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Ferrari California Edited

Driving My First Ferrari!

“3 laps in a Ferrari for only $200! The experience of a lifetime! Register now for the upcoming Xtreme Exotic Driving Xperience!” If you’re a driving and car enthusiast, you’ve probably seen exaggerated advertisements for these types of events before. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably always wondered about all the different ways they’ll swindle you out of everything you hold dear in life. We took the leap and gave it a try – here is my recount of the experience.

On a beautiful September day just outside of Des Moines, Iowa, bursts of engine notes reverberated throughout the countryside. Katie and I were at Iowa Speedway, where we had registered for a brief stint of track time in a Ferrari 458 Italia through Dream Drive Exotics.

Having arrived 30 minutes early as requested, we made our way onto the infield, signed our waivers, and walked to the staging tent for further instruction. The track for the day’s event was a cone-marked autocross course on the open tarmac of Iowa Speedway’s infield road course. The course consisted of a 300-foot front straight along the makeshift pits, followed by a double apex right, a left chicane, and a wide 180-degree right. The dimensions of the course made for a relatively fast autocross track. “This ought to be fun,” I thought to myself with a touch of nervousness.

Not only had I never driven a car with more than 450 horsepower before, but I also had no previous performance driving experience or training. Beyond my fair share of spirited driving on back roads, the only thing preventing me from balling it up was the knowledge I had gleaned from Forza Motorsport (mind you, I am a Tier 7 Forza Rewards member, so show some respect). As a self-proclaimed driving enthusiast, my credibility was on the line. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself (or wreck a Ferrari) nonetheless.

As we approached the infield road course, I caught a glimpse of the fleet of exotic cars that were brought for the event – a Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550-2, a Nissan GT-R, and the car I would be driving, a Ferrari 458 Italia. In fact, the Ferrari was already out on the track with another customer as I approached. As it came around the final turn, I caught a closer glimpse of it and…it wasn’t a 458. In fact, it was a Ferrari California. And from the headlights, I could tell it wasn’t the new California T, it was just the plain old naturally aspirated 4.3 L V8 California. A wave of disappointment rushed over me – this was the front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive convertible 2+2 GT car that most Ferrari enthusiasts would probably describe as plush, slow, and characteristically un-Ferrari. I thought the California would be best served on weekend road trip duty, but certainly not on a track of any kind. At this point I wanted to ask if it was too late to switch cars, but then I remembered that the California costs about 10x as much as my car. Also, it’s still a Ferrari.

Eventually an overly-enthusiastic man came over to the staging area and introduced himself. I handed him the card I had received from registration, indicating that I had 13 laps plus 2 instructor-driven laps in the Ferrari. “How’d you pull this off?!” he exclaimed.

Apparently this was an abnormally large amount of laps for them.

I played dumb, but the secret is that Katie found a clever loophole in their registration system. They had three different packages to choose from – 3 laps, 5 laps, or 7 laps. But, you could also add individual laps (up to a maximum of 10) to any of the packages for an additional fee. Katie had discovered that it was actually cheaper to add 10 laps to the 3 lap package than it was to buy the 7 lap package, so we got the cheapest package and added the most laps we could. Clever and frugal.

The excitable man then brought me over towards the cars and introduced me to the instructor. He then astutely pointed out which car was the Ferrari (believe it or not, it was the red one), and let Katie and I take as many pictures as we’d like. Then, the instructor and I climbed in, and we pulled out onto the course for the two instructor-driven laps.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I know I certainly wasn’t expecting them to drive the car very hard. Coming out of pit lane, the instructor stepped on the throttle and the flat plane crank V8 roared to life. When he braked for the first turn, I was surprised by the violence with which I was thrust forward. Before I had a chance to react though, I was thrown to the side as he clipped the apex with precision. As he continued through the course it was clear that this guy had done this once or twice before.

“Fantastic car control,” I stated.

“Yeah,” he responded.

A man of many words – or maybe he was just focusing intently. As he pulled back into the pits to switch, my excitement began to boil over. Hopping into the driver seat, looking for a distraction, I asked the instructor what year California it was.

“I’m pretty sure it’s brand new, I think they just drove it off the lot the other week,” he responded.

I’ll reiterate – this was not a California T. I was sure of it. So they drove a car that’s at least a year and a half old off the lot in the past month? I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m skeptical. Nonetheless, I didn’t press him on it.

Pleased with my ability to distract myself with petty observations, I flicked the paddle shifter and pulled out onto the track.

Immediately after tapping the throttle, any intentions I had to drive conservatively flew out the window. The wail of the V8 was intoxicating, not to mention the crackles and pops of the exhaust on each shift. The transmission delivered each shift with unbelievable speed, reacting to paddle shift requests without hesitation. The F1-inspired shift lights at the top of the steering wheel are a nice touch as well, and help add to the overall experience.

That said, I was surprised with the lightness of the steering. Combining that with the fast ratio of the steering made maneuvering less about muscling the car around corners and more about precisely homing the car along the desired line.

One important thing to remember is that this car is not light. Weighing in at just over 3,800 pounds, the California is true to its GT car aspirations with a suspension tuned more for compliance and comfort. So when I heaved the car into the first corner, the dramatic sensation of body roll left a fair amount to be desired from a car bearing the prancing horse from Maranello.

And yet, the Ferrari engineers were able to build a car with a softer GT configuration that still performs admirably. Despite the roly-poly suspension, the car can still find its way around corners with plenty of roadholding capability to spare. The carbon ceramic brakes are able to slow the massive weight of the vehicle with savage force. Even the turn-in response gives the impression that the car is far nimbler than its spec sheet would suggest.

All of these thoughts came rushing through my head as I carved through my first lap of the course. “I hope you’re keeping track of laps, because I’m not,” I said to the instructor.

“Yeah, you people can’t be trusted to track that on your own,” he responded.

Fair point. If I had this course in my backyard I would drive myself ill. As I drove more laps, I found myself motivated by my own observations of my driving – brake later before turn 1, use the whole track on exit from turn 3, be mindful of weight shift in the chicane. But, oddly enough, the instructor was completely silent; he seemed like more of a supervisor than an instructor.

Just as I felt myself getting into a groove and finding ways to go faster, the instructor warned me that I was on my last lap. It was fun while it lasted.

Pulling back into the pits, I thanked the instructor for his assistance.

“Yeah, you really kept getting faster and faster, we’re not used to having people do this that aren’t terrible,” he responded.

“Not terrible? Golly gee mister instructor, do you really mean that?” I thought to myself. But in all seriousness, I was relieved and validated knowing that my untrained self has some driving ability.

And with the same immediacy with which it all started, it came to an end. I was probably there for a total of 30 minutes.

Was it worth the money? I would definitely do it all again, but I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone. If you care about and enjoy driving, I think it’s for you. If you fantasize about the unique liveries of exotic cars, I think it’s for you. If you’re this far down in this post and still reading, then it’s definitely for you.

Yes, it feels like a lot of money for a brief bit of fun. But unless you have a rich uncle or a trust fund, you need to be realistic and assess how many opportunities you’ll really have to drive an exotic in your life. For normal people with families and homes and student loans, it’s not likely you’ll ever view buying an exotic as a responsible choice. Furthermore, if spending $300 on the opportunity to drive a Ferrari for an hour turns you off, imagine how it would feel dropping $250,000 (plus taxes, insurance and registration) on a new depreciating exotic, no matter your income level.

If this is something on your bucket list, you’ll probably have to take a lower cost opportunity such as this if you want to cross it off. Otherwise, you had better start saving your pennies.

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