I didn’t win the Powerball, but I did find a way to get myself behind the wheel of a car worth more than my house.
I was invited to visit a new company in far north Fort Worth called Fittipaldi Exotic Driving, which gives ordinary people a chance to do something extraordinary — go for a spin in a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche or a Nissan GT-R Black Edition. The cost ranges from $199 to $419 for a morning training session and six laps around a road course in the Texas Motor Speedway infield — and discounts are available for holiday gift certificates and corporate events.
Or, for those who want to leave the driving to someone else, a couple of laps in a Porsche race car, riding shotgun with a professional driver, can be had for as little as $99 ($69 during certain holidays and other promotional periods).
“It’s an opportunity we’re trying to do for people who want to drive pretty much the car of their dreams, an exotic car on a real racetrack where the environment is definitely going to be fun, safe and fast,” said pro racer Christian Fittipaldi, who started the business after a long career mainly in Formula One and Championship Auto Racing Teams racing, including a second-place finish in the 1995 Indianapolis 500.
The company uses a fleet of vehicles that will operate year-round at the speedway, but typically only one weekend per month. The next availability for the public to drive one of the exotic cars at TMS will be Feb. 12-13. The company also offers rides on other weekends at tracks in Austin and Houston.
Cars available for driving include a Ferrari 430 Scuderia, Lamborghini Superleggura LP570-4, Lamborghini Balboni Edition LP550-2, Nissan GT-R Black Edition and Porsche 911 Carrera S 991.
The evening before I had a chance to drive one of the cars as part of a media event, I watched an old video in which Gallardo Valentino Balboni, a well-known test driver for Lamborghini, explained his relationship with automobiles.
“You have to feel without hearing, or see without seeing, what the car is telling you or how the car is reacting,” he said in the video. “Every Lamborghini has its own character and temperament.”
Inspired, I requested to Fittipaldi officials the next morning that I be given a chance to drive the Lamborghini 550-2 Valentino Balboni edition, a $250,000 car built in honor of the test driver. Only 250 of these beauties were produced from 2009 to 2014, each with 550 horsepower.
Unlike many Lamborghinis and other high-end cars that have four-wheel drive, this baby has only two-wheel drive — in the rear wheels — as was Balboni’s preference to give the driver a more sporting feel as the car drifts into turns.
Beautiful! You haven’t forgotten that. Now, gas it up!
My Lamborghini driving instructor, Ed
After about a 20-minute safety briefing at the speedway’s infield media center, courtesy of Fittipaldi CEO Bill Scott, me and a handful of other lucky drivers went out to the track for an up-close look at the racecourse, which included several turns and two areas of S-curves.
I was then fitted with a racing helmet and approached my car for the day. The Lamborghini 550-2 Valentino Balboni was gleaming pearl yellow, with its throwback 1970s white racing stripe down the middle, and white racing stripes also running down the middle of its black leather seats.
It was a snug fit to slip into the driver’s seat, just a few inches off the ground. A person taller than me would have trouble getting in, especially while wearing a helmet. But as I would soon learn, the Lamborghini experience isn’t about headroom in the two-seat cabin.
Taking the cue from my driving instructor, Ed, I turned the ignition key and was immediately mesmerized by the familiar sound of a Lambo engine. It’s difficult to put in words what the experience of driving such a special car is like, except to say it’s a machine that seems to have a unique ability to spiritually connect the driver with the road.
The vehicle had six gears, with very easy shifting on steering wheel finger levers — right side for upshifting, left side for downshifting. There was no manual clutch, so my left foot had nothing to do, and my right foot was tasked only with accelerating and braking. I only briefly got up to fifth gear, and sixth gear — which apparently is mostly for use when the car tops 140 mph — was not needed.
With 550 horsepower, the car can go as fast as you need it to. It also brakes on a dime. So, on the course, it’s really up to the driver to determine how successful the driving day will be. The car? It’s up for anything.
On the front stretch of the nearly mile-long course, I briefly topped 100 mph. Ed was enthusiastic, constantly barking out instructions about when to upshift or downshift. On about the fourth lap, when I successfully came out of a turn and accelerated, Ed exclaimed “Beautiful! You haven’t forgotten that. Now, gas it up!”
My drive was not flawless, I struggled to time my braking and acceleration correctly on the S-curves, and at one point became overwhelmed and downshifted by accident. The Lamborghini was forgiving — offering a brief rebellious revving of the engine — but if I had been in a race, I no doubt would have been passed by several competitors.
Luckily, this trip around the track was just for fun.
Later, I asked Christian Fittipaldi for advice, and he suggested I try to stay calmer behind the wheel.
“You just have to try and flow as much as you can,” he said. “People usually associate driving a race car with being aggressive, or checking the car, and it’s exactly the opposite. The calmer you are in the car, the smoother you are. The speed will naturally come to you. Sometimes, you need to go slow in order to go quick.”
Fair enough. But about a half-hour after my drive ended, I had an opportunity to ride shotgun with Fittipaldi for two laps in his Porsche race car. He topped 130 mph on the same course.
As he drove, Fittipaldi showed the body language of a man completely calm and control. But the car tore through the S-curves at a delightfully frightening speed.
The last time I was going that fast around a curve, I was in high school and, foolishly, crashed my ’81 AMC Spirit. I spent my entire senior year washing dishes and busing tables at Steak ’N Ale to pay for the repairs.
You just have to try and flow as much as you can. People usually associate driving a race car with being aggressive, or checking the car, and it’s exactly the opposite. The calmer you are in the car, the smoother you are. The speed will naturally come to you. Sometimes, you need to go slow in order to go quick.
Christian Fittipaldi, professional race car driver