Noisy, glamorous and with that teasing frisson of danger, fast cars and rock stars have always been made for each other. We discover how, in the glittery world of the guitar hero and Ferrari collector Sammy Hagar, the power of the Prancing Horse has even influenced his singing style
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
Sammy Hagar vividly remembers The Moment, that fated instant when il Cavallino Rampante reared up and rode off with his automotive heart. ‘It was 1972, and I was in Boston with the band Montrose, who were opening up for the J Geils Band,’ Hagar says, nestling into a chair in his studio-with-garage just north of San Francisco. ‘J Geils pulled up to the hotel in a red 250 Lusso to give me a ride. When he took off, the sound and the smell was so powerful – I didn’t know anything about Ferraris then, I had a Citroën if you can believe it – but that’s when I thought, I have to have one of these. It was so low, so sleek, with those big gauges in the middle of the dash. I felt like I was “someone” just by being in it.’ Fast-forward 40 years, and Hagar has become more than just someone. Best known as the man who took over lead vocals in Van Halen when David Lee Roth departed the group in 1985, Hagar helped the band punch out four multi-platinum albums over the following 11 years. Before and after his Van Hagar stint, the self-titled Red Rocker topped the charts as both a solo act (who can forget his 1984 anthem for leadfoots everywhere, I Can’t Drive 55?) and as the frontman for his current supergroup, Chickenfoot. Recently, he added “author” to the CV; his best-selling autobiography, Red, recounts his dual life as both Hall of Fame rock ’n’ roller and savvy entrepreneur, best exemplified by the sale in 2007 of 80 per cent of his Cabo Waco tequila brand to Grippe Campari/Skyy for $80 million.
Which brings us neatly back to his Ferrari fixation. In a two-hour conversation that finds Hagar, 64, as animated as a child at Christmas, what becomes immediately clear is that cars have played an integral part in his emotional life. And although he keeps more than a dozen vehicles of different makes at the ready for his spontaneous drives around mountainous Marin County, it is his half-dozen Maranello-built machines that launch him into some particularly passionate stories. There’s the one about his personal best time for a highway blast from his home in Malibu near Los Angeles to Mill Valley up north in his 1982 512 BB; four hours and 18 minutes to cover 665km. ‘I must have averaged about 150mph [241km/h] during some stretches,’ he says with an irrepressible grin. Or the time he got a phone call from Eddie Van Halen asking him to join the band, after the Lamborghini-loving guitarist admired one of Hagar’s Prancing Horses at the garage of LA mechanic Claudio Zampolli. ‘It’s true, Claudio got me in the band, but he was also the most amazing mechanic ever, able to fix my cars just by hearing them drive up,’ Hagar says of Zampolli, famous for melding two Ferrari V8s to form the power plant of his Cizeta-Moroder supercars, co-founded with Oscar-winning composer Giorgio Moroder. And he can’t forget the time he was recording in the same Los Angeles studio as Pink Floyd one year in the 1980s, when the American would drive a new exotic in each morning just to get a rise out of his British rock heroes. ‘I’m such a Pink Floyd fan, David Gilmour is up there with Eric Clapton for me, so to get so much car love from him and Nick Mason, particularly for my 365 GTC convertible, was just a thrill,’ he says.
