If you think about it, those are essentially the same three words. There are times when you grow up that you still want to be a kid, and there are times when you’re a kid and you know it’s good to be a kid, and there are times when you’re grown up and feeling like a kid and when you’re a kid just loving being a kid and plenty of times, those times all happen simultaneously in the presence of Ferraris.
Knowing this, there was no question about checking out a Ferrari race with my 9-year-old son, James, when the opportunity presented itself a few weeks back. I got to be a kid. He got to be a kid. And the Ferraris … well, they got to be Ferraris.
THEY CALL IT THE ‘FERRARI CHALLENGE’
The occasion was a Ferrari Challenge race being run at Watkins Glen, a storied raceway in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Racing is a critical aspect of Ferrari’s DNA. Enzo Ferrari, the founder of what’s perhaps the world’s most famous luxury auto brand, loved racing, probably more than any other experience in human life. We get to see Ferraris off the racetrack only because Enzo needed to sell some to the public to fund his racing teams. In fact, Ferrari is, at base, Scuderia Ferrari, the brand’s racing arm, but really the heart of the operation. Ferrari participates in many different types of racing. Formula One is the best known, but that’s just the highest expression of Ferrari’s approach to speed. The Scuderia also provides an opportunity for what it terms “gentleman racers” to roar around a racecourse at impressive velocities. This is where the Ferrari Challenge comes in.
If you’re intrigued, you might mention it to your friendly neighbourhood Ferrari dealer. If that dealer thinks you, the client — as Ferrari calls its customers — have the right stuff, you join the racing series, which has been going strong for 20 years. It isn’t cheap. The dealership might help with some of the cost, which can add up to $US30,000 per race, but you have to buy the car: a $US300,000 Ferrari F458 “Challenge Evoluzione” (or “Evo”) that’s designated for racing before it rolls off the assembly line at Ferrari’s factory in Maranello, Italy.
One 458 is good. Some gentlemen racers obtain two of these chariots for competition, just in case things get out if hand with the 570-horsepower naturally aspirated V8 that when wide open sounds like the wail of a simultaneously sacred yet unholy thing taken from the wild place where sacred and unholy things dwell.
Put 25 of them on a racetrack at the same time and you have a vicious symphony of finely crafted displacement, a raucous peloton of raw propulsion. Sure, the cars look cool ripping around the track, some in Ferrari red, others outfitted in colours and designs that are anything but. It’s that sound, though, that lacerates the earlier autumn air and pierces the leafy rural calm of upstate wine country.
There aren’t a lot of things that make you want to close your eyes and simply listen. Beethoven’s Ninth. Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.” The raw and breaking surf at Big Sur. A first baby’s sonogram heartbeat, heard for the first time.
And a Ferrari 458 at speed:
So you join the Ferrari Challenge and accept the commitment. And it is a commitment. A major commitment. There are nine races in the season, as far flung as Daytona, Florida, and Abu Dhabi. Ferrari provides individual coaching and has put former professional driver Didier Theys in charge of all the work with the gentlemen and gentle ladies who have decided to helmet up, suit up, strap in, start their engines, and turn laps at upward of 200 mph.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Theys is a veteran competitor, a Belgian who retired a few years ago after 35 seasons. He won his first race at Watkins Glen when he came over from Europe in 1985. He has three Indianapolis 500s under his belt and victories at other venues, notably the 24 Hours of Daytona, in 1998 and 2002.
Understandably, the Glen holds a special place for him.
“Watkins Glen is a racetrack with character,” he says. “A racetrack where the driver makes a difference.”
But the Ferrari Challenge racers need to learn how to drive — because there’s driving and there’s racing.
“They want to race a Ferrari,” he says of the clients who take up the Challenge. “But 570 horsepower is a lot for a new driver. So we made a coach mandatory so that the driver can get up to speed safely.”
The racers also learn how to handle different tracks and different setups for the cars. For example, this year the 458s have a wing at the rear that increases downforce on the back wheels and allows the car to carry more speed into a turn, without worrying about a slide. But a driver needs to get used to this aspect of the car’s performance.
“The biggest concern we have with a new driver is whether he respects the speed,” Theys says. “When you’re going full speed, it’s a lot. The learning process needs to small step by small step. You aren’t a winner after the first race. You need to learn all aspects of racing. That’s why the racer needs to hire a decent coach.”
Theys is impressed by the quality of the racing at the Ferrari Challenge, but ne notes that this type of racing is less physically demanding than the type of top-level racing he did. He points out that gentleman racers are in good enough shape to handle a half-hour race, without having to make major changes to their lifestyle.
