“People in Las Vegas, they come and put $1,000 on black, $1,000 on red,” says Romain Thievin, racing champion, stunt driver and owner of 50 sports cars. He gestures at the crimson Ferrari, scarlet Lamborghini and candy-apple Corvette purring on the pavement: “You put $1,000 on red here, it’s much more fun.”
This impressive stable of horsepower is part of Thievin’s Exotics Racing, where mere mortals can take a Porsche or Aston-Martin for a high-speed run on the 1.2-mile road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. If Disneyland is the Happiest Place on Earth for children, Exotics Racing might be the adult equivalent. For Thievin, fast cars have been a passion since he was growing up in France. “My father used to be a race-car driver in Europe,” he says. “I would go with him to the racetrack and fell in love.”
But joining the family business wasn’t a given. “Car racing is very expensive; you need sponsors,” Thievin explains. Even if he didn’t have the financial backing, he could still drive very fast and very well. “In France, there is a racing school—if you win, you can drive one year in the French F4 championships for free. I won.” Since then, he’s won at LeMans and been a five-time touring car champion.
I, on the other hand, lived for 33 years without a license. But I’ve come to love driving for its own sake, whether it’s cruising along desert back roads in a Chrysler or tearing up a road course in a Ferrari Scuderia at 160 mph—which is the plan for today. Not that they’re just going to hand over the keys and cross their fingers. First, there’s a 20-minute classroom session, where we learn how to use the paddle shifters, hold the wheel (9 and 3 gives more control than 10 and 2; who knew?) and take a curve (a straight line from outside to inside). Next comes a “discovery lap” in an SUV to familiarize myself with the track before I attempt light speed.
Exotics Racing began in France, but Thievin decided to “export this concept. I looked everywhere in the world.” The combination of tourist traffic and track access made Vegas a winner. “I met a guy from the speedway, who said ‘Why not? It’s the craziest idea I’ve never heard.’”
Four years later, Thievin says more than 100,000 people have paid big money—packages range from $199 to $399—for the Exotics Racing experience. Now it’s my turn. I slide into the Ferrari and grab the wheel. My first lap is unnerving. Cole, my instructor, reminds me when to tap the brake and when to slam the throttle. He also keeps encouraging me—to go faster, to rev the engine to a deafening roar, to squeal the tires. By lap 3, I am. Back in the pit, I tumble out of the car, heart pounding, blood pumping and feeling like Steve McQueen in Bullitt.
Speaking of Hollywood, Thievin has done stunts in more than 150 movies, starting with Taxi (the 1998 Marion Cotillard French original, not the Jimmy Fallon U.S. version). “Peugeot gave the producers some cars and some drivers,” Thievin recalls, “I was 18 years old. I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I was paid to drive a fast car on the road and the police did nothing … unbelievable!”
He’s since driven for Robert De Niro in Ronin and won a Taurus Award (the stuntman’s Oscar) for piloting a Mini Cooper as “Matt Damon” in The Bourne Identity—a chase that didn’t rely on flashy cars or CGI to impress. “When you look at James Bond, XXX, Fast & Furious—it’s not real,” he points out. “It’s not possible to drive like that. Bourne was 100 percent real.”
Now I get to go “drifting” with faux-Damon in a Corvette—and, unlike me, Thievin doesn’t need to be encouraged to go faster. The ’Vette spins, screeches and passes a Lamborghini like it was a Volkswagen. When most people see a barricade coming at them as they fishtail at speeds in excess of 100 mph, it’s the last thing they see. However, I’m going to witness it a dozen times on this ride-along, and by the last turn, it makes me laugh.
After we exit the ’Vette, Thievin looks at a gleaming Ferrari Italia and the kid-on-Christmas face of the man about to get in it. “I didn’t have enough money to buy this car when I was young; my father didn’t either,” Thievin says. “But now everyone can drive this car.”