Duty called me to make a trip to Italy once again last month, but on Maserati business this time. As a lure to get American dealers to make the trek post 9/11 and to attend the various business meetings, Maserati/Ferrari made arrangements for us to spend two days at the famous Monza Autodrome to see the World Finals of the Ferrari 360 and Vintage Ferrari Challenge Championships. So, Derek Fennig, our newly appointed Maserati specialist, and I flew to Milan, Italy’s second largest city, which is also the banking and clothing industry center for the country.
Milan is located just south of the Alps, barely a hundred miles from Austria and hardly an unpleasant place to visit in the fall. I knew the countryside there was beautiful and that the city would be interesting, but I expected Monza to be like most other racetracks—flat, open expanses of dusty grass and barriers. I was wrong.
Just outside the city is a huge park and nature preserve that was established over a century ago (when it wasn’t just outside the city). This is a popular spot for local families to enjoy the outdoors. Originally dense forest, this area now has some clearings, playgrounds, narrow roads, and bike & hiking paths winding through tall evergreen and deciduous trees. Right in the middle of all this flora is the Monza racetrack! There are places along access roads where you are literally a hundred yards away from a section of the track but can’t see it for the trees. Parking is a problem, since they didn’t want to clear acres for lots, so you usually have a pretty good walk through the woods after leaving your car in one of the scattered car parks.
Once on the track property, things are more as expected with large grandstands, Armco barriers, pits, concessions and paddock. There are a couple of tunnels that provide access to the infield, and your ticket determines where you can go. Outside each of the track entrances were many independent vendors’ stands hawking all manner of racing geegaws, nearly all Ferrari-related. Much of the merchandise has been bootlegged outside of Ferrari’s licensing arrangements, but most flaunt the cavallino trademarks nonetheless. Some are mildly tacky, some incredibly so; and there’s no doubt that Michael Schumacher is a national hero—his visage & name is on everything. The vendors inside the track boundaries are more easily policed and carry only properly licensed merchandise. The famous long front straight has simple grandstands for the proletariat on the outside of the course and fancy boxes and galleries above the pits on the inside for the well-connected. The infield has permanent structures that house a couple of restaurants, several souvenir shops, garages, many food & drink stands plus the universal nasty restrooms. Even the track infield has many stands of large mature trees, so on a hike out to most of the far corners you are walking along under a shady canopy. Very nice. And when it’s raining, as it did a lot while we were there, the trees mitigate the shower a bit, too.
The 360 Challenge series is hotly contested and well funded in Europe, as evidenced by many huge transporters and a large contingent of entrants. Just like here, the “My truck’s bigger and flashier than yours” contest is in full swing. The trucks are pretty neat, and I enjoyed looking them over. Nearly all are painted red—some the special F-1 shade of orange-red demanded by Marlboro—and many had huge banks of auxiliary lights arranged along the cab roof, on big bars in front of the grille and on the front bumpers. These lamps are each a foot in diameter and the array must look like the sun coming up to oncoming traffic. Polished aluminum wheels, big chrome exhaust stacks and very elaborate graphics complete the effect. I noticed that trophies won by the team are displayed on the dash of the truck while in the paddock. Sponsors are much more prolific than in the states, and there is scarcely a vacant inch on any of the cars for another sticker or logo. The racing was very aggressive, especially since these were the end-of-season finals, and there was plenty of rock ‘em-sock ‘em action--particularly in the first chicane at the end of the front straight.
Starts were a riot of Italian officiating. It became evident that the starter was only focusing on the first row of the grid, so the race would actually start a few rows back before the lights ever changed! During one semi-final, there was a 360 (painted bright John Deere green) that was on the fourth row of the grid, right in front of where I was standing. He jumped out and was racing between the two cars on the third row before the pole-sitter ever got moving! At the first turn there would usually be an explosion of fiberglass bumper fragments as the laws of physics about objects occupying the same space manifested themselves. After the races, many young fans were carrying away sections of bumpers with black rubber arcs over the decals that they had retrieved from scrap piles as trophies for their rooms.
