You can learn a lot about a person by gauging their reaction to the words "Watkins Glen." Outdoorsy folk will immediately think of the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park, a stunningly gorgeous path that winds along and through the park's namesake gorge, taking you past — and under — 19 waterfalls.
For many more, though, "The Glen" is known for one thing and one thing only: motorsports. The first major American race after WWII happened on public streets around Watkins Glen Village in 1948. A dedicated track was built in 1956, hosting the glamorous Formula One US Grand Prix from 1961 until 1980 — despite the central New York State location being far removed from most signs of modern civilization.
But it wasn't professional Grand Prix racing that brought me to town on a sunny, late-summer day. It was instead the Ferrari Challenge, perhaps the most prestigious racing series for amateurs in the world. Loyal owners of some of the world's greatest cars would be racing their italian exotics around this classic and prestigious circuit. I arrived to watch the excitement and find out what brings racing enthusiasts from around the world here.
Meet the Lusso
Theis not your typical Ferrari. I don't say that to mean it's something radically more powerful or more extreme than you'd expect. But it is, simply, very different than you might expect. It's a hatchback for one thing, a five-door Ferrari with room for four passengers.
You can even get a Lusso with all-wheel drive if you want it, something you might expect to find in an SUV, but like most Ferraris the turbocharged Lusso T strictly spins the rear wheels. So it's a practical car, but still very much a Ferrari, with a 3.9-liter, twin-turbo V-8 producing 603 horsepower, enough to get to 62 mph in 3.5 seconds and on up to a top speed of 199 mph. This is the very same motor that powers the ridiculous Ferrari 488 GTB supercar, and a variation of the lump powering the cars racing at the track.
Launched in 1993, the Ferrari Challenge lets lucky Ferrari owners pilot race-ready versions of the company's road cars. Lucky, yes, and wealthy. A track-ready, 661-horsepower 488 Challenge costs about $350,000 (nearly $100,000 more than the road-going 488 GTB thanks to many safety and performance upgrades). You'll also need a crew, along with tires, parts and the funds to replace whatever else you break. That means tens of thousands of dollars per race weekend, minimum.
And money just opens the door. You still need the skills and reflexes to race at more than 150 mph wheel-to-wheel with other competitors. If you need some direction, Ferrari is more than happy to teach those skills through its, a series of classroom and track driving lessons taught at racetracks around the world.
Then there's the final requirement, a rare commodity for even the wealthiest of entrepreneurs: time. North American Ferrari Challenge drivers will face seven events in 2018, each held over four days. That's a full month at the track every season, plus travel. How are all the dozens of Challenge racers, mostly amateurs with very demanding day jobs, able to spend this much time racing? That's what I really wanted to find out during my time at The Glen.
The Lusso T proves itself a capable touring car as I drive a circuitous yet mostly boring route of highways through central New York to get to Watkins. The hatch also holds far more storage than my weekender duffel requires and the car is comfortable enough for long highway stints.
Still, the aggressive suspension and road noise are constant reminders that this is a car far happier on roads with corners. So as I near the track, I start taking detour after detour in search of some twisty bits. I'm foiled at every turn. Those roads with character are in universally terrible shape, covered with badly cracked asphalt or simply not paved. Tiptoeing across one broken lane after another, I eventually give up and idle to the track.
A wonderful serenade greets me when I arrive: the wailing of high-strung race cars echoing through the hills. It's a special sound and The Glen is a truly special place. From the track's stands you can see across miles and miles of verdant, rolling country and even catch a glimpse of Seneca Lake, one of New York's long, glacially carved Finger Lakes, in the distance. In the autumn there's stunning foliage, and for the rest of the year it's known as the heart of NY's wine country.
My focus, though, was what was happening in the pits.
One of the nearly 60 drivers to compete that weekend was Neil Langberg, a 65-year-old Los Angeles-based portfolio manager who has spent the past 40 years handling investments for wealthy clients. When I meet him he's finding his way out of a sweaty, fire-resistant Nomex racing suit after finishing 10th in the first of his two races for the weekend.
"This was one of the worst days I've had on-course," Langberg laments, "but I still had fun." 2018 marks his third season competing in the Ferrari Challenge, but the process started back in 2008, when he took his first Ferrari driving class. He took all the offered courses, repeating some along the way, until he was comfortable enough to finally go racing.
"I grew up in Southern California so always had a fascination with cars, but never thought I'd have the means to have these kinds of toys in the garage," he says. Langberg evolved from BMWs to Porsches to, finally, Ferraris. But how does he, with a very demanding profession, find time for a half-dozen events per year? And what about all the stress?
"It's a totally different kind of stress," he tells me, saying there are two kinds: stress that makes you "blow up" and stress that makes you stronger. Racing is the latter. "I come back to work [after racing] in a totally different mindset. I don't know that I can explain it to you... things are a lot less serious."
And the time involved? Langberg has worked at his current employer for more than 40 years and in that time has saved a year of unused vacation, but still fields meetings and calls between Thursday and Friday sessions at the track.
It was a different start for another competitor, Joe Rubbo. After racing successfully in the independent Challenge Car Racing series in his Ferrari 458, he switched over to the Ferrari Challenge last season. "The level of organization when you step to this level of amateur racing that Ferrari organizes is just awesome," Rubbo says. "I wasn't ready for it… You're not coming here with a pro coach just to fool around."
Rubbo is referring to coaches like Alessandro Balzan, champion of the 2013 Rolex Series GT series as well as the 2016 and 2017 IMSA GT-Daytona seasons. During a race weekend, Balzan works with his racers, analyzing telemetry and talking through each lap to find the last few tenths of a second.
But, Balzan tells me, the work doesn't stop when the season ends. "Testing, testing, testing" fills the months between October and March, months that don't trouble his California-based team. "We are very lucky to be in Silicon Valley," he tells me, as, "the weather there is basically perfect." Other teams, like those based in the Northeast, have to travel extensively to find a snow-free track in the winter.
That dedication makes the Challenge a massive, year-round commitment for New York-based Rubbo, almost an obsession. "Right now, this does everything that I want. I don't think about any other racing," he says. "So long as I can do it I look forward to doing it. I get a lot out of it." It also requires a strong sense of camaraderie among the drivers and crew. "We're a very social team," Rubbo says. "We spend a lot of time together."
Langberg feels the same, calling the paddock of racers, coaches and crew his "extended family." He continues: "I am not by nature a social guy, and I hate to travel, but tell me to go to a race in Silverstone [a track in England] and I'll be there." But for Langberg, there's another aspect of family involved, and that lies in his team's support for the Race for RP charity, raising awareness for a rare autoimmune condition called relapsing polychondritis suffered by his wife. His car carries the livery of the cause.
The old course
Whether for charity or self-improvement or just for kicks, these guys were clearly living the dream on one of the America's greatest tracks — a track that I, sadly, didn't get any time on as a driver. Only the racers were allowed on the track in anger, so I rode a quick lap as a passenger with racing legend Didier Theys behind the wheel.
I did, however, take a lap of the old course, a 6.6-mile loop of public roads. From 1948 to 1952, racers hurtled around here with nothing but trees and cliffs to keep their speed in check. Now, a 25-mph limit kept the Lusso T ticking barely past idle, especially when I rolled over the crossing that gave Railroad Straight its name. After that it was the formerly fast, sweeping Big Bend turn that leads down into the heart of the village of Watkins Glen itself.
As Seneca Lake slowly extended into view in the distance, and a dusky sky beyond, I dropped down a few gears and headed north out of town, in search of some open roads to finally let my Ferrari stretch its legs a little bit before returning home to reality.
This story appears in the Winter 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
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