Really macho guys will tell you ultimate driving kicks come in contests like the Indianapolis 500 or the Paris-Dakar rally, but they're wrong. Big-time races like those are good clean fun, mind you, but they border on the wimpy. After all, the drivers are securely belted into tank-like structures, surrounded by roll bars and protected by fireproof clothing and helmets capable of absorbing about everything except a direct hit from an Exocet missile.

Races are mere strolls through the park compared with what millions of average-Joe motorists encounter on the highways of our nation each day. Is the Daytona 500 anything like the challenge of driving on the Beltway next to a 10-year-old Chevy with worn tires, the driver clad in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers with the seat belt unbuckled beside him? Is the Grand Prix of Monaco comparable in terms of high adventure to a ride in a New York cab at rush hour?

Let's be realistic. Shuck the romance surrounding hot rods like Mario Andretti, Richard Petty and Alain Prost, and you have reasonably normal guys dressed up in space-age crypto-astronauts' suits who drive fast in very sanitary conditions. They even travel in the same direction around the track, no oncoming traffic to contend with. Their rivals are young, physically fit individuals with high skill levels. None of them are drunk. Few, if any, use drugs. Their machines are the best in the world, tuned and massaged by the finest designers and mechanics available.

Now let's return to the real world, where you can find some action. For the most part, rural driving is a bit tame, especially on the massive interstate system, where the only adventure involves finding a gas station with a clean restroom. The really woolly stuff is to be found in the great cities -- places like Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Detroit. There, the true grit of a driver can be tested.

Take downtown D.C., where the streets, more often than not, are one-way and where they all seem to intersect at a monument with a traffic circle from which there is no escape. Add several thousand Mercedes-Benzes with diplomatic plates piloted by Third World drivers who park anywhere they please, drive on the wrong side of the road and sacrifice goats in the back seat, and you've got yourself a challenge.

Then there is New York City, where the cabdrivers, the rogue limousine operators, the garment-district truckers and baffled shoppers from Scarsdale conspire to create some of the finest demolition derbies in the nation. The worst part is that the speeds are too low. Few drivers ever get beyond 25 mph, except for short bursts on the FDR Drive. But the potholes that lurk on that notorious stretch of roadway offer some sense of adventure, flattening tires and tearing out shock absorbers. Should you have to abandon your car after a confrontation with one of these open pit mines, you can benefit from the added thrill of witnessing one of the famed car-stripper gangs appear from the bushes and reduce your beloved machine to a shell like piranhas on a feeding frenzy. For low-speed, cut-and-thrust madness, Gotham has no rival.

For high-speed urban action, there is no place like Los Angeles, where the vast freeway system offers six-lane splendors unlike any in the world. Traffic zooms along at 70 to 80 mph in frantic bursts, then stops dead in jams that can happen at any time, day or night. The result: horrific 100-car chain-reaction crashes. In L.A., everybody has a car, but drivers face a strange paradox: Nothing -- the mountains, the ocean, the desert -- is more than an hour away. Likewise, nothing -- the food market, the drugstore, the dentist, the gas station -- is less than half an hour away. All destinations lie within these time frames.

Houston is good for laughs because while they were building thousands of vacant high-rise office buildings, nobody bothered to construct any connecting freeways. This means the few available remain clogged with beat-up pickups and leased Mercedes-Benzes. The Texans in the pickups provide the action. Because you can buy beer in gas stations in the Lone Star State, traffic jams in the humid summer heat can cause alcohol-fired tempers to incinerate. Imagine being stuck on the Southwest Freeway, your engine boiling over and the air conditioner blown out, when a couple of Pearl Beer cans start to fly between two rumpled four-wheel- drive Fords. From there it is only a short time before .45-caliber Colts are drawn and the real fun begins. Believe me, the knowledge that the guy beside you is armed and dangerous lends new meaning to the term defensive driving.

Which reminds me of Detroit, known as the murder capital of the nation. There it sometimes seems as if even grade-school kids pack Uzis in their gym bags. The adventure often begins when an auto worker sees you on the Chrysler Freeway in your Toyota Corolla. Nothing, including taking the first turn at Indy at 220 mph while lighting a cigarette, equals the high of running the entire length of the Chrysler in a Japanese sedan. Moreover, Detroit has a special local feature: roving bands of motorized goon squads who rob hapless motorists on the roadside. It is, after all, the Motor City, so why should the muggers walk?

Of course, there are those who will try to convince you that driving in Boston, with its serpentine 17th-century streets and its quirky, independent Yankees, is tough stuff. Or that nothing equals the madness of the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia or the Long Island Expressway -- often described as the world's longest parking lot. But that is tame. Massachusetts and New York have strict gun laws, and a certain eastern restraint comes into play as well, which makes driving in these realms entirely too civilized for the genuine thrill-seeker. Go ahead, feed your fantasies of running the Formula One circuit. I'll take Houston at sunrise: Pickups at 40 paces. ::