But perhaps the most intriguing tale Hagar tells is about how the impassioned cry of a Ferrari engine at speed – particularly his favoured Colombo V12s – helped him find his guitar and vocal sound. ‘I get goose bumps thinking about this, but when I first went searching for a signature guitar tone in the 1980s, I decided it had to sound like a Ferrari at about 4,500 or 5,000rpm. It had to have that whoooomp, that tearing sound, like the speakers were being ripped out,’ he says, leaning forward in his chair. ‘Now, when I scream, I want smoothness. If it weren’t for Ferraris, I wouldn’t scream like I do. I scream at about 9,000rpm, and I sing at around 4,000. On [the Van Halen track] Dreams, the part where I sing “higher and higher,” that’s me being a Ferrari at the redline.’ Hagar slaps his palms together, flops back in the chair and laughs. It’s the contented boom of a man in his prime, successful both personally (he has two young daughters with wife Kari, and two grown sons from an earlier marriage) and professionally (beyond Chickenfoot, he recently launched a new premium rum, and his non-profit Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill restaurant chain benefits sick and hungry children in five US cities). However, life wasn’t always so rich or rewarding. Sam Roy Hagar was born in 1947 and raised in Fontana, California, an hour’s drive east of LA. His father worked for a steel company and loved to box, instilling in his son the need to be tough and persistent in life. That fundamental lesson proved invaluable, as Hagar would repeatedly turn misfortune into success. He scored hit singles after being dismissed from both Montrose and Van Halen, and struck business gold with his tequila and, more recently, a restaurant in his Mill Valley hometown, El Paseo, which serves dishes conjured up by American celebrity chef Tyler Florence. ‘I wanted to be rich and famous because I was born poor, but once I got fame and money, I became addicted to the sheer creativity of launching new ventures,’ Hagar says, sitting near a wall of sketches depicting his Beach Bar & Grill eateries, which are largely found in airports and which, to date, have donated more than a million dollars to children’s charities.
‘It’s no longer about the money. What I make now, I largely give away. It’s about the challenge. Coming up with a good song is like coming up with a good business concept. You want a hit.’ At every stage of Hagar’s lengthy career, financial success has been followed by automotive rewards. Just a few years after his epiphany in the passenger seat of J Geils’ 250 Lusso – until then, Hagar had largely been a die-hard Ford enthusiast, a love that’s reflected in the gleaming white-withblue stripes 2005 Ford GT in his cavernous garage – the singer decamped to London with $5,000 in royalty cheques and went hunting for Ferraris. What he found was a four-headlight 330 GT 2+2 painted in Bluebird blue, which he says belonged to British speed record king Donald Campbell. ‘I’d looked at some Maseratis but, in the end, I wanted a Ferrari 12-cylinder,’ he says. ‘I drove that car everywhere, all over England, then shipped it back and drove it all over the US. I didn’t know about Ferraris at first, I didn’t realise they were such redline machines. But that car taught me all I needed to know.’ In the early 1980s, the 330 was starting to ail. Hagar sold it, and spent a few months in a new 308 GTB before spotting a black 512 BB in Zampolli’s shop. The mechanic offered to help him buy one, but Hagar didn’t have the cash.
‘But then my album Standing Hampton came out, and Three Lock Box went platinum, and I marched back to Claudio’s and ordered a BB,’ Hagar says, beaming at the memory of that triumphant moment. ‘There you go. The trip started.’ Hagar’s cyclone of Ferrari enthusiasm soon sucked in his Van Halen band mate, bassist Michael Anthony, who Hagar jokingly snipes ‘was driving a Mercedes or something like that’. Anthony, who is a member of Chickenfoot along with guitarist Joe Satriani and drummer Chad Smith, recalls things a bit differently. ‘I had a [Porsche] 911SC, but then I met Sammy and the next thing I know, I own a 1972 Dino 246,’ he says, chuckling. ‘If you value your marriage, you don’t become friends with Sammy. I went from two cars to having 12. Luckily, my wife realises that things could be a lot worse than your husband being addicted to cars.’ Hagar laughs when told the anecdote. He agrees that his car lust has kept him from going off rock’s deep end. ‘You can’t drive messed up,’ he says, ‘and I just love to drive.’ But he adds that cars were never a way for him to unwind from the stress of the music industry. ‘Quite the opposite, they kept my adrenaline going. I’d come off a tour all revved up, and the best thing I could do was get in one of my Ferraris and drive from LA to the Bay Area and back,’ he says. One such round trip was made in Hagar’s new black-on-red leather 400i, whose keys Anthony grabbed one day. ‘I fell in love with it, and with Ferrari 12-cylinders at that moment,’ says
Anthony, who made a concession to that bond recently when he took delivery of an eightcylinder Ferrari California. ‘All four of us [in Van Halen] were into cars and driving fast around the canyons near Malibu, which was fun. There were some pretty white-knuckle moments back then.’
