Michael “Thorny” Brewer is a U.S. Air Force pilot of some distinction. In addition to having commanded F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jets in combat over the Middle East, the affable 38-year-old father of four flew an F-16 – plane #3 – in formation for the famous Thunderbirds air show team for two years.
As luck would have it, awhile back for a Forbes story, Brewer, a Major, gave this reporter a supersonic thrill ride in an F-15E. We kept in touch over the years, and when I mentioned that I also give thrill rides – albeit on oval tracks in stock cars for the NASCAR Racing Experience – he perked up. One of those tracks happens to be Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just across from Nellis AFB, where he is stationed, and a track he had flown over with The Thunderbirds to start NASCAR races. Maybe in some small way I could repay his supersonic F-15 favor by taking him around the Vegas oval at 165 mph? Brewer agreed to my proposal without hesitation, and a plan was hatched.
First, we approached Todd Rasmussen, who oversees NRE’s West Coast track operations. He immediately was all in. Next, we needed to find a date NRE was on track when Brewer was available, and when I could fly in from New York. Covid-19 complicated everything, of course, but finally this past weekend all of the stars aligned, and our idea went green, green, green.
After arriving at the speedway’s media center in tow with his nine-year-old son, Luke, Brewer signed the customary liability waiver forms and suited up. Since I hadn’t driven at that track for awhile, I went out in the #43 ride car to turn some practice laps. Vegas is not the easiest place to drive. Banked at a progressive 20 degrees in the corners, and measuring 1.5 miles around, it is quite a bit tighter than Daytona International Speedway, where I normally give rides. Daytona is 2.5 miles in length and banked at a staggering 31 degrees, giving it a more wide-open feel. Vegas can also be a dangerous track. In 2011, two-time Indianapolis 500 champ Dan Wheldon was involved in a horrific 15-car pileup, which ultimately claimed his life.
Once my practice laps were completed, Brewer, clad in a helmet, HANS device and fireproof racing suit, climbed into the passenger’s side of my cramped car through the right-side window, then was belted into his seat snugly with a five-point harness by NRE staff. As with a fighter jet, you don’t expect anything unusual to happen, but if it does, it’s best to be prepared.
Once Brewer’s window netting was in place, I gunned the 600-plus horsepower engine, glanced over – he was smiling broadly through his cool aviator’s shades – and we did a fist-bump. Then I roared out of pit lane through four gears and blended onto the track’s back-straight from the apron.
Truth be told, I was a bit apprehensive, not that I would crash the car but that Brewer, with all of his top-gun flight experience, would be disappointed. He pulls 9 Gs at more than 1,000 mph in his fighter jets. We would pull maybe 3 Gs, and max out at around 165 mph. Plus we would be on terra firma, not high in the sky where takeoff is optional and landing mandatory.
I drove the low line through each corner – it is the shortest distance around the track – then veered out fairly close to the wall upon exit to preserve momentum. After just three quarters of a lap, we were up to speed. On occasion, I needed to pass a slower student car in front of me, always a bit dicey because you don’t quite know what they will do. Their instructors warn them via helmet radios that a faster ride car is approaching and will overtake them soon, on the right, so they should stay low. But sometimes they don’t hear, or don’t listen. Each time I passed a student, I wondered what Brewer was thinking. We got pretty close a few times. Then again, I remember him getting pretty close to other fighter jets when we staged simulated war games in his F-15.
After eight quick laps under 40 seconds each, I brought the car back to pit road, shut down the engine and looked over at Brewer. He was genuinely stoked. “I didn’t really know what to expect going around a racetrack at that kind of speed being so close to the wall,” he said. “I’m used to positive Gs through the vertical axis of my body, but these were lateral. The noise and rumbling at first overwhelmed my senses.”
“The only part I was nervous about was when you hit the first corner,” he continued. “With so much speed, you think the tires are going to separate from the track and you’re going into the wall. But the car sticks! After we did it a couple of times, I realized we’d be okay.”
Why did Brewer decide to try it with me behind the wheel instead of someone else? “You trusted me to take you out in the F-15, so I thought it would be neat for you to show me what you’ve got in the NASCAR.”
Brewer then went out on the track again, this time by himself, driving, appropriately enough, the #3 car, the same number as his Thunderbirds F-16. “That differed from my ride with you, because it was technically very challenging – the RPMs, the line you’re taking, the stiffness of the steering – all the while listening to your coach over the headset. It’s like tunnel vision. And, as you increase speed each lap, it becomes more and more of a challenge. But honestly, I just loved it! It’s addicting.”
Afterward, we had lunch at the Nellis BX with Brewer and his son, then got a private tour of the base. The following day I took a trip out to the Grand Canyon’s West Rim and Skywalk, and the Hoover Dam, both amazing experiences in their own right.
Soon, I’ll be heading to Daytona to give a ride to SpaceX Inspiration4 astronaut Dr. Sian Procter. Again, I wonder how the experience will stack up to her spectacular spaceflight last fall. I hope favorably, as with Brewer’s ride and drive. Look for the Proctor writeup here on the Forbes Lifestyle channel.