But as Theys says, the 458 is a real racecar, a step up from the cars that were raced in previous years. It’s not like you can just jump in and go.
The whole thing is serious play, as James and I found out.
FERRARIS NEVER GET OLD
Through a combination of reading back issues of Motor Trend and video games, James knows more about Ferraris than I do at this point. He’s something of a car nut — particularly where the high-end stuff is concerned: Lambos, Pagonis, Bugattis, Porsches, and obviously Ferraris. So much so that when I told him we would be checking out something like 25 — 25! — 458s set up for racing, he complained about there not being enough variety.
Everything changed, of course, when we began to hear the beckoning shriek of the 458s in the distance as we headed toward the viewing area at Watkins Glen, after a long drive up from New York City the night before and an evening passed at a nearby motel watching “Treehouse Masters” on Animal Planet.
It’s quite something to observe a 9-year-old slowly and then suddenly fill with joy to the point of nearly exploding. But Ferraris doing what they are meant to do — go fast around a racetrack — will do that to a kid.
Not to mention the man who is with him and also not incidentally his dad.
“Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!”
I lost track of how many times he said it.
When we arrived, the drivers were midway through qualifying. There are two divisions in the Ferrari Challenge: the Trofeo Pirelli (for more advanced drivers) and the Coppa Shell (for the newbies) — each with a named sponsor, the Italian tire maker Pirelli and the big energy company, Shell. Tires and gas: two things you need when racing, in addition to a Ferrari 458 with most of the attractive interior elements ripped out, a stoutly bolstered racing seat with a harness, and a specially designed steering wheel.
It was day two of the festivities. There would be a pair of races, one Saturday and one Sunday, scheduled for 30 laps around the Glen’s circuit of about 3.5 miles. We would witness the first race, in which the Trofeo Pirelli and the Coppa Shell competitors are thrown together. This is authentic racing, car versus car, not a timed event. First across the finish line in their division captures the prize and the points for the seven-event Challenge series.
Ferrari did a marvellous job of showing around Watkins Glen. It’s something of a racing campus, with the course wrapping around various structures, garages, and the paddock area, where the cars wait to race. Surrounding the paddock were numerous semitrailers, used to transport the cars and their support equipment, tires and tools and spare parts, and most of them were Ferrari red, emblazoned with the names of the sponsoring dealerships.
Ferrari-red Vespas, bearing the Scuderia badge in shimmering yellow, enable race crews to shuttle around the paddock.
Pirelli race tires are piled four high everywhere.
There are hoses and tubes to avoid, plus a rack of racing fuel. Cars are in various states of deconstruction and repair. The edge of preparation and the tense thrum of looming speed defines the paddock.
Then there was the hot lap. A two-seat black 458 Evo waited in the pits, gently idling. Anthony Lazzaro, a pro driver, is at the wheel. I grab a helmet and am strapped in and we’re off. A Ferrari being driven at its limits is a physically imposing proposition, and Lazzaro isn’t taking it easy. The V8 is screaming a foot behind our heads. He’s flipping through the gears with deft precision and rocketing out of turns to come within collision distance of a barrier. But it’s the braking that gets you — how Lazzaro will shed 100 mph of speed like he was throwing out the trash, then get right back on the throttle. Brakes are tortured during races. And Lazzaro is a master torturer.
James isn’t happy that I get the hot lap and he has to watch. But Ferrari lets him wear a helmet — and he’s stoked to discover that his favourite snack food, Cheez-It, is an advertiser at Watkins Glen.
The race kicks off as scheduled around midafternoon. After an overcast and cool morning, the sun emerges and the spectacle is glorious. Emmanuel Anassis, in the No. 777 car and running for Ferrari of Quebec, takes first in the Trofeo Pirelli division, while Ross Garber from Ferrari of San Francisco claims the top spot in the Coppa Shell division.
Here’s the thing, though. A man can stand by a racetrack and watch 25 Ferraris turn laps for hours no problem.
A 9-year-old’s interest will tend to fade. By the end of it all, as the sun began to set over the Glen and the 458s, spent from their wildness, were returned to the paddock (some adorned with trophies), James had had his fill and was thinking about the prospects of a nice big soda for the ride home.
But the union had been made: man, kid, Ferrari. Forged in sound and speed under the blissful country sun. For its moment, the union was ideal. But like so many unions formed at life’s extremes, it had to end. No perfect synthesis can stay. Dawn goes down to day and then to evening and dying light.
The man is driving responsibly on a highway, away from the bucolic cathedral of speed and back to the Big City.
The kid is snoozing in the back.
And the Ferraris are dreaming of the next day and the defining wildness that will arrive when they do again what they were made to do.
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