It’s only at about 125mph that I realize I’m drenched in sweat. It is, after all, well north of 100 degrees at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on a muggy Saturday afternoon in August. Screaming up straightaways in a 483-horsepower Ferrari F430 Spider, with the windows down and oppressive bursts of South Florida air ripping through the calfskin-upholstered cabin, I’m perspiring more than Matthew Perry as he waits for the network’s call regarding how Go On tested.
My driving instructor Luis is yelling barely intelligible instructions into my right ear from the passenger seat. Most of the time, he’s gently — and then, not-so-gently — warning me to brake. Occasionally, he offers more helpful suggestions, like pointing out apex pylons that I’m supposed to be aiming towards in the $198,000 Italian V8.
Considering that my previous auto racing experience is comprised of warehouse go-karting at the Richmond Airport, and stalling my brother’s Audi S4 six times in a row, I think getting the damn thing around the turns at all is quite an accomplishment. Luis, a local Porsche driving school teacher by trade who used to race 350cc bikes all over the Sunshine State, is impressed with neither my driving, nor the buckets of perspiration oozing through my shirt.
But Dave, you ask, how did a New Yorker with a barely still-valid license end up tearing around a 10-turn grand prix track set up in the impossibly flat farmland 30mi south of Miami in the driver’s seat of this Maranello-born, firetruck-red, rear-mid-engined convertible? And, more importantly, why are you sweating so much?
After waiting my turn behind the nicely upholstered wheel in the woefully under-air-conditioned press box while drinking at least four warm-yet-highly-complimentary Red Bulls, my already hungover body was giving off more flashing red panic signals than the bridge of the Costa Concordia. Pump that much taurine into someone and turn up the heat, then give him the keys to an F430, and he’s going to get nervous. Extremely nervous.
The reason I’m in here in the first place, though, is slightly more involved. Normally serving semi-monied car fanatics and very-monied money fanatics, Imagine Lifestyles rents out luxury vehicles, from BMW X5s ($599/day) to 108ft pleasure yachts (“call for pricing”, and for humiliation upon hearing said pricing.) They also run kinda-affordable “ultimate race experience” days like this one at a handful of tracks across the country, where they roll out some of their hottest wheels and let would-be Frank Martins like us destroy their transmissions.
Eager to escape the grundle-sauna of Manhattan in August, and realizing — with horror — that I’d never visited the inspiration for The Best Hip-Hop Song Ever Produced by Will Smith That Isn’t “Wild Wild West”, “Men In Black”, or “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”, I checked with my Miami contact to see if she’d be in town. Let’s call her “Liz”. Because that’s her name, and also because this device makes me feel like a real journalist.
Liz was going to be home the weekend in question. What’s more, she was going to get me in to watch the Heat dancer tryouts at the American Airlines Arena on Sunday, thanks to a freelance gig scouting locations for a prominent interstate vending machine conglomerate. No, that’s not actually true, but it’s a lot funnier than what is, so just go with it.
Ferraris? Heat dancer tryouts? Book it. Bienvenidos a Mi-aaahmi.
Or, more specifically, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where Liz picked me up well past midnight on Thursday. Joe, her uncannily human Maltese, rode shotgun. Friday, I choked back saccharine Cuban-style corditas and nervously discussed with Liz what Saturday held in store:
Liz: Have you ever driven stick before? I can’t, really. Like, at all.
Me: I used to drive a Toro Workman when I worked groundskeeping. It was stick, but you could start it in third gear, so I’m not sure that really counts.
Liz: Well, apparently these have the paddle-shifters, so we can drive them.
Me: [staring blankly] Right…
After a totally quiet night not spent bird-dogging chicks in Miami Beach, we arrived at the Speedway. Sprouting from the farmland upon which it was built, the grandstand is massive, somewhat colorful, and impressively ugly.
I don’t think many who worship at this temple of torque notice its architecturally bungled body-snatch of Miami Beach’s Art Deco influences. More fans are probably aware that the 1.5mi track was born as a miniaturized copy of the 2.5mi Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I’m the sort of rarefied loser who knows both these sorts of things, mostly because I read Wikipedia before I do things. The More You Know.
We were a little late to the track (more on why in just a bit). Ryan and Omar from Imagine threw us into the next available classroom session, where for 10min, a severe bald man with a Hunt for Red October-era Sean Connery beard described to us the various ways in which we would destroy these fine automobiles.
Don’t brake while you turn, or your car will go into a spin. Try to hit the gatorbacks (the raised blue/yellow strips demarcating the track edges) but stay off the grass. Shoot turn seven’s double apex (what?) to set up for the straightaway. Don’t, under any circumstances, try to pass the other cars.
This last rule drew feigned disappointment from some, presumably because they’ve watched Days of Thunder like, a lot, and really get that part when Nicole Kidman tells Cole Trickle that Rowdy can’t race no more. The only thing I was worried about passing me was an ibis, as I barrel-rolled the massively expensive Ferrari through the air after losing control while brake-turning as I missed the gatorbacks on both turn-seven apexes.
