In an exclusive interview, Benjamin Sloss, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, proudly explains how he came to buy the last ever 599XX Evoluzione at an auction organised by Ferrari to raise money for Italian earthquake victims. And, as he reveals, his passion for the Prancing Horse is very much a family affair
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
At the age of three, Ben Sloss received the gift of a sister. This was not high on his wish list in 1972. Atop it was getting his parents to open the hood of the family car, a rather modest Datsun B210 estate, so he could study a strange series of snaking hoses and cables that had something to do with bringing this mechanical beast to life. So, when his parents delivered their filial news, young Ben had a question: ‘Maybe baby wants to look under the hood?’ Thus began a love affair with the automobile that, over the course of his 43 years, has been equalled only by a passion for computers. The latter led Sloss through a series of programming jobs in the 1990s heyday of hi-tech, finally landing him in his current position as Google’s Chief of 24/7, a title he made up himself. ‘My job is simple, really,’ says the affable Sloss, sitting beside his wife Christine, at their expansive home in the hills of Silicon Valley, just
south of San Francisco. ‘If Google ever goes down, or stops working, it’s my fault.’
For the past 10 years, Sloss has kept the world’s leading search engine firing on all cylinders, a sizeable responsibility that, not surprisingly, comes with comfortable compensation. This has allowed Sloss to leap into the world of Ferrari with remarkable speed and sophistication. Over just a few years, the computing engineer has collected a quartet of exceptional Prancing Horses to fill his four-car garage: an Alonso-edition 599 GTB, 430 Scuderia Spider 16M, 458 Italia Spider and – the capolavoro of his collection – a
599XX Evo, which was auctioned off to benefit the victims of the 2012 earthquake in Modena. He now has his eye on two more Cavallini, the new F12berlinetta and forthcoming supercar (see page 10 of this issue), and, as a result, is currently busy making plans to add a two-storey, six-car structure to the hilltop property.
Of all Silicon Valley’s recent start-ups, Google stands almost alone (one cannot ignore the mushrooming power of Facebook and the darling that is Apple) in terms of not just the planet-wide adoption of its core search product (its everswirling privacy issues aside), but also when considering the way in which founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have continued to expand the $238bn (€178bn) brand’s portfolio. Google’s Maps application was such a success that, when Apple recently launched their own notquite-ready version, consumers rebelled. Google has also dominated the mobile phone market with its Android-powered models, jumped into the web-television pool with Google TV, and made impressive strides towards producing the world’s first self-driving car. Prototypes are currently being tested in California and Nevada, and Brin has said that a consumer version should be
available within five years.
Given Sloss’ love of automobiles, he could well find himself pulled off his current gig in order to help Google further revolutionise personal transportation as we know it. But he isn’t saying, and for the moment he’s more than happy to keep his work and hobby separate. Just how personal the latter is reveals itself in this emotional tale. As Sloss tells it: ‘At the turn of the millennium, a
company I was working for went public and I finally had the money to buy a few cars. My father and I share a birthday, 23 March, and in 2000 he was turning 60. I knew he was stopping by the Ferrari of New England dealer weekly just to talk to the guys there and look at cars, but he couldn’t really afford to buy himself anything modern. I had an idea, and it went from there.’
The Sloss family was gathering in Hawaii to celebrate those birthdays, and just before the trip Ben asked the dealership to call his father and say they had a 1997 F355 Spider that he might like to drive. The elder Sloss enjoyed the experience, and thought nothing more of it. Once in Hawaii at the celebratory dinner, Ben presented his father with a few Ferrari-themed gifts. The first was a polo shirt. The next a mug. And the last was a box whose card Laurence began to read, but couldn’t finish. ‘It said, “I know how much you love Ferraris, so I contacted Ferrari of New England to see if they had any pre-owned 355s but they said unfortunately they’d just sold theirs to a crazy kid in California who bought it for his Dad. Happy birthday. Some dreams are worth waiting for.” In the box were the keys and owner’s manual to that red 355 he’d driven. ‘My dad’s first reaction was that he needed a drink and I can totally understand why. That was certainly a moment that I’ll never forget.’ Sloss’ father happens to be visiting his son today; asked about that event, he just shakes his head. ‘I love that car, drive it every day, in the rain and sometimes snow,’ he says, noting it now has 72,000km on the odometer. ‘Once before in my life I had a chance to buy a Ferrari,’ he says. ‘I was in medical school in the early 1960s, and the local dealer had a 1950s Ferrari that had raced in the 1,000 Miglia. It made a wonderful noise. I could afford to buy it, but not maintain it. It was prudent not to get it, but ever since then I’ve spent five minutes of every month regretting it.’
