An unexpected bucket list experience
My peek at Ferrari's Corse Clienti program: one of the world's most exclusive clubs.
Heading up Montour Townsend Road, the Watkins Glen grandstand at the start-finish line was the first indicator from the street that this was the big leagues. Driving through gate 2 and then winding under the bridge towards the paddock, the high octave “nyoom” sounds of an F1 car made me giddy. What stood out even more were the yards upon yards of banners welcoming “F1 Clienti” and “Corse Clienti” to the track. I was out of my league and had no business being there. My F10 BMW M5 felt downright meager in the company I would keep for the next 24 hours. I was kindly invited when I asked my new acquaintance, um, I mean my new best friend, Bud Moeller, “How do I get on your pit crew/sandwich runner list for this Ferrari event?” Both my naivete and chutzpah must have been adorable for reasons that will become clear. Once I arrived, I realized I had entered a surreal place where the most wealthy car enthusiasts on the planet tested the limits of Ferrari race cars while F1 mechanics and coaches tended to their every need.
I had to pinch myself as I pulled up to the paddock, parked, and began walking toward the noise I later recorded and have since turned into my alarm clock sound. I instinctively followed a half dozen, red-suited Ferrari mechanics pushing an F1 car towards the garages as they chatted in Italian. Where they ended up, I found three more F1 prancing horses – altogether a 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2008 – plus several FXXKs and 599XXs representing tens of millions of dollars of inventory.
Even if bearing three children hadn’t affected my bladder, I still would have wet myself a little.
The excitement permeated the fresh, country air. Nearly 75 years of engineering, ingenuity and research spread before me in one gorgeous array. There were both a calmness and a buzz of purpose, like in the fanciest Michelin-starred restaurant kitchens. It was blatantly obvious that everyone’s worship of these machines ran deep. There wasn’t a moment when someone wasn’t tending to the F1 rockets, mostly massaging them with special cloths made from unicorn hair (I kid!) and 3M glass cleaner.
I was struck by a feeling I hadn’t yet felt at the track: wimpiness. Don’t misunderstand me. I wanted to get into one of the more sensible race cars so badly for a right-seat ride. But Bud's 599XX Evo wasn’t working. A drive shaft broke, and Ferrari had only brought one spare to the States that it had unfortunately installed the previous weekend in a tech executive’s car. (Even the best of the best make mistakes. I would bet money they will have two spares from now on.) I have chutzpah, but not enough to ask a complete stranger for a ride in his or her seven-figure Ferrari race car. No, I felt like a wimp because, in that moment, I knew I didn’t have the guts to drive an F1 car. I stood in awe of them, imagining my hind-end that close to the ground at 215 mph with nothing surrounding the most important parts of my body – my head and heart – except the wind and a helmet. It made me very grateful for all the steel, aluminum, and airbags that insulate me from my own need for speed. These specimens make 150 mph in my M5 seem downright responsible. As my new best friend was reminiscing about racing this exact F1 car, and letting me hold the steering wheel that Michael Schumacher used to break records with, I couldn’t help but ask: “Does the 599XX feel like a compromise?” He said it did. I almost felt bad for him.
It dawned on me that the people in this Ferrari program are of a certain breed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many are entrepreneurs. Whether driving a 599XX (a race model of the Ferrari 599 GTB produced between 2009-2012), a 599XX Evo (a modified 599XX with a bit more power and less weight), an FXXK (a race model of the Ferrari LaFerrari produced between 2015-2017) an FXXK Evo (a modified FXXK with 23% more downforce), or a 2000s F1 car, these #crazyblessed people were risk-takers at heart. I was thrilled to meet not one, but TWO female drivers, who were both encouraging about my new track hobby. The drivers I spoke to were friendly and super down-to-earth. That tech executive whose car got the only spare drive shaft? He let Bud drive his race car for a session. These cars are not the sorts of things that can be replaced if they wreck; Ferrari only made 2-3 dozen of each car type.
I couldn’t help but think that the folks at Ferrari who devised the program were complete geniuses: make race cars that only one percent of the one-percenters can afford, use them as the training ground for F1 engineers and mechanics, and in the process, create an experience for the clients that they simply can’t get anywhere else. The beauty is these pro-sports team owners, tech executives and successful franchisers choose the track events throughout the year that work with their schedules, pay fees for the mechanics and engineers (think tens of thousands of dollars), and then show up near the world’s most famous tracks such as Spa, Nürburgring, and Silverstone. All the details such as their transportation, meals and lodging are provided so they can relax and enjoy themselves. Ferrari even dry cleans their racing suits between events.
It’s a win-win-win: for Ferrari the brand, for the mechanics and engineers who dream of being part of Formula 1, and for the customers.
As I tried to wrap my head around the event and the amount of money represented in the massive trailer of custom Pirelli tires alone, I couldn’t quite grasp the company in which I found myself. Staring at the inventory in the garage made me wonder how everyday people could ever possibly relate. I couldn’t fully ignore the persistent flashing neon sign in my brain that said, “Who on earth DOES this?” I can admit that after pondering it a while, there was an iota of me that understood. Ferrari the brand and the prancing horse team are responsible for advances and innovations in car and racing engineering used the world over. There is a reason Ferrari has been named the world’s most powerful brand. In Maranello, Italy, and much of the surrounding area, Ferrari is not so much a car company as it is a way of life. Formula 1 has a global following that’s arguably more devoted than the fans of soccer. (I might get in trouble for that one.) There was a paradoxical humble prestige represented in the way every person I observed interacted with the cars. Everybody was reverent, and nobody was flashy. I dare say no one felt a need to be. There was no way for mere mortals to have competed with the gleaming specimens of both art and machinery anyway. (Have I mentioned how much time they spent cleaning and wiping and shining?)
While I was standing in the pits, I learned that Ferrari determined the paint color for its F1 cars by testing how the color appeared on television to be certain that fans watching around the world would see the correct Ferrari brand red. (The F1 cars look a little more orangey-red in person.) It’s this passion for perfection, this pursuit of the next downforce discovery, the desire to build and be the greatest that gives all the rest of us something to dream about. And for these incredibly lucky, risk-taking race car owners, it’s probably the best experience (a crap-ton of) money can buy.
Bud bought his first Ferrari at age 26 and has never looked back. Two other friends of his, not nearly as special to him as I am, also came to the track to watch. One of them said to him, “I can’t imagine you taking up golf.” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Not unless I can get a 700-horsepower cart.” I’m pretty sure he’ll keep racing as long as he can. And anytime I can meet him at the track again, I’ll jump at the chance for that ride. Until then, I’ll keep imagining it as I wake every morning to one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.