It’s day three of the 2016 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, and I’ve been working the show floor walking an average 7 miles a day to see endless amounts of amazing cars, parts and accessories. However, while you can see all the cool cars you want while at SEMA, the chance to ride in one, let alone drive one, is more of a rarity.
Enter Aaron Fessler, the founder and CEO of SPEEDVEGAS, a driving experience featuring a F1-inspired, 2-mile track. While Fessler didn’t open SPEEDVEGAS just so SEMA folks could get a drive in, he did want to create an experience that is unique to the Vegas scene.
Let’s rewind for a minute. Fessler comes from a technology background, having grown and sold several companies before he thought he’d try his hand at something different.
“In 2009, I got the idea to start a fractional car-sharing club called Vulcan Motor Club,” Fessler says. “The idea was rather than play golf, you could join a club and it would have a fleet of exotic cars you could call on and drive.”
The Vulcan club satisfied folks in the New York, Manhattan, Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey markets, but price point was not reachable for 99% of folks. The cheapest membership was $15,000 a year, while the top was $50,000 a year.
“So that was a challenge because there aren’t a lot of people with that sort of disposable income,” Fessler says. “The next challenge we faced was weather. At best you have 5-6 months of the year to drive these types of vehicles. And lastly, the people who can afford to spend $50,000 a year are often very busy during the week, so the reality was five days a week the cars would sit there.”
Fessler and his team began to cast around for other ways to monetize the fleet of exotic cars, which led them to driving tours. “With a driving tour you can do something with a couple hundred bucks, several hundred bucks or a thousands bucks, and those were incredibly popular,” he says.
That’s what led Fessler to iterate the model. “Changing the price point was great, but we still had weather problems. So that’s what led us ultimately to [the Vegas]market,” he says.
The idea for SPEEDVEGAS came about 5 years ago, however, executing on the grand idea took longer than anticipated.
Las Vegas gets around 41 million visitors a year and people who come to Las Vegas are trying to knock bucket list items off their list, perfect customers for what Fessler’s SPEEDVEGAS is all about. “We noticed there were a couple automotive-related tourist attractions in the marketplace but the concepts were still in the early days and weren’t really built out,” Fessler says. “We set out to search for property. At the time, we thought if we had 50 acres close to downtown we would find something great. We were shocked and deterred that the amount of space we needed wasn’t generally available. You’d think there is endless desert, but the reality was it was a really long and difficult search.”
After what took several years, Fessler and his team stumbled on the property they have today, which was previously owned by MGM.
“What I loved about it was that it is right on the I-15 corridor, which brings in a massive amount of traffic from the LA market,” he says. “It’s really quite close to the strip too.”
Once Fessler had the concept and identified the site, it was a matter of executing, which also turned out to be challenging. SPEEDVEGAS broke ground in September 2015 and moved about a half a million cubic yards of material. The idea was to build a track that was an amazing and fun place to drive.
“We were looking for a place where people who want to floor it can do so and get some shocking speeds, so that led us to a half-mile straightaway,” Fessler says. “We also wanted to incorporate a lot of turns, so there are about a dozen turns on the track from sweepers to bank turns. Elevation changes were also important, so there is about 60 feet of elevation change on the site.
“One of the things that make us special is when we were developing the concept there were a lot of times along the way where we were tempted to say, ‘This is as far as we want to take the concept because we can’t find the site we want, or the capital requirements are climbing out of control, so let’s set up cones in the parking lot or do something small.’ We are pretty grateful now that we pushed through that stuff and it’s not cones in the parking lot. This is the first facility designed from scratch for this purpose. That’s what makes it special – it was an absolute blank sheet of paper. It was a pile of rocks when we started and we crafted and shaped it to build what you see here today.”
The track was finally paved in March 2016. During those six months the company was also working on the main building. In the meantime, SPEEDVEGAS was operating from a trailer on the outskirts of the property. “What had happened was we paved the track and we were anxious to drive it, so we had a soft launch in April 2016,” he says.
Fast forward to November, and the main building has been completed, and I was invited out to the SPEEDVEGAS property as a member of the media to give the track and the experience a go. Who could say no to that?
Upon arriving, I was immediately impressed by the facility. I could hear the cars screaming around the track and there were several groups of people walking around checking out the cars they wanted to drive. I was excited to get inside and start my experience.
SPEEDVEGAS has about 70 employees. “We have a strong group of folks that help us, but the real stars are the coaches and instructors,” Fessler says. “They generally come from the racing industry and have been doing this for a long time and are very passionate about delivering the SPEEDVEGAS experience. We work with them to make sure that they understand we are not a racing school. We don’t really teach our customers anything in terms of learning about apexes or Formula One. There are a lot of great places you can do that, but it’s not what we are about. We’re more focused on people who maybe have put a helmet on a few times in their life, have read Car and Driver or Road & Track their whole life and maybe go to SEMA and they point to a car and say, ‘I’d like to try that.’ We take care of the rest. And our coaches are really dialed into that and try very hard to make sure the experience is accessible and not overwhelming or intimidating.”
