A Ride In A Ferrari 250 GTO-The Holy Grail of Racecars

Ask any Gearheads worth their tool chest which vintage car they consider their all time favorite and you’re likely to get a wide variety of answers. When it comes to options there are arguably dozens from which to choose. Duesenberg, Pierce Arrow, Rolls Royce, Packard, Stutz, Alfa Romeo, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, and many other manufacturers made automobiles that were at one point considered to be the finest conveyance on four wheels until something better came along.

When it comes to competition cars however, there is one car that those in the know will acknowledge as being The Holy Grail of automobiles. That car is the Ferrari 250 GTO.

Like all beautiful and exotic cars the Ferrari GTO is more than the sum of its parts, more than the performance, more than the numbers indicate. That said, the GTO’s numbers are impressive indeed. Let’s take a quick look at them.

39-the total number produced from 1962 to 1964.

300-horsepower created by the GTO’s 3.0 liter v-12 engine.

8400-the maximum revolutions per minute of the engine.

2425-the weight, in pounds, of the aluminum bodied car

$18,000-the cost new, assuming that Enzo Ferrari and Luigi Chinetti considered you worthy of ownership.

$35,000,000-the amount the most recent buyer, Craig McCaw, paid for a GTO which had been built for Stirling Moss. 

Of course the GTO is more than numbers, many of which are not terribly impressive by modern standards. Even when new there were cars with similar (or greater) power and performance, but none could match the mystique, beauty, and outright braggadocio of the GTO. Designed to compete in Group 3 Grand Touring Racing, the “GT” stands for “Gran Touring, and the “O” for Omologato. which is Italian for “homologation”. Homologation means that a specified number were built in order to meet the regulations of the sanctioning body (in this case, the FIA). Homologation rules are used to prevent manufacturers from building small numbers of prototype cars and racing them in production racing series. It is a way to make sure that the cars on the race track are based on production models. The rules for GT racing in 1962 stipulated that 1,000 models of a car must be produced in order to compete in the series, but in typical machiavellian fashion, Enzo Ferrari built only 39 examples of the GTO, using non-sequential chassis numbers to give the illusion that more had been produced than actually were.

Amazingly the years have been kind to GTOs. Whether due to their extreme desirability or the mere fact that have continued to appreciate, even those campaigned extensively have all managed to escape being parted out. With their value now firmly over $30M, no GTO will ever be “totalled” a fact reinforced by the recent crash of one owned by Christopher Cox at a 50th celebration race at Le Mans. Despite massive damage to the car, it will be fixed. After all, how much damage do you have to do to a car worth $30M to make it not worth saving? Short of an asteroid falling on one and smashing it in to a long, thin, flat piece of metal, the 39 GTOs will be protected like the Mona Lisa.

We’ve been lucky enough to see the GTO reunion at Monterey in 2011, and we even touched one (briefly, and gently) at a friend’s shop a few months back. We never thought we’d have an opportunity to get a ride in one though, much less on a real race track. When that opportunity presented itself last week we did not hesitate, and we signed up immediately.

The Classic Sports Racing Group (CSRG) has been running vintage racing events in Northern California since 1968 and over the years we’ve attended many of their races at Sears Point, and Laguna Seca. When we heard about their recent “Charity Challenge”, an event benefitting the “Speedway Children’s Charities of Sonoma” our interest was piqued. When we learned that the Charity involved rides in a number of vintage racers, including a Ferrari GTO, we signed up immediately. CSRG’s Charity Challenge included rides in all kinds of cool cars, from vintage Alfa Giulietta Spiders, TZs, and Sprint Speciales, to Porsche 356s, Corvettes, and even a Shadow Mill Can-Am. For us though, it was all about the GTO, a car which reduces most Gearheads to stammering incoherence when they try to describe its appeal. The $250 “donation” was almost inconsequential, and short of a ride in a pre-war Alfa Romeo, we can’t imagine any other car that merits that amount of money for 5 minutes of seat time. To use an overused phrase, this was truly an “e-ticket” ride. So it was that last Saturday, in the glorious early Fall sunshine of Northern California we found ourselves sitting in the cramped, bare metal confines of a 1962 Ferrari GTO, owned and driven by Tom Price.

