On a recent weekend in northern California, a traveling circus of Ferrari faithful pulled into Infineon Raceway, just another stop in the factory's Corse Clienti racing program. Far from being a contrived tribute, this celebration of Ferrari's world salutes the company's racing roots with four versions of on-track fun mixed with reminders of all things Maranello, from food to model cars.
But the focus is decidedly on the tarmac. Things kick off with non-passing laps for Ferrari owners in their own cars, followed by real racing featuring gentlemen drivers of both Ferrari Challenge-spec 458 Italias and race-only 599XX coupes. And finally, there's the chance to see recently retired Formula One cars scream down the straights, only instead of Michael Schumacher or Rubens Barrichello being at the wheel, it's an exceedingly successful private owner who can afford to play Schumy for the weekend.
"Ferrari takes its customers seriously, that's why I'm here," says Marc Gene, an ex-F1 hot shoe who since 2004 has been the Ferrari team's lead test driver. This weekend, he's helping a client set up his 2003 ex-Barrichello F1 rocket. "Getting into these cars is always unbelievable for me, and I do this all the time. So I can only imagine it must be mind-blowing for a client."
In more ways than one. If you're racing under Ferrari's banner the price of admission is hefty. For the entry-level series - Ferrari Challenge - there's the cost of the race-ready car (around $300,000) and then another healthy five-figure sum per race weekend for comprehensive support from dealership-organized teams. But for those dozens of F1-car owners, things multiply quickly, starting with the seven-figure price of the vehicle, plus whatever it takes to fly both the machine and a small crew of F1 technicians to wherever you're racing.
Many Challenge drivers prefer not to chat. "A lot of them aren't here to advertise their wealth, but they're all successful in their fields and want to be the best they can be out here," says San Francisco team advisor Scott Sharp, an ex-Indy Racing League racer currenting running a Ferrari 458 in the American Le Mans Series.
"In the old days, racing feel was something you got from the seat your pants," he says. "But today, technology lets us tell these guys exactly what they're doing right and wrong. The data collection is impressive, and we've got video that lets us overlay their line with one I've run as a baseline. It's fun to bring a little ALMS tech to the amateur world."
Sharp says his pupils this year include a spine surgeon and a gaming-industry executive. "Ironically, the spine surgeon, who obviously is cautious and meticulous in his work, tends to go for it out out there. And the gaming guy, who you'd think might roll the dice a bit, is far more conservative," he says. "It's fun to see how different personalities adjust to the track."
Personality is on display big time at Infineon this weekend. A few cars go flying off the road in heated attempts to pass competitors on what is fundamentally a difficult track full of elevation changes and hairpin, off-camber turns. For a few drivers, the weekend's fee will be somewhat in excess of that standard as-long-as-you-don't-wreck fee.
Things are far less dicey during lap sessions for regular Ferrari owners, who clearly don't want to make a mess of their garage queens. One exception is John Evilsizor, who is pushing his snarling 599 GTO as if he were in the final laps at Le Mans, slightly freaking out the plodding driver of an older Ferrari just up ahead.
"I'm just trying to show him the racing line," says Evilsizor, whose success in commercial real estate has allowed him a to house a number of Ferrari's in his California garage. "Too bad we can't pass."
That frustration aside, Evilsizor enjoys coming out to Ferrari events like this one. "You get all kinds here, from arrogant to super nice, but overall it's great to be with folks who appreciate the same car you do," he says.
True enough. That famous yellow-and-black shield logo appears everywhere, from the flanks of massive trailers to the smallest of espresso cups. There's a Ferrari boutique peddling everything from baby onesies to luggage, and a VIP lounge serving caprese salads and pasta primavera. And if you can't afford a real Ferrari, there's even the chance to buy a 1/8th scale version for a mere $5,000 to $7,000.
"About 3,000 development hours go into each of our models," Copeman says while model maker Gary Solan makes tweaks on a small 458 door. He adds that many customers like to have models of their own cars made, and Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo has been known to give them out as gifts.
Perhaps the coolest thing about dropping in on an event like this is that you don't have to be Montezemolo or a Fortune 100 tycoon to partake. All day long in Sonoma County, streams of average Joes and Janes and their kids flooded through Infineon's gates, soaking up a scene that may forever remain a dream. Except on this Corse Clienti weekend, when Ferrari's small world opened up.
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