I got inside and was welcomed by a clean, sort of industrial décor, highlighted by modern technology, which fit the setting very well and was clearly a tip of the cap to Fessler’s tech background. The sign-in process is digital and your post driving performance is displayed on screens around the facility as well. After signing in, I was escorted to the car stable outside to see the vehicles, sit in them and choose which one I wanted to blast around the track in.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a thing for Ferraris. Naturally, I walked straight toward the 458 and drooled. I also sat in the Lamborghini Huracan, the Porsche 911 GT3 and the Shelby Mustang, but I couldn’t come here and not choose the Ferrari. I would have regretted it. I was about to have some serious fun.
“We don’t buy cars and wait for you to come and we tell you what you should drive,” Fessler says. “Our customers tell us what they want. Many of them already have a natural inclination toward one brand. They’ve had the poster as a kid from that brand. Mine was the Lamborghini Diablo or Countach. That tends to revolve around three or four segments – Ferrari and Lamborghini are really big drivers. They are at the pinnacle of their field, are incredibly well-engineered brands and have had 50 years of competition against each other.
“For others, Porsche is a big draw and we have a couple of great options there. It happens to be the quickest around the track. It’s not the fastest in MPH – the Lamborghini Huracan holds that title – but it does hold the fastest lap.
“A good chunk of our visitors come from abroad, and for them American Muscle is a big deal. The Corvette Z06, the Shelby, etc. those are the cars that lead the pack for our international visitors.”
SPEEDVEGAS will swap out the cars as the market changes. “There is always something new and better like the Ferrari 488,” he says. “We are looking at adding an Aston Martin to the line-up and the McLaren 570S is something that has gotten a lot of interest from folks, so we expect to see that soon too. Our stable is about 20 cars right now.”
While 20 cars are available at a time, SPEEDVEGAS limits the number on the track at a time. “We don’t want it to be a parking lot and it’s no fun if you’re behind someone, so we make sure guests have free rein of the place,” Fessler says.
Because I was at SPEEDVEGAS on an invite as media, I was limited to the experience package I was able to choose, but they had many to choose from. You could pick a car and the number of laps you wanted. You could drive multiple cars to compare them. And there was even a drifting package.
“We tried to range the gamete of folks who have different budgets,” Fessler says. “You can walk in the door with $99 and you’ll have a good time and we’ll make you scream in a ride-along drifting experience. There are other people who have their heart set on driving one particular car. And for packages, a lot of people want to see how one car compares to another like driving a Ferrari and Lamborghini back-to-back, or two muscle cars back-to-back or two types of Lamborghinis back-to-back. That’s where our packages come into play. We conveniently tie a bow around some options for people who might get overwhelmed with all the choices. Our most popular pairings are the Ferrari and Lamborghini in the Velocity Package and the Raging Bull Package, which are two Lamborghinis; Gallardo LP550 and Huracan. The American Muscle Packages are pretty popular as well.”
As I mentioned earlier, I drove the Ferrari 458. Before hopping in the car I was briefed by a driving coach about the track and what our ride-along coach would be helping us with. Then I was fitted for a helmet and it was time to drive.
Much like driver’s education classes, the ride-along coach has his own set of brakes on the passenger side just in case you get too carried away out on the track. Other than that, you have the ability to drive the car the way you want to.
The Ferrari is an amazing machine. The passion and craftsmanship of that car is what stands out. You see the stitching and you feel the edges and the fit and finish. You realize the obsession that goes into those details and that’s what I’ve always liked about Ferrari. And that’s just the inside. Performance-wise, the 458 handled very well around the track, taking corners tight and quick while getting through straightaways with ease and power. The objective at SPEEDVEGAS is to have fun while pushing the car and yourself as far as you can go.
“I’m proud of the fact that SPEEDVEGAS has the longest track in Las Vegas and the longest straight in Las Vegas, which is a big deal if you want to really see what a 200 mph car will do,” Fessler says. “We wanted to have an amazing backdrop for these cars so guests can really see what they can do. The track has the most number of turns, it’s the newest, it’s the most expensive, and closest to Las Vegas. It’s just better,” he laughs.
SPEEDVEGAS also has full-time mechanics on hand everyday and in the evenings since the cars go through brakes and tires pretty rapidly. “It’s a system and it’s maintained pretty well,” he says.
After three laps around the track, which took less than 10 minutes total, I only wanted more! It was a blast to drive the Ferrari 458 and the track set up invites you to go faster on each additional lap. And who wouldn’t want to drive multiple cars if your budget allows?
While the driving experience is the focal point at SPEEDVEGAS today, Fessler has grand plans for the future.
“The vision behind the project is a bit broader than just a driving experience,” he says. “That’s why you don’t see in the title of the company the word racing or exotic. The idea is to build a destination and we have the acreage and the square footage to make that a reality. The idea is that folks who have an interest in high-speed driving, which we have today, but also karting, off-road, drifting, stunts, all those could have a home here and our master plan involves all of those in the future.
“I’d also like to build a pedestrian bridge across the straight so people can get right in the action as cars come whizzing by underneath you. We have a lot of development stuff kicking off here at the beginning of next year – food, beverage, restaurants, helicopter – it should be a pretty exciting place as we move forward.”
Fessler also mentioned the property expands beyond the track, which isn’t currently being used. So there are plans to expand, he admitted. “It’s a beautiful site that helps make this a destination.
I’ve had some sucky jobs, and this one isn’t one of those,” he says.