Careening down the twisty turns of Mulholland Drive on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the 458 Italia brakes heavily and makes an amazing sound, a kind of high-pitched “bip bip bip” as it downshifts from sixth gear to second.
‘The 458 Italia has a certain anthropomorphisation’ says Garth Stein, the novelist and part-time amateur racing driver treated to his first drive in a Ferrari on a warm day in September. ‘There’s a communication without words between car and driver. It’ll take over the shifting if you let it, but if you take over, it feels that and it lets you. It’s a car that wants to please.’
Earlier that morning, outside The Standard hotel on Sunset Boulevard, Stein is struck by the 458’s sinuous shape. ‘It has a beautiful front end and bold curvy rear. It’s a head turner.’ Then he climbs in and hits the red start button. ‘It wakes everybody up. People stop and stare.’ The 458 Italia has blistering acceleration; not that you can really experience that in downtown LA. It’s later, when he has a chance to open it up on the 110 Freeway, that he really feels the power. ‘When you put your foot down to pass, that hungry roar transforms into a snarling scream. Then you realise in a blink you’re doing 85mph and this is no jungle and you’d better back off.’
Denny Swift, the hero of The Art Of Racing In The Rain, Stein’s third novel, achieves his life’s ambition when screaming around the track in an F430. ‘The idea was to put him in Ferrari’s flagship car.’ The 458 Italia wasn’t around three years ago when Stein wrote about Swift’s test drive: It screamed as it shot down the straight… and then with a “pock-pock-pock” sound we heard the electronic clutch quickly downshift from sixth to third and we saw the ceramic brake rotors glow red between the spokes of the magnesium wheels… and watched the car slam through the sweeping turn eight as if it were a rocket sled… The Doppler effect of the passing car converted its snarl into an angry growl, and off it rocketed-pock!-shifting again at the Kink and it was gone.
‘People loved that passage in my novel.’ Stein had drivers contact him to praise his accuracy. The step-daughter of Phil Hill, America’s much-missed Formula One champion, contacted Stein to say he ‘got it just about right.’ Hollywood star and racing driver Patrick Dempsey has optioned the rights to the book. Bob Bondurant, a former Ferrari F1 driver who now operates a racing school in Phoenix, called Stein to say he loved the part about Enzo, the dog narrator, riding along. ‘Bob invited me to fly down to Phoenix and he drove hot laps with me as a passenger. He had exquisite control at crazy speeds. I used to race a Mazda as an amateur and I can tell you, there’s a big difference between an enthusiast and a pro.
’For sheer beauty,’ Stein continues, ‘nothing could beat the Dino line Ferrari made as a “budget” car in the ’60s. They were elegant, they had soft curvy lines. Everyone loved them.’ If it’s the feminine beauty that attracted him to the old Dinos, pushing the 458 Italia through the streets of LA tells him that power can be combined with an intuitive feel for the driver’s needs. The Italia’s clever suspension softens and smooths out the bumps through downtown. But when it opens up, the world feels suddenly full of unrealised potential. ‘This car is really made for the track,’ Stein says, confirming the irresistibility of his character’s dream.
How, I am curious to know, did the dream shift from protagonist to author? It was all down to a chance meeting with a former Prancing Horse F1 test driver while on a promotional tour of Italy in April 2009: ‘He told me they put you in a pod beside the driver and give you a thumb switch. At any time during the two seconds it takes the car to accelerate from 15km/h to 150km/h, if you faint or get scared and your thumb goes off the switch, the engine is killed.’ Stein already considered Ferraris the greatest racing and touring machines ever made. But that visit set the hook. If Denny could drive one of those fabled machines, why not the author?
