<
>

Braving the Nevada desert with Jamie McMurray and a helicopter

LAS VEGAS -- Covering racing can take you into some pretty exciting places unrelated to the on-track action.

Once, a tobacco company sent me down the rapids outside Ottawa, Ontario, in a four-person raft. Of course, I got dunked -- but that's a story for another time.

When the invitation for a helicopter ride with Roush Fenway Racing's Jamie McMurray came along, it seemed a lot less dangerous and could provide some quality time with a driver who I haven't spent enough time with.

Where did this all begin? Crown Royal, the sponsor of McMurray's No. 26 Ford Fusion, wanted to do a spectacular promotion to launch their "Your Name Here" race promotion of the May 3 race at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia.

If you remember the James Stewart 400 last year, you'll get the idea that the contest was to get your own moniker on a points-paying Sprint Cup race. I was told that last year's winner merely spun a wheel -- like a Wheel of Fortune -- at Daytona. Not very exciting.

This year's winner's name would be revealed to the contest winner, 1,000 feet in the air, miles away from the Las Vegas Strip where a 10,000 square foot desert-mosaic had been placed.

Arriving at the starting point, the Treasure Island Casino, a few of us journalists were greeted by a number of the sponsors' employees, agencies and the finalists. Anxiety and anticipation were in the air.

I'd never been in a helicopter before, although I'd flown in a four-seat seaplane. The comforting fact about airplanes is that they can glide on their wings if there is an engine problem. In helicopter terminology they can auto-rotate (sort of glide) if there's a problem but there's more to this tale.

There were at least three helicopters involved, one for McMurray -- who would announce the winner, the finalists and a camera crew. I drew the first one along with the Charlotte Observer's David Poole, and a TV cameraman from a local network.

This is where the fun began. Our pilot -- a veteran of the first Gulf War and vertical firefighter -- gave us a safety speech. It seemed to go on for hours, but, the main point was if we crashed wait. As in wait until everything stopped spinning before leaving the chopper. Sure.

Yes, it was life saving advice because a spinning rotor blade could turn us into hamburger meat. But what would you do if you were sitting on a fuel tank ready to blow? I think the first instinct is to bug out like you life depended on it. Oh, yes, my life depended on it.

Climbing into this six-seater, it was a snug as the smallest economy car. That's when John, the pilot, pointed to a gauge showing g-forces in the cockpit. He said, "If it goes over three g's, I want you to reach behind you, remove a seat cushion and pull some sort of lever."

Wait another second. Don't jet fighter pilots reach four g's? So here I am with no training, afraid to touch anything, like the door handle -- inches away from my left side -- being told that if we start traveling at a gravity force that I'm not in any way prepared for, I'm supposed to operate some lever.

OK, nervous laughter on my part. McMurray, who's working on his pilot's certification, is sitting in the left front seat, jawing with the pilot, and I'm trying to remember life-and-death instructions. I don't even want to find the "talk" button, figuring it's one more thing not to touch.

The takeoff was very smooth, unlike anything in an airplane because you don't get the feeling of speed as you gradually rise in the air. Then we were over the "Strip" with a priceless view of the casinos and race fans lined up waiting for the Hauler Parade up Las Vegas Boulevard.

To our right was McCarran Airport, looking not-so huge from our vantage point. My stomach was starting to settle down, but I did notice Poole's hand firmly gripping the back of the steel seat in front of us.

We were going 70 knots, about 80 mph, and it felt like we were gliding, rather than flying. Then the turbulence, hit. We were moderately tossed around in the prop wash of the first helicopter, like the wake of a boat. I thought Poole was going to bend that metal with his bare hand.

We slowed some more and, with enough space, the flying was unremarkable. As we left civilization we were over some unspoiled area called the Black Mountains, which were more sandy than black.

The chopper pilot was in constant communication with the others as we approached the desert mosaic. McMurray asked how many times would we have to fly over.

Apparently in his experience with television commercials, it is never right on the first take. The camera helicopter, complete with cameraman hanging out the window, had to be in correct position to make his shot. I didn't envy his job.

The reveal went off, perfectly, and although I didn't hear the screams of delight of the winner, Dan Lowry, there was a sense of mission accomplished. Really.

As we flew back to the Strip at a higher rate of speed, the return trip lasted only a few minutes. There was euphoria until we returned to the roof of the parking lot. Those overhead light stanchions for the cars looked like menacing hands reaching out to ensnare our little craft, but we glided in unscathed.

It seemed like we'd won the biggest gamble of the weekend.

Lewis Franck is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at nascarespn@earthlink.net