Although enamoured with his 512 and 400i, Hagar felt it was the right time for him to match his growing success with Van Halen in the late 1980s with the proper Italian mount. He debated between a 275 GTB and a Daytona, finally opting for a 1971 Daytona whose history, he says, included being seized from a porn star with drug problems. ‘I’m not sure if it was John Holmes,’ Hagar says with a sly smile. ‘But he was a tall guy, and this car’s seat was set way back.’ And there things sat for a good long while. A number of other cars came (another familyinspired Ferrari 2+2, this time a 456) and went (including a ‘brutal’ Shelby Cobra and a few Jaguars). After the sale of Cabo Wabo tequila, inspired by his bar and home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, another automotive celebration was in order. Well, two actually. First came a black 599 GTB, notable for its factory-applied red stripe that flows along the snout and tail of this imposing machine. Two other custom touches include wheel caps that are red instead of the traditional yellow, and a dash-mounted plaque that indicates that the car was built for him and delivered on his birthday. ‘That is, quite simply, my favourite ever Ferrari,’ he says firmly. ‘People will say that I’m old fashioned, and maybe I am, but a Ferrari to me is a 12-cylinder car. And this one is a monster. I really think that 20 years from now, it’ll be like the Daytona is today. Maybe even a Lusso. To me, all Ferraris are great, but there are times when they really hit it big, like with the GTO or the original Testarossa, and I think the 599 has that sort of appeal going for it.’
The sixth of his half-dozen Ferraris (the full roll call being: 275 GTS, 512 BB, Daytona, 456, 400i and 599) found its way to his garage indirectly. Hagar had actually been looking to buy himself an Enzo, much to his own surprise. ‘I did not like the car at all when it first came out, it was too Formula One for me,’ he recalls. ‘But the car hasn’t changed, so obviously I have. When I saw a black-on-black Enzo at Concorso Italiano [the annual gathering of Italian steeds that parallels the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on California’s Monterey peninsula] I thought it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen in my life. I fell in love. I tried to buy it, but it cost too much.’
Both high prices and warnings not to drive the car too much because it would affect resale value, eventually led him to make a far different choice, says Hagar. ‘The 275 GTS is perhaps my favourite of the small Ferraris,’ he says, walking past endless cratefulls of musical equipment, walls that are lined with gold records and a small but well-outfitted recording studio before emerging into his sun-streaked garage. He runs a hand over the convertibles’ graceful flanks. ‘Look at this thing. You talk about getting things right. It’s a bit underpowered but it handles so well,’ he says. ‘I drive it everywhere, despite what it’s worth, because I will never buy a Ferrari and just stick it in a garage. My cars will be driven.’
Hagar’s about to do as much, hopping in an anthracite-over-tan-leather FF that a Ferrari of San Francisco representative has brought by for the committed Ferrarista to assess. At first, Hagar is sceptical, mumbling about the back end of the cavernous four-wheel-drive car being hard to swallow compared to sleeker sports car forms. However, four blips of the paddle shifters and a few miles later, he’s a convert. ‘“Wow”, that’s really all I can say,’ he states, back at his garage and circling the FF like a predator. ‘That car gives up nothing to my 599 when it comes to performance, amazing.’ And his young daughters can sit comfortably in the back. Hagar shakes his leonine mane of blond curls. He is impressed, but still no sale. ‘I’m waiting for the next supercar, the new Enzo,’ says Hagar. ‘Ferraris have been such a big part of my life for so long, and I’ve rarely made a mistake except for the time I didn’t buy an Enzo when I was offered one. Life is sweet and short, and I’m not going to make that mistake twice.’ And with that, Hagar slips into his distinctive 599 and fires up the engine. ‘Aaaaaooooo!’ he shrieks, blipping the throttle, the rock star’s signature yell climbing the musical scale as the 12 cylinders ascend theirs. Hagar cocks his head, winks, and is gone.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 18, September 2012