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.

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.

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.

Ten minutes later I'm back up to speed, with the banged-up Subie in my rearview mirrors. Ahead, I can see a red F430-one of the press cars-tearing around the other Ferraris and terrorizing the local populace. The guy seems to have talent; at the very least, he's got far larger huevos than I. It isn't long before the car is out of sight completely. I ease back a bit and let the others go too, sacrificing my elapsed time to a leisurely drive beneath the California sun. Besides, this Ferrari's not mine and I intend to keep it that way.

The last few miles take me up the mountains on the very edge of San Francisco. At the highest point I pull into a turnout and exit my car to take in the view. The city is, naturally, hidden beneath an undulating sea of clouds, but the scene is absolutely epic. There is no guardrail here; were you to slide off the edge, you'd fall for quite some time before coming to rest. I'm jolted out of my reverie by a cell phone vibrating against my leg-no doubt the event organizers wondering where I've gone with their car.

I'm the last one into the lot at Ferrari of San Francisco, the local dealership, and by the time I arrive "The Spectacle" is already well under way. Ferrari staff are freaking out, gesturing and barking orders. There's a helicopter circling overhead and a phalanx of Highway Patrol motorcycles arranged at one side of the lot. The atmosphere is electric, at once both exciting and nerve wracking.

For "The Spectacle," Ferrari North America has arranged for the eastbound side of the Golden Gate Bridge to be completely shut down at high noon in order to allow our group of more than 60 cars to cross unhindered to the far side. While it sounds simple enough in theory, this event must have been an absolute nightmare to plan, much less execute.

As we make our way from the dealer to the freeway we're flanked by CHP bikes and cruisers, which do their best to guide us through the chosen route and keep us insulated from surrounding traffic. Other cruisers and bikes are posted at strategic locations, running interference at nearby intersections and off-ramps to keep our progress constant. Along the way we inevitably absorb a handful of unwitting drivers. One is a small Asian lady in a red Beetle, completely oblivious to the events transpiring around her. Another is some guy in a Viper GTS with a vanity plate that reads something like WAR PIG. He wants to race of course, but one of the CHP cruisers persuades him otherwise. By the time we reach the bridge's threshold, our procession is once again a pure, untainted stream of Ferrari sheetmetal. As we cross, we're recorded by a line of photographers and cameramen and cheered on like returning war heroes by a legion of bystanders along the bridge's length. We continue on to our lunch stop, the St. Francis Yacht Club overlooking San Francisco Bay.

At lunch I learn the driver of the hell-bent F430 wasn't a man at all; it was a well-known lady journalist who had already been well established in competition driving by the time I learned to use the toilet. Think Little Old Lady From Pasadena but replace the Super Stock Dodge with an Italian sports car. I find this bit of news quite amusing and sidle up to her at lunch."I hear you were quite the hot shoe," I chuckle, nudging her with my elbow. Her steely eyes fix on me silently. Pfft, what the hell would you know about it, sweety? they say. "I was only doing about six-tenths," she shrugs, and returns to her chicken roulade en croutte as though she'd never left it.

A staffer at one of the other magazines here at the office once told me a story about how he once took a ride in a Ferrari and how it was pretty cool, he guesses, but he found the famed exhaust note a little disappointing. I think his exact words were it sounded "kinda shitty."I'm not sure what kind of Ferrari he rode in; for all I know it was a Fiero kit car. But I do know at full song the F430's 4.3-liter V8 sounds nothing like anything else you've heard, certainly not like any big, lumpy American V8. The best I can describe it is comparing it to the sound a big, petrol-powered zipper might make. It's more whoosh than rumble, and even on an unmodified F430 the sound is hellishly loud. It's about as close to Formula One as you can come in the consumer car market. There are those who have alleged the F430 is the best Ferrari to date in terms of performance. I didn't test the limits, because there's little doubt this thing's capabilities stretch far beyond my own. The incredible combination of grip and acceleration seems an unholy matrimony. Surely, someone must have sold his soul to build a car this good.

Coming off the mountains on the Old Santa Cruz Highway we hit another traffic jam. This one is apparently the result of construction en route to the Pacific Coast Highway.At this point it's a straight shot to Monterey and the rally course's terminus, and it seems unlikely that I'll get to do any more spirited driving. As we sit in a veritable one-lane parking lot, I decide to savor the engine one last time, throwing the F1 tranny into neutral and blipping the throttle a few times. The tachometer needle rips around to redline; the sound is like the very air above me being rent open, a silky spike of sound that sharpens to shrieking fever pitch in less than a heartbeat. Some poor guy on the sidewalk drops his groceries, breaks eggs all over his shoes and shakes his fist at me. A group of schoolgirls across the street stops giggling long enough to wheel around and stare, eyes large and liquid. Dogs begin barking in the distance. Kinda shitty? You must be kidding me.

The day ends at the Monterey Plaza Hotel, where the rally participants will gather for a parting banquet. The next day some will leave for home, but most will join the festivities this weekend at the nearby Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and the Historic Races at Laguna Seca. Unfortunately, I've got another seven-hour drive ahead of me, for it is the journalist's curse to eternally heed the magazine deadline's heartless call.

Despite my status today as a transplant, an interloper of sorts, I found it impossible not to feel a very warm sense of belonging, as though I was in fact among family. There's no intimidation, no condescension, no pressure. And that is really the whole point. It's about getting outdoors, enjoying your machine the way it was meant to be enjoyed and communing with other fascinating people.Given the chance to do it again, I'd be a fool to refuse. Maybe, just maybe, some day I'll partake in a Ferrari of my very own. Maybe some day I'll see you there, too.

SOURCE
Ferrari North America
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