It's approximately a seven-hour drive from Orange County, Calif., to the tiny hamlet of St. Helena in the heart of California's wine country. Normally on a drive like this I'd be in no mood for good humor, but my destination is special. This year Napa Valley is the site of the annual Ferrari Challenge rally, and I've been invited to take part. So it is, any way you want to look at it, a good day for a drive.
Of all carmakers, Ferrari occupies a unique niche in the marketplace. Aside from being probably the most recognizable high-end car manufacturer, about 65% of its customer base is retained through return business. For this reason, the company treats its customers like royalty. No better-it treats them like family. As a Ferrari customer, you will be treated to perks not normally available to the general, faceless public-perks like private tours of the factory in Maranello, the ability to test drive on world famous tracks and driving schools, and access to events like the Challenge. While many cars of this caliber end up sitting under car covers inside air-conditioned garages, the yearly Ferrari Challenge rally allows the most enthusiastic Ferraristi to enjoy their cars as they were meant to be enjoyed, on the open road, driving through and to exotic locations, and communing with other like-minded people.
This year's Challenge was a four-day event. Though I only participated the last day, a complete narrative of the experience in its entirety would easily fill all 65 pages of editorial space in this issue. So in the interest of preserving space, here are some of my most pointed recollections.
Photographer Simpson and I arrive bleary-eyed but suitably excited at the exclusive Meadowood Resort in St. Helena for dinner. The event has been shoehorned into a small parking lot at the top of a wooded hill overlooking the rolling vineyards; it's filled to overflowing with rally participants and Ferrari personnel, and naturally, Ferraris of all shapes and descriptions. Many participants are driving the more "common" 360 Modena or 550 Maranello, but there are quite a few others on hand: a formidable F50, at least one 360 Challenge Stradale, a pair of Superamericas, an Enzo, and a handful of pristine vintage cars that includes a Dino 246 GTS, a 166 and a 250 PF Coupe. Word has it the Enzo actually drove in from Utah; hats off to that guy.
Later, a charter bus takes us to the winery portion of the resort to sample some private reserve. They say the stuff costs $50 a bottle even to members (and membership is by no means cheap), but the wine is exquisite. I've never tasted anything quite like it. Even photographer Simpson, whose experience with wine began and ended inside a bottle of Boone's Strawberry Hill, is made to put on a happy face.
"The company treats its customers like royalty. No better-it treats them like family"
After only about 15 minutes of tasting, the private reserve is whisked away and we get back on the bus for the drive back up the hill to the resort. Commencing his sixteen-point turnaround maneuver to get us headed back the right direction, the driver scrapes his front bumper on the steep, upward-angling road leading out of the winery lot. There's a horrific grating, grinding noise from up front, enough to make your jaw and buttocks clench. The passengers groan in unison. "What is this, a Ferrari?" one of them yells, and everyone laughs.
We meet in the same lot early in the morning to prepare for the rally's final leg. I'd driven up half expecting to simply drive my own car along the rally route (ec's long-term BMW X3), but Ferrari's excellent west coast PR person, Deb, informs me they've brought along a handful of dedicated press cars for the journalists to test drive, comprising two examples each of the 612 Scaglietti and F430 Spider. During the course of the day I'll get to accrue considerable seat time in both.
By the time Simpson and I have finished breakfast the rally has already begun; each participant has already been issued his or her number and place in line and every couple minutes another car stages and leaves the lot. It's imperative I make my scheduled start time at 9:15 a.m., Deb says, so she tells me to hurry the heck up and get situated in my car. I jump in one of the champagne-hued 612s, strap down and prod the engine start button. The 5.7-liter V12 thrums to life.
"Are we all just supposed to stay in line or are people going to be passing?" I ask the guy with the stopwatch as I pull up to the staging point. He blinks and looks at me as though I've just asked him whether the sky is blue. Then he grins and winks. "Oh, they'll be passing. Three... two... one... go!" And we're off.
I am the walrus... kookookachoo
The Scaglietti is a regal mode of transport, no doubt. It's incredibly luxurious, amazingly powerful and surprisingly big. Despite its size and the perception of luxury, it feels remarkably connected to the road. Feedback through the suspension and steering is quite evident despite its GT status. On the narrow, winding roads that lead us out of Napa its size becomes an important consideration. There are times when I've got rubber simultaneously on the road's center line and its far edge, and in places the center line disappears completely.
About halfway between Napa and San Francisco I'm stopped briefly behind a long line of cars that includes several fellow rally participants. Up ahead we can see flashing lights, and as we move slowly past the scene we see a Subaru WRX that's augured itself into a hillside and shut down traffic in the opposite lane. The driver, a young kid, stands dejectedly next to his wrecked sled, looking suitably sheepish as a Highway Patrol officer interviews him. I have a sneaking suspicion that he was attempting to race one of the Ferraris. If that's the case, he definitely lost.