I prod a little. How, I want to know, could a novelist who’s never driven a Ferrari so convincingly put Denny behind the wheel of an F430? Stein sets me straight. There’s an analogy, he claims, between Enzo Ferrari’s passion for cars (‘they totally optimise every ounce of what goes into a car to win a race’) and his own for writing books. Stein gives me an example from the book world. His second novel, How Even Broke His Head And Other Secrets, out with an indie publisher, Soho Press, topped out at 5,000 copies sold, modest in the American book business, and that despite publicity flogging that included two years on the book circuit, and readings delivered at 37 independent Northwest booksellers. ‘It’s that kind of commitment that keeps the heart in the business.’ He grins. ‘I worked even harder to sell the next one.’ For the first 18 months after The Art Of Racing In The Rain came out with Harper Collins, a major publishing house, in 2008, Stein averaged 2.3 readings a week while touring major cities in the US, Canada, Germany, and Italy. The results have been impressive: 66 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, translated into 30 languages, and over 1.3m copies sold, so far. That still doesn’t put Swift behind the wheel of a screaming F430, though.
‘When I was five years old, my dad and I spent Saturday afternoons watching car races on our black and white TV. That’s where the passion started. The first time I got to a track was in 1986 when I watched Ayrton Senna win the US Grand Prix in Detroit.’ One of the greatest racing moments of all time, his novel’s narrator tells us, was Senna driving the 1993 European Grand Prix in England. ‘He was fifth place at the start,’ recalls Stein, ‘but by the second lap he’d somehow zig-zagged around everyone into first. I wanted to know how he did that in the pouring rain.’ In Seattle, Stein started doing “lapping days” in a Miata roadster with a roll-cage. He took the HPDE (High Performance Drivers Education), got his racing licence in 2002, and for the ensuing four years raced the Miata at Seattle International Raceways (now Pacific Raceways). Those racing days “crashed” to a halt in 2006. Attempting to channel Senna and drive in the rain, Stein pounded his Miata at 160km/h into a concrete barrier. He walked away with only a minor concussion, but the Miata was annihilated. Senna did not drive a Ferrari, but the hero of a Stein book had to because he loves Enzo Ferrari’s commitment to superlative performance. ‘I chose the name Enzo for my dog narrator because of my admiration for Ferrari. I knew racing fans would get it.’
Stein’s first love, racing aside, was documentary film-making, and he earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in 1990 in film at Columbia University School of the Arts. He supported himself doing assistant camera work. ‘A film camera is like a fine car. You can totally fall in love with the beauty and the engineering. I especially loved the technical aspects. I could take apart a camera blindfolded.’ But when he travelled to Alaska to film a documentary about his Tlingit grandmother and her belief in mythical bodystealing beings called Kushtaka, his wife, Drella, decided it was time to shift into a higher gear and write a screenplay for a feature film that might have a shot at actually making money.
To figure out the story for the screenplay, Stein wrote what became his first novel, Raven Stole The Moon, published in 1998 by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. ‘I discovered I’m at my best when I work alone. I don’t take orders well.’ No more filmmaking and no aspirations to join a racing team. ‘I’m better suited to the solitary writing life.’ Due out in the autumn of 2011, Stein’s new novel is a North-West ghost story. ‘It has no racing cars and no dogs,’ he says. A 15-room mansion is haunted by the restless ghost of its dead architect, who takes some morbid satisfaction in narrating the story of the fall of a timber baron’s fortunes. No, the late generation of the family does not own a Ferrari. They are on the descendent. To give them a Ferrari would send the wrong message.
Coming back to the hotel through the canyons at the end of an exhilarating day, Sinisha Nisevic, the photographer who accompanies Stein through part of the drive, says to him, ‘You’re looking comfortable in this 458 Italia. How will you ever say goodbye?’ ‘I will not say goodbye,’ Stein replies. ‘I will say: “See you at the track!’ His ultimate dream, he admits, would not be far off that of his character’s. ‘Give me a day at Thunderhill Raceway Park with this 458 Italia, and I will be a very happy person!’ Stein doesn’t worry that competitors might take that dream away.
‘Enzo Ferrari’s tradition of innovation and inspiration will always live on in the Ferraris of tomorrow, I feel certain of that.’ An easy sentiment to stand behind now that he has driven the superlative 458 Italia. ‘It’ll be fun to see what comes out of Scuderia Ferrari next.’ Whatever it is, in contradistinction to the decaying fortunes of the family in his new novel, ‘Ferrari is too adaptable, it’ll never feel like the day before the fall of Rome, not at Ferrari.’
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 11, December 2010