More bad news from South Florida Sean Connery: the transmissions on these vehicles can cost $30,000 to repair. The silver lining: they’re running all the cars in automatic (not even manumatic, commonly known as “tiptronic”), so aside from getting up to speed and jamming your car into reverse, it would be virtually impossible to grind the gears.
When we get out to the course, I’m shoved to the front of our group. Ryan kindly offers me a helmet with a GoPro camera rigged to it to document my blistering run. I’m so strung out on Red Bull and nerves that I barely manage to stammer my thanks. At least now they’ll have something to play at my funeral.
How’d Dave die?
Before I know it, I’m strapped into the F430. Luis is calmly explaining how to exit the pit. I can barely hear him over the opening drum fill of “Down with the Sickness” by Disturbed, which is thrumming through my brain in panicked repetition. The convertible’s roof is up, because within eyesight looms am ominous tropical thunderhead. Lightning bolts snarl across the sky.
This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends.
I press the gas. The 4.3L engine does all the things you’ve always heard it described as doing — it roars, moans, howls, growls, etc. Before I know it, I’m 50yds down the track, and turn one’s coming up fast. Immediately, it becomes clear to me why people willingly spend their $200,000 on this car, instead of 18 billion shares of AskJeeves.com. Or, like, a house.
I open up the Prancing Horse to about 105mph on the first straightaway, which is awesome until I remember — at about 50ft out — that said straightaway ends in a near-180-degree hairpin. Dumping more speed than a Dope Wars cop chase, I pull up short with about 10ft of pavement left. At about 5mph — DON’T TURN WHILE YOU BRAKE — I execute the sort of lurching lefthand swing that Jeremy Clarkson has nightmares about. Luis chastises me for being stupid, and wearing sandals. Both are true.
Other than this terrifying lapse, though, driving the F430 is nothing like Connery said. The car is every inch a dream, breaking less of a sweat at 125mph than its driver. On the second lap, Luis apparently decides I’ve demonstrated enough aptitude behind the wheel, so as I enter the much-wider speedway from the serpentine grand-prix portion of the course, he urges me to “unwind” through the turn.
I don’t know what this means, so I continue with my original plan of not plowing into a chicane. He repeats himself, this time pantomiming the clockwise (righthand) wax-on/wax-off motion he wants me to make with the wheel as we take the lefthand sweeper. Ah, got it. Imitating Luis, I swing wide-right through the sloping turn’s apex.
At about 90mph, I climb the Ferrari up the bank, gaining 20ft of elevation in a matter of seconds. The aquamarine cement of the barrier wall oozes by in a high-velocity blur just outside Luis’ window. I’m 7ft away, and he tells me to move closer.
Now I’m 4ft out. I can pick out individual chainlinks in the 20ft retaining fence as they whip by. Luis says go closer.
I never thought I’d die in Florida next to a man named Luis.
I keep the wall at 4ft.
Back in the pit, I emerge from the driver’s seat a conquering hero. Liz gives me a high-five. She’s driving the same Ferrari with Luis, as the rest of Imagine’s stable — today, an F430 hardtop, an F559, a Lambo Gallardo, and a Lambo LP-560 — is currently out on the track. As she gets into the driver’s seat, I wince a little. Poor Luis.
Unless you went to UGA with her (“Sic ‘em, dawgs!”), or have ever hung out in her apartment building’s in-lobby liquor store (“Sic ‘em, Flying Dogs!”), you probably don’t know Liz. She’s great. However, she is decidedly not-great at driving. So not-great, in fact, that to begin our 30mi trip to Homestead-Miami, she managed to drive about 15 blocks away from the gas station before realizing that her gas tank was still open. Not just the little metal door, mind you — the actual tank.
Where was the gas cap? Glad you asked. It fell off… her roof. See, Liz is no stranger to vehicular difficulties — her right side mirror is shattered more thoroughly than Gerard Depardieu’s — so when her gas cap tether broke some time ago, she continued using it. This, of course, is totally fine, as long as you remember the critical step of replacing the cap after filling up. Should you forget this part of the process, you’ll wind up backtracking to the Shell station, where you’ll find the deformed, traffic-maimed plastic remains of your once-functional cap.
Liz spent several minutes arguing with me in the Shell over whether we ought to “tape it on” to “form a barrier between the gas and the pavement”, before she thankfully rethought that and convinced me to call an auto parts store for a replacement. 25min down the road, new gas cap securely fastened to the tank, Liz was trying to back out of the Advance Auto Parts parking lot into oncoming traffic while fielding a phone call when I finally snapped and demanded the keys.
This is how I came to be driving us into the raceway parking lot about an hour later than expected. Despite all the delays, it was worth it. If I was going to die, it was gonna be in a goddamned Ferrari with a dude named Luis, not in a Grand Cherokee with a chick named Liz.
