Nellis Air Force Base. It's the location of the much ballyhooed, super-secret Area 51 (which actually fits the Vegas slogan better, since what happens there really does stay there). At the center is the minuscule burg of Rachel, which caters to tourists and UFO seekers with its alien-themed businesses, such as the Little A'Le'Inn (pronounced "alien"). It's the focal point of the town, providing a small motel, an alien-themed restaurant/bar, and extraterrestrial souvenirs.
But getting back to Vegas, no visit there would be complete without a photo opp in front of the famous—albeit cheesy—welcome sign. It's on the south end of the Strip, just past the Mandalay Bay resort. There's even a parking area in the center median that makes it easy to take a few snaps. (Showgirls are not included, but some of the scantily clad tourists are reasonable facsimiles.)
Cruising up the Strip can be an exercise in exasperation, especially on a prize-fight night or a holiday weekend. But driving a Corvette with the top down on a warm night is ideal for taking in the sights. The heat in the summer can be suffocating, though, so watch your temperature gauge.
To experience a different side of Vegas from the row of resorts on the Strip, take note of all the wedding chapels on the north side of town, near the Stratosphere. Besides the inevitable Elvis impersonators conducting the ceremony (actual quote: "Love her tender, or you ain't nuthin' but a hound dog"), we've heard of even more unusual themes that involve Star Trek or S&M outfits. (You'll have to use your imagination here, as Editor Heath decided to keep the photos in his personal files).
Eureka Dunes in Death Valley...
Eureka Dunes in Death Valley is something to shout about—if you're into a sandy desert moonscape.
Farther north in the downtown area of Las Vegas, Fremont Street offers a non-stop light show. Even with this illuminating experience, after a while all the casinos lose their luster and are exposed for what they are: big rooms full of slot machines and craps tables, wrapped with different décor themes.
Given our jaded perspective, we've come across a few good suggestions for a new city slogan, such as "We've Got What It Takes to Take What You've Got," or "You're Broke, Hungover, and PO'd. Now Go Home." (Attendees of the SEMA show can relate.) And our favorite choice: "Las Vegas—Taking Advantage of Human Weakness Since 1905."
Not that we're discouraging a visit to Vegas. After all, if you don't go there, then this totally absurd city, perched on a place where humans are not meant to dwell, built on gluttony, the lure of unearned riches and irresponsible behavior will vanish from the face of the earth. And we can't have that, can we?
You can probably tell from our friendly jibes that we're not big fans of gaming, since we figure life is a gamble all by itself. But don't get us wrong. We really dig driving around Vegas, because we know we've hit the jackpot once we're behind the wheel of a Corvette.
If you prefer action on the...
If you prefer action on the track instead of on the gaming tables, the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch lets you really spin some wheels. The upscale facility features a challenging road course and skidpad, where we were able to evaluate the wet traction of this Grand Sport's (non-stock) Michelin Pilots. We noticed a distinct improvement over the factory Goodyears.
This roadside stop, west of...
This roadside stop, west of Las Vegas, is on the Old Spanish Trail, which was originally linked by available water sites. The artesian springs of Las Vegas, still abundant to this day, made it one of the most dependable stops on the journey through the desert in the 1800s. Today, a number of modern highways follow the same routes of these early trails. And visitors still consider Las Vegas to be a good watering hole.
South of Tonopah, we came...
South of Tonopah, we came across a tribute of another sort, to Earnest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, but in vehicular form. Note the nautical bric-a-brac on top of the...well, we're not quite sure the make of this conveyance.
Death Valley is as different...
Death Valley is as different from Las Vegas as you can possibly imagine, yet its utter bleakness offers a respite from the sensory overload of the Strip. In some areas, the mineral deposits are so tough and unforgiving, the roadbed had to be built on top of them.
What would a trip to Vegas...
What would a trip to Vegas be without posing in front of its historic welcome sign? And don't forget to get a quickie marriage while you're at it. You can even get an Elvis impersonator to conduct the ceremony.
The Rio offers a non-stop...
The Rio offers a non-stop Carnivale atmosphere, with an eye-popping Show in the Sky gliding hourly over the casino area.
Old Dinah, a steam tractor...
Old Dinah, a steam tractor with ore wagons, was introduced to replace the 20-mule teams, but it was supplanted by a railroad.
Parts of Death Valley are...
Parts of Death Valley are well below sea level, while Stovepipe Wells barely stays even with it.
A gravesite of a '49er who...
A gravesite of a '49er who attempted to cross the valley of death. Top off your tank and pack plenty of water if you want to avoid a similar fate.