Tom Price’s life is filled with cars. He is the owner of Price Family Dealerships, based in Marin, California sells Aston Martin, Infinity, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, McClaren and Fisker. The car business has been good to Tom, and he has amassed an impressive collection of truly impressive cars, including a 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C Supercharged, which won the Mille Miglia in 1932. The GTO came as part of a 2010 purchase of 21 Ferraris, nearly all of which are significant models for the Modenese factory. Tom not only has great taste in cars, he’s a genuinely nice guy, and a talented pilot.

The Charity Challenge happens during the race day’s lunch break and after spending the morning wandering the pits and watching practice we made our way to the hot pits, helmet in hand, full of anticipation. It was quite a scene. There, lined against the pit wall were grown men, some in their 50s and 60s, starstruck and acting like eager schoolboys as they dutifully lined up in front of the cars they’d chosen. When asked which car they were getting a ride in, each responded with an excitement and giddiness, an emotion usually reserved for those much younger. Then again, there is that old saying, “the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”

We were second in line for a ride in the GTO, which was just fine by us. We were happy to soak in the anticipation, get a good view of the car on track, and let Tom warm up the engine, gearbox and tires. We didn’t need to wait long. After an out lap, hot lap, and in lap, the three of which were completed in about 7 minutes, it was our turn. We strapped on our helmet, and slid in to the car. Tom started the car and asked us if we were ready before reaching over to shake our hand.

We were waved on to the track and the next thing we knew, the cockpit erupted in a howling resonance that we expected, but the full effect of which we could not have imagined.  The car positively trembled like a stallion breaking free from a momentary confinement (come on, you really didn’t think I’d use any analogy other than a horse, did you?).

We should take a moment to tell you that we have hundreds, if not thousands of laps around Sears Point, almost all of them on a Ducati Superbike, during numerous track days and our time racing with AFM in the 90s. The track has changed radically over the years, but we still know every turn’s tricks and nuances, from Turn 2′s off camber challenge, to Turn 11′s 180 degree lead to the front straight. The track is known for its technicality, and for the fact if you screw up one corner, it will likely take you two or three more before you’ve recovered. For these reasons, and many more, we did not expect that Tom and his Ferrari would attack the famed Sonoma racetrack so ferociously. Prior to our ride we talked to Tom about service intervals for the GTO’s motor and he told us that the engine was not nearly as fragile as we’d expected, that they do hundreds of race laps, and thousands of miles in between overhauls. Still, hearing that engine rev to 6,000, then 7,000, then past 8,000 RPM was simply astonishing. Feeling him chuck it so effortlessly and slide it so gracefully in to the downhill right hander that is Turn 3, before cresting the blind hill in to the Carousel was simply something for which we were not prepared. This car is worth well over $30,000,000 after all, and that cement wall outside Turn 11 doesn’t look very friendly to aluminum body panels. We were also on the track with other cars, and the combined value of all of them was not 10% of the GTO. We also know that Tom was only driving around 6/10ths of his and the car’s ability. We never even got in to 4th gear.

None of these things diminished the intensity, the sheer excitement, adrenaline, and wonder that a car this old could handle this well, accelerate this hard, and sound so incredible. This was an experience truly worthy of the word, “awesome.” We were fortunate that our hot lap was free of traffic, allowing Tom to push the big Ferrari a little bit harder than he might otherwise would have. Based on a rough guesstimate we put the hot lap at somewhere between 2:05 and 2:10, which is very respectable given that he was held back by the obvious risks and limitations posed by having a passenger.

Our cool down lap allowed us one more chance to see Sears Point from the cockpit of what we consider to be the coolest competition car ever produced, and to soak in the sound, smell, and heat (and there was lots of it, largely due to the fact that we were inches from the oil cooler) of the GTO. We will simply never forget the experience, and if we ever need to relive it, all we need to do is watch the following video.

There were races scheduled in the afternoon, but we were feeling to nostalgic and pensive to let anything get in the way of the afterglow we felt after our three laps in Tom’s Ferrari. From the exotic to the mundane we hitched a ride in a golf car up the hill to where our 30 year old BMW M635CSI was parked. Leaving Sears Point and turning on to Highway 37 we ran it up to redline in 2nd and 3rd, noting that this was still nearly 2,000 RPM shy of the GTO’s rev limit, but driving home in the golden glow of an October afternoon, we felt lucky to have been allowed an opportunity to experience one of the world’s greatest race cars, in its natural element.

Stay on the throttle!

-tj