Luis, bless him, had no idea that his newest charge had been recently relieved of her duties driving her own less expensive, less powerful SUV on public roads not lined with gatorbacks. And to her credit, Liz really never let on that she had been, either. She negotiated the course moderately well, and only scared the ever-living crap out of her instructor once, hammering the F430 around an off-camber left at about 80mph. As they were thrown around in the cockpit, Luis exclaimed “That was crazy!” You have no idea, Luis.
After leaving the track, we hit the Sonic drivethru to celebrate our survival by courting heart disease with milkshakes, hot dogs, and not one but two breakfast burritos (served all day!). An hour later, we were floating in a hotel pool drinking Bulleit punch spiked with a metric asston of Splenda, and by the end of the night I was chugging IPAs by the Wynwood Walls and telling Liz, “Look, I can either puke in Gold Rush [a supposedly gruesome/awesome strip club in a dodgy neighborhood, at which I was convinced I’d find love], or puke in your apartment. I don’t care which, but one of these is going to happen. You choose.” Being far better at outsmarting me than at driving, Liz wisely sacrificed her own toilet… and sink… and bathroom floor to keep me out of the city’s third-nicest titty bar.
Sunday morning poured through the apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows around 730a. I awoke disoriented. The back of my head felt like Mickey Rourke had kicked it about 17 times while wearing ski boots. My right jaw was impressively, inexplicably swollen. My mouth tasted like a cat had sh*t in it.
This is the way the world ends.
I wanted to quietly expire in her bathtub, but Liz had to get to American Airlines Arena to shoot those dancer tryouts, so she mercilessly dragged me off the couch. Reeling like prizefighters, we scrambled down Biscayne Boulevard to the House That Pat Built. After getting lost in the building’s labyrinthine bowels for a sunless 10min, we emerged onto the championship court.
The arena was vacant but for a few maintenance personnel. Basking on the entry steps outside were 300 hopefuls, each of whom seemed to be in a competition with the girl directly adjacent to her to dress the most like a pledge of that step sorority from Drumline. We went out there to get some shots (for the prominent interstate vending machine conglomerate!) and chat up the candidates while they limbered up.
Walking amongst these luscious, lithe, hot purple-spandex’d creatures, I felt like Axl Rose must feel around girls all the time these days. Except I hadn’t once banged all 300 of these women at the same time in a Ford Econoline behind the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Most had headphones in, so I was able to get relatively close before they heard my aroused hungovermouthbreathing and scampered away. Ah, love.
Before Liz had snapped even 10 pictures, an administrative voice droned through the loudspeaker, exhorting the dancers to file into the stadium.
I would attempt to describe the scene as it unfolded inside, but frankly, I was so stricken by Catholic guilt and acid reflux that I kind of blacked it out. Lucky for you, Liz got pictures — lots of ‘em! You should absolutely check out her photo album if you haven’t already, because it does a better job explaining the carnal passions that went down (!) all over the hardwood (!!) that morning.
30min later, I found myself staring at the men’s room ceiling with [REDACTED]. My watch said 1115a. As I pulled my pants up, I remembered that my flight departed from Fort Lauderdale — a 40min drive — at 1245p. Without so much as a farewell to Liz, I made a mad dash for a cab.
After about 10min (time check: 1125a), a dubious Crown Vic picked me up. Being the sort of asshole New Yorker who assumes that the rest of the country has pulled itself from its barren and backwards existence by now, it was several blocks before I noticed that the cab wasn’t outfitted with Manhattan’s ubiquitous card-reading meters. Cash only.
I checked my wallet. $27 stared ruefully back at me.
“How much is this gonna cost?” I ventured.
“Seventy!” screamed Michel, my Bahamian driver.
“Right… so, I don’t have that. Want to find me an ATM?”
Fully aware I was being had, but too tired/frantic to argue, I tapped an ATM and handed over the cash. No sooner was the tender in his hands than my man Michel lit off. Pushing his Ford cruiser to the absolute limit, he covered the 25 traffic-strewn northbound miles in a matter of 20min. Michel was hitting double — no, triple! — apexes around 18-wheelers and laughing maniacally into a prepaid cell the entire time.
I never thought I’d die on I-95N next to a man named Michel.
But dude was on point, because without so much as a gatorback to guide him in, we screeched to a halt outside the jetBlue terminal at FLL, still in one piece. Time check: 1155a. “That’s gonna make the f**king difference, between winning and losing! Between living, and dying!” screamed Al Pacino in my brain as I ran to security. I was going to make it.
Four hours later, I found myself on the M60 bus as it burped its way across the northern Queens wasteland towards Manhattan. The smell of urine and halal food wafted thick in the recirculated air; directly behind my back row seat, the biodiesel engine whined like a rutting seacow with every acceleration. Hungover, exhausted, and hungry, I realized that — though we were inching through Sunday afternoon traffic at about 10mph — that I was once again drenched in sweat.