Spontaneous chance to drive a $650K Ferrari race car? Yes please
It happened just the way it might in a movie: I was standing next to a racetrack watching others have fun when my phone rang. A guy with one of the hottest cars there said he had to leave suddenly and asked if I would fill in. My first stammering words were something like, “Uh… okay… remind me how to start it?”
The car was a Ferrari 250 TR60—or, more accurately, an exquisite near-copy of a TR60, the rocketing red roadster that Olivier Gendebien and Paul Frère drove to victory at Le Mans in 1960. A real one at auction might go for more than $20 million, and it is the kind of toy that you would find at such gilded events as the Goodwood Revival or Le Mans Classic being piloted by smiling one-percenters who also own private jets and yachts.
This car sat in the pits on its wire wheels looking all lumpy and cut through with ducts and vents in the style of racing cars of the era. Six intake trumpets were visible standing at attention beneath the blistered hood. For sale at the time of this writing, the Ferrari bore a price tag of $650,000, which is still a pretty big number by most people’s measure. And some idiot picked me to drive it!
Actually, the idiot was southern California car nut John Bothwell, the founder of Pur Sang, a company that creates and imports meticulous replicas of pre-war racers from Bugatti and Alfa Romeo. He is also a partner in the Old Racing Car Company, which sells both real and realistically replicated cars from the golden age of pre- and post-war motoring. In January, as part of the Arizona Auction Week, Hagerty hosted an event for Drivers Club members at the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park just south of Phoenix, best known as the home of the Bondurant High Performance Driving School. Bothwell kindly brought the Ferrari to enhance the atmosphere by several notches.
Forced to leave prematurely, Bothwell asked me to drive the aluminum-bodied car for the demonstration laps, since I had driven it once already; meaning that I had puttered around the block near his office in Costa Mesa, California, with my head on a terror-lubed swivel. At Bondurant, I pulled the cord that released the feather-weight aluminum door and slid down behind the big, wood-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel. Bystanders gawped at me as if I also owned a jet and a yacht, which I don’t and never will.
The start procedure, Bothwell had reminded me, involved switching on the fuel pump and inserting a small key, which when pushed inward eventually engages the chugging starter. A 4.0-liter Ferrari V-12 (the original Le Mans car had a 3.0-liter) coughed and barked to life with a feral yowl from the rear-facing pipes, whereupon it settled into a frenetic 1200-rpm idle that said, “Hokay, big-a pansy boy, lets-a go racing.”
You would think a car like this would be hard to drive. Quite the opposite. The tall shifter selects the four forward gears with a wonderfully positive feel, like lubricated shotgun parts sliding against each other. The clutch take-up is mellow and the V-12 has tons of rotational inertia, so it is hard to stall.
I rolled around the track for a lap or two feeling it out, but even on skinny period tires the grip was certain and the chassis responses were natural. As this was a ride-giving exercise, a Hagerty staffer had directed a passenger into the right seat, and it was time to show off. Though there are red tidal swells of aluminum bodywork both in front and behind you, the TR felt like an old Lotus Elan with a really big motor. The steering nipped the front end around the cones smartly and picked its apexes with precision. On the straight, the single-cam, triple-carb V-12 opened up with a glorious scream.
I upshifted at a cacophonous 5500 rpm—the redline wasn’t marked so I figured that was a safe number—and surged forward, caught another gear, and bawled past the pits. For a brief moment I was there, back at Le Mans in 1960, wearing a silly half-helmet and goggles and trying to stay alive as the scenery blurred past. Alas, the straight at Wild Horse is a fraction of the length of the Mulsanne, and I had to get on the brakes, which were blessedly firm and certain. My last race car was a Spec Miata. It behaved not all that differently, tucking into the turns when you lifted, feeling light and agile. After a few laps, I felt that I could race this Ferrari and, if not impress anyone, at least have a perfectly awesome time safely.
The Ferrari had been built in France in the early 1980s, commissioned by French racing driver Regis Fraissinet, who had driven similar cars in the 1950s and at one time even owned a racing circuit in southern France. The tube-frame chassis and its powertrain is from a Ferrari 250 GTE road car but with an alloy body that recreates a Ferrari race car from 1960. In ensuing years it ran a variety of historic events including the Goodwood Revival.
Every time I pitted to get a new passenger, the pro Porsche driver Patrick Long, who had only just before been giving rides in a race-prepped 911 GT2 RS Clubsport, looked at me admiringly. I was winning! For 40 precious minutes of my life, I was better than Patrick Long!
Suddenly the Ferrari developed a backfire on acceleration and some smoke started emanating from the dash. I figured it had just gulped a little extra gas in a tight corner and loaded up its plugs, but caution seemed prudent as nobody wants to be on YouTube standing next to somebody else’s vintage Ferrari while it burns. I texted Bothwell from the pits and he confirmed that it was likely just the plugs, that I should go back out there.
A quick run up the track entry road proved that the engine was just fine, but the session was over. The Ferrari was parked. I went in search of handcuffs so that I could bind myself to the steering wheel, ensuring the car and I would never be parted. Fortunately for Bothwell, and surprisingly given the number of prisons in Arizona, nobody had any. Pity.