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Running in a Fast Crowd : Motoring: A Ferrari on the freeway is like a Thoroughbred pulling a plow. So a new race series will let amateurs taste their cars' potential--and heritage.

December 17, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROSAMOND, Calif. — Gentleman racing is back, a fragment of a finer past when sports actually meant sportsmanship.

And when motor racing followed a knight's code.

Drive hard but fair. If winning is an art, consider losing a grace. Salute the man who passes you, console those behind you. Back off before somebody gets hurt--and know that to drive with anger and vengeance is to risk being culled as a menace to the fraternity.

In that precise, polite, mostly forgotten spirit of the '50s and '60s, Ferrari North America Inc. has composed a race series for gentlemen--no gentlewomen having applied, although registration remains open--who own $90,000 Ferrari 348 sports cars. New or used. No matter how many payments remaining. But please arrange your own insurance.

Professional drivers are barred from this world series and from the seven-race North American leg that next year will wend and roar from eastern Canada to Southern California.

There is no prize money, just an expenses-paid trip to Italy to compete in the final against European amateurs. All cars must be Ferrari 348s and stock except for a roll cage and racing seats. All will ride on donated Pirelli slicks.

So, last weekend, a Connecticut investment banker and a Nashville rock drummer, a San Antonio orthopedic surgeon and a Toronto television producer were among three dozen middling to high-rolling racers who came to practice at Willow Springs International Raceway and test the seemingly impossible: Being reasonable, cool and courteous at 140 m.p.h.

A few, like Peter Sachs, 54, of Manhattan's Goldman, Sachs & Co., and Nigel Olsson, 42, a Liverpudlian and Elton John's drummer for 10 years, have raced the amateur circuits for decades.

"I'm doing this because it's fun and a new form of competition for a very competitive individual," says Sachs, of Stamford, Conn. He has raced Ferrari and Lotus for three decades as an amateur and has seen $30-million sponsorships and no-quarter competition reduce the appeal and accessibility of professional motor sports. "But this (348 Challenge) tends to keep costs down, makes everything low-key and keeps racing that much safer."

Olsson, now a Nashville music producer, isn't even in it for the trophy or the trip to Italy. He enjoys being part of the Ferrari heritage, the passion for fast machinery and the camaraderie among owners. He also finds the series pretty effortless competition.

"I paid $80,000 for a 348 and $30,000 for the series," Olsson explains. "The dealer provides mechanics, repairs and maintains the car between races and makes sure it gets to the track.

"All I have to do is show up and hop in the car."

In other races, Olsson has enjoyed the sponsorship of Bridgestone. Tires for the 348 Challenge are provided by Pirelli. So Olsson has taped over the Bridgestone lettering on his racing suit.

He says it is the gentlemanly thing to do.

*

Of course, in those early, decorous days following World War II, drivers wore cotton coveralls without anything so tacky as advertising for cigarettes, beer and discount stores. Cars raced in national colors, not decoupages of sponsors' decals. It was heresy to do anything with Moet & Chandon Champagne but drink it.

String-backed driving gloves and polo helmets were \o7 de rigueur.\f7 So was dating Italian actresses. Nobody raced for the money because a good mechanic could earn more. Drivers were German aristocrats, an Eastern prince, two brothers from Mexico, a cosmetics heir, an English dentist, playboys who quickly learned that an inheritance is no substitute for talent, and a couple of hot-rodders from Southern California.

One Californian was Phil Hill, who won the 1961 World Driving Championship in a Ferrari. Now he restores classic automobiles in Marina del Rey and is a contributing editor for Road & Track magazine, which assigned him to Willow Springs.

Hill certainly hears spirits of yesteryear in the 348 Challenge, albeit paler sounds. For as he looks at the cost of a street Ferrari these days, he knows racing one "still takes a good chunk of change to get going."

And whether a matter of expensive amateurism or inexpensive professionalism, Hill says, the event's cool could well become a casualty "when the flag drops and that trip to Italy is on the line."

Gian Luigi Buitoni, 40, has a doctorate in business and is president of Ferrari North America. He also has looks Fellini could have made famous, is an addicted car racer, an heir of Buitoni pasta, and the young thinker charged by Ferrari in Italy with shedding the aloof and elitist images of Ferrari in America.

He recognizes the seductive combination of precision cars and triple-digit speeds. So it was Buitoni who pushed for an American portion of the European series because "we want the customer to be part of the Ferrari heritage of the challenge of racing . . . but safe and financially affordable racing. In this country, with all the speed limits, this is the only way to really enjoy a Ferrari. Absolutely."

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