I have to confess that I paid more attention to the overall Monza experience than to who was winning; I understand that several of the drivers who came over from North America, such as Steve Earle and Mike Louis did well, as they usually do. By Sunday afternoon, nearly all the cars were running primer-painted front and rear bumpers, since they had gone through all the finished ones they had brought along and were getting into the emergency and borrowed spares! Fortunately, however, there were no serious accidents like last year. Anyway, it was the experience that I wanted to expound upon, so no more about the 360s.
The contingent of entrants for the Vintage Challenge was exceptional. A large grid was on hand for both the drum brake and disc brake classes and included some very noteworthy autos. As always, Peter Giddings was on hand with his ‘30s-era Alfa; there were numerous early Maseratis, a collection of Ferrari 3-liters that included pontoon-fendered Testarossas (2), series one GTOs (3!), a couple of 250 LMs, including David Piper and his famous bright green one and several competition Daytonas. The Daytonas were by far the loudest; the early TRs shrieked the highest and the GTOs with their minimal mufflers made the most beautiful all-round music. Except for the Formula One cars, that is. There were at least a dozen of these, most from the ‘70s & ‘80s, but there was one early 4-cylinder Monza and a couple of quite recent examples that are now in private hands. While strolling around the pits admiring these famous veterans, I bumped into Jean Todt doing the same thing and he was nice enough to sign my pit pass. The F-1 cars did not race, as such, but instead put on ‘demonstration’ laps that eclipsed some of the owners’ skills anyway. None were damaged, but a couple did come back to the pits on flatbeds after spins and stalls.
My ticket was supposed to include a lunch at the Ferrari ‘Pavilion,’ so around midday Saturday I located a large white tent next to several big Ferrari transporters. In the tent were arranged numerous tables and a line of folks queuing up for some groceries. My credentials drew a curious look and a shrug, but entrance was granted and I got in line. Admittedly a picky eater, I still usually fare (heh-heh) pretty well at Ferrari-hosted meals, but this one was not pretty. The first station was doling out some sort of shredded fish poultice heaped thickly on crackers, followed by a cooler full of mixed-fruit bowls. I took some fruit. The entree was a big hunk of ‘meat’ being pared on a commercial slicer. It appeared to be largely porcine in composition, including what appeared to be whitish lips & snouts all compressed into a large dark red block held together with suet and gelatin. Thick slices of coarse bread went along with slabs of this treat and one could choose from several different beers to coax it down with. I would have needed many of those beers first, but the several boisterous Germans sharing my table evidently saw nothing off-putting about the cuisine and elbowed their way back for more—several times. My fruit and bread were sufficient to keep me upright until dinner several hours later. Carping about the victuals that evening to my fellow dealers —during a typically sumptuous meal--brought the explanation that I had stumbled into the open-to-nearly-everybody tent; the Ferrari elite were being feted in a big, palatial special-events room well hidden from the commoners, and I had missed it completely. On Sunday I sought this oasis out and found myself in the lap of excess. The only pork product here was a large suckling pig, complete with an apple in its mouth. This was flanked by platters of choice roasts, endless pasta and tortellini selections, lush salads, broiled sea food and thick, glistening desserts that had avoirdupois written all over them. Bottles of wine and mineral water stood on the tables for unlimited consumption. It’s no wonder Europe has always had class struggles.
Anyway, after bulking up in there for a couple of hours, the rain let up and it was time to see some more racing. A wander over to the main straight brought the news that the Ferrari F1 team was on hand to provide some demonstration laps! Mssrs Schumacher, Barrichello, factory test driver Luca Badoeur and three 2001 F-1 cars materialized onto the track amid a thunderous uproar from the now-packed stands. Every other fan had a freon horn which they blasted incessantly as the three pilotas revved up the V-10s and smoked down the track sans traction control. After several screeching laps (which included demonstration pit stops!) they slid to a stop on the start-finish line…..and began doing 14,000-RPM donuts! Tire smoke blanketed the track as the three cars spun round and round, drivers fanning the throttles to celebrate the season’s successful end in true Italian fashion as the crowd went wild!
That was a scene you don’t see every day, and I was really glad to have witnessed it. After this spectacular halftime show, the final events got under way. More 360s were wadded up and afterwards the old V-12s came out and once again serenaded us, just as some of those same cars had done here at Monza forty years ago.
-- Bill Orth --