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LAS VEGAS -- Steve Carlson leaned back against the seat and exhaled.
"Man, I feel like I just finished a 300-lap race," Carlson said.
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series champion spent Friday morning at Nellis Air Force Base as a guest of the U.S. Air Force. Carlson was treated to a ride in an F-16 that is part of the Air Force's world-famous Thunderbirds.
"Overall, it was about the most awesome thing I've ever done," Carlson said. "If anybody gets a chance to fly in that Thunderbird jet, they better take it. It's a pretty cool deal."
The 50-year-old Carlson will be honored Saturday night at the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series championship banquet for his 2007 title run.
But nothing he ever experienced on the track prepared him for the ride of a lifetime in a Thunderbird.
The Thunderbirds were practicing Friday for their final exhibition weekend of the season.
Carlson arrived at the Air Force base at 6 a.m., along with his wife Carrie and son Michael, his car owner Tim Jacobs, and car chief Toby Nuttleman. Once there, he went through an extensive lead-up to the flight. Carlson said one of the most impressive parts of the trip was the level of detail that goes into every flight.
"They explain what every single thing is for and go over every part of the flight," Carlson said. "One of the neatest things is you could just tell they all like their job so much and they have a lot of fun doing it."
Major Tad Clark, the advance pilot who took Carlson on the flight, said there are distinct parallels to what Nuttleman, Jacobs and Co. for Carlson and the support he's provided to be able to fly.
"Quite honestly, I don't think any other profession more closely represents and replicates what we do here with the Thunderbirds than racing cars," Clark said. "Steve is heavily dependent on the quality and competence of his crew before, during and after a race to make sure the machine that he races is at top speeds and is in optimal condition so he can perform and he can win. And obviously he's demonstrated that this year as champion. We too rely heavily on the capability, the professionalism, and the attention to detail of our crew chiefs who maintain these jets day in and day out."
As soon as they took off, Clark pointed the jet straight up.
"We were over the clouds in about a second," Carlson said. "It all started right there. That was so cool."
Carlson's flight lasted nearly an hour and allowed him to experience 9.3 Gs, which Clark explained was equivalent to nine times his body weight. Clark took him through a variety of maneuvers -- including flying within three feet of another Thunderbird jet as well as a series of loops.
Following the flight, the Thunderbirds also hosted a contingent of NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track operators from across the country on a tour of the base.