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Wine Country thrills

  • Drivers swerve their cars and burn their tires around the turns setup for the Sonoma Drift on Wednesday, July 31, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Kari Thul is sitting in her VW Jetta in a long line of idling cars, cutting a cool figure in her big silver-buckled belt and bejeweled shades.

The 28-year-old dental hygienist and mother of three has driven 45 miles from San Bruno to Sonoma on a weeknight to idle possibly for several hours in a staging lane, awaiting her quick shot of adrenaline.

Thul is an unlikely drag racer behind the wheel of her 2007 commuter car and mom-mobile, complete with two empty kiddie car seats in the rear. But that need for speed isn't confined to young men under 25, judging from the hundreds of people who converge on Sonoma Raceway on Wednesday nights to try their hand at drag racing, drifting or karting, compete with screeching tires and smoking exhaust.

They range from teenagers who try to outgun a real uniformed patrol officer in the "Top the Cop" competitions to septuagenarians who never outgrew the thrill of driving fast.

"I like being able to feel, even if it's just for a few seconds, like I'm on top of the world," Thul said, describing that moment when she puts her pedal to the metal and rockets forward in a quarter-mile race to the finish line. "It's a chance to drive fast. You can't do it legally on the streets, but you can do it here."

It's that time of year when people fork over their credit cards to buy the kind of extreme adventures that will get their hearts racing and deliver fear in just the right dose to trigger the pleasure response. Even if you don't have the credit line to go bungee-jumping over the Verzasca Dam in Switzerland like James Bond, there are many opportunities close to home.

It costs only $25 to join the Wednesday Night Drags. Teens pay just $15 to go up against a cop in a patrol cruiser. Drifting on a controlled course in a high-performance car — spinning doughnuts and screeching sideways like a high-speed movie car chase — is $40.

For those who crave altitude, Chris Prevost and his team of pilots will take you up in a World War II biplane. Just floating through the air in one of these vintage, open-cockpit warbirds could be the ride of a lifetime. Cocooned in your helmet and goggles, the rush of the wind and the whir of the engine can feel almost peaceful, said Sheryl Carlucci, who runs the business with her husband out of the Sonoma Valley Airport.

You can either sail over the vineyards of the Sonoma Valley, go west to the Pacific or south toward the Golden Gate. Rides start at $175 for 20 minutes ($95 for a second passenger. For an additional $50 you can up the fear factor with some old-fashioned barnstorming maneuvers like barrel rolls and hammerheads.

For the feeling of free-flying through the air without a sheath of metal, there's Sonoma Canopy Tours, a thrill ride on a series of ziplines strung through a redwood forest near Occidental. For two hours you'll fly from platform to platform along seven ziplines, two sky bridges and a spiral staircase, finishing off the experience with free-fall rappel back to the forest floor.


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