On a steamy March afternoon, former NASCAR Nextel Cup champ Kurt Busch sits in a stock car at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, revving his engine in anticipation. The question hangs in the air: Which of three nearby celebrities, decked out in racing jumpsuits, will be the first to gulp back fear, strap into the makeshift passenger seat, and join Busch in a three-lap, cement-wall-kissing 190 mph run around the famed 1.5-mile track?
Laird Hamilton, best known for riding 70-foot waves, finally stands and pulls a helmet over his long blond locks. "Oh, sure," Hamilton calls to NFL legend John Elway and tennis champ Serena Williams with a grin. "Get the stupid surfer to do it."
Various-grade celebs have tried dancing, skating and cohabitating for the competitive fun of it, so why not leadfooting? That's what drew Hamilton and 11 other famous contestants into the swift world of Fast Cars & Superstars: The Young Guns Celebrity Race. The new reality series begins with a series of preliminary competitions and concludes with six finalists channeling their inner Earnhardt in a five-lap time trial.
It may be true that, as Boston Legal live wire William Shatner puts it, "it's every American boy's dream to get behind the wheel of a stock car." But apparently some women — among them singer Jewel and actress Krista Allen (What About Brian) — share that vision. And throughout they're guided by some of NASCAR's top drivers.
"We wanted [celebrities] who were going to come in and compete and not shy away," says producer Dave O'Connor. "And this is something everyone can relate to, having the desire to be trained by the absolute best at something in any field."
In the last round, each of NASCAR's "Young Guns" (the six-man steering committee includes Busch, defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson and popular driver Kasey Kahne) coaches a finalist through an on-the-clock racing sequence. The time trial demands each celeb go as fast as he or she can around the straightaways and harrowing 24-degree banked turns and also make a swift pit stop. The best time wins — for safety reasons there are no on-track competitions between celebrity racers.
Looking over the field on Day 1, Johnson believes Hamilton and skateboarder Tony Hawk have a leg up. "They're just used to hurting themselves," he says with a chuckle. "For them it comes with the territory."
Forget about hurting yourself, what about hurting the one you love? Hamilton and rodeo star Ty Murray are competing against their significant others: beach volleyball champ Gabrielle Reece and Jewel are also in the Fast Cars field.
For Williams, it's hard to approach the competition with anything other than terror after her first ride with Busch, which took her a hairbreadth away from the track's concrete wall. "Honestly, I thought that was going to be easy, smooth and cool, and it was none of the above," the eight-time Grand Slam champion says. "It was stressful, scary and I might have lost two days of my life." Behind the wheel later in the day, she reminds herself of the need to keep her eyes open.
During the prerun safety lecture, Corey LaCosta, the Jeff Gordon/Mario Andretti Driving School operations manager, warns the field not to think driving their sports cars at home was preparation for this. "Keep in mind, if you're not doing what we're asking you to do here today, the possibility of you spinning out, hitting the wall and catching that car on fire is very high," he says a little too matter-of-factly.
The competitors show themselves worthy of track time, but Shatner — boyhood dreams aside — is just glad when it all ends. "I've driven in several celebrity Grand Prix and none of it compares to this death-defying feeling," he says. "Every time you passed the pit, people had their hands folded in prayer. Other than that, there was nothing to fear."
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