It’s revealing that it took the younger Sloss a decade to buy himself a Ferrari, and a big reason for his current push is Christine. The couple met in 1999, when Sloss was married to his first wife, with whom he had two children, Nicholas, now 14, and Olivia, 11.
Ben and Christine discovered that they both shared a passion for fast things (she was an avid motorcycle rider and mountain bike racer, when not busy managing an area day spa) and also for photography, and became fast friends. Later, when Sloss and his wife separated in 2007, he quickly realised his feelings for Christine had morphed into something deeper. They married in 2010, the same year their first Ferrari arrived, a pre-owned red 458 Italia coupé. ‘I immediately fell in love with the car,’ says Christine. ‘It has that racing soul, but it also has all the modern comforts you expect, heated seats, reversing sensors, cruise control. Our dog Bailey loves to ride with me, curled up in the passenger footwell.’
The couple also share a love of yellow, and when the opportunity came up to buy a new 458 Spider in that colour last summer, they jumped at it. While going through the options list with salesman James Chou of Ferrari of San Francisco, Sloss spotted a curious version of a car he had long lusted after, the 599 GTB. Its red exterior was interrupted by streaks of white, while inside the car was awash in Alcantara and a plaque signed by Fernando Alonso, commemorating 60 years of Ferrari Formula One wins.
However, ‘the car had a “Sold” sign on it,’ explains Sloss. ‘So I asked James who the lucky guy was. He said, “Oh, it’s not sold. I just put the sign there so people don’t climb around inside it.”’ Ben and Christine promptly climbed inside the 599. ‘Christine gave me one look, and that was it,’ says Sloss. They left the dealership in the 599, with the yellow 458 on order.
The next Ferrari to quickly find its way into the Sloss garage was the limited edition 430 Scuderia Spider 16M, which the couple had seen while on a tandem bicycling tour of eastern Europe. ‘It was sitting in front of the nicest hotel in Budapest,’ recalls Sloss. ‘We biked over to it, and knew we had to own one.’ When he called Chou upon his return to California, the salesman said he had two
available, and a red and black model was soon headed to Silicon Valley.
The most emotional and impressive purchase was yet to come. In the autumn of 2012, Chou asked if Sloss was interested in bidding on a special 599XX. Sloss initially baulked. ‘I’d never bought anything at auction and, besides assuming it would get bid up through the stratosphere, I thought it was a car that Ferrari would keep unless I showed up at a track to drive it,’ he says. However, the 599XX programme differs from the F1 Corse Clienti programme in one significant way. ‘I realised that, no, this was a car I would get to keep in my garage, but for two years Christine and I would get to drive it at these amazing tracks around the world while getting professional instruction. I said, “Sounds good to me.”’
A day before the auction ended, Sloss placed his bid (€1.475m) and the next morning went off to work at Google. He’d set aside a moment to call Chou for the result, but miscalculated the time in Italy by an hour. ‘In the middle of a big meeting I suddenly received an email from James saying, “Congratulations, you won.” I froze.’
The following weeks were a whirlwind. They included conversations with Ferrari North America President Marco Mattiacci (who
suggested the car’s paint scheme, the Slossfavoured yellow with deep blue accents, resulting in a giallo e azzurro Modena city-colours tribute), and culminated in a dream-like trip to the F1 race at Monza to receive the car. ‘We thought they were giving it to us in the pits, but instead we get there and there’s this covered Ferrari in the middle of Monza’s main avenue, surrounded by photographers,’ Sloss remembers with a laugh, adding that none other than Ferrari Chairman Luca di Montezemolo and F1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were on hand to help him do the honours, pulling the cover off this special race-spec 599 Evo. ‘Our hearts were beating out of our chests,’ recalls Christine. Adds Sloss: ‘It was a once in a lifetime thing.’
Sloss deliberately hadn’t told many people of his 599 bid. While his growing automotive fleet may demand attention, he does not. Nonetheless, due to the press coverage of his purchase, he quickly realised the secret would be out soon. Sooner than he thought.
‘I got back to work and within minutes I received a call from a colleague at Google,’ he says, smiling.
‘Who was it? Oh, just some guy who also has a 599XX and had been in the program for a few years. He wanted to tell me how great it was.’ Sloss laughs at the thought that his youthful fascination with writing computer code (‘I knew since I was six this would be my life’s work’) has led him into a world where co-workers swap stories about their multi-million-dollar steeds.
However, what really makes him happy is that, not only does he now get to look under the hood of his cars anytime he wants, but he gets to do so under the approving eye of a proud father and with the companionship of a spouse equally eager to learn all about what makes Ferraris special. ‘I’ve always dreamed about owning Ferraris, but I never thought I’d do so alongside someone who shares
that passion,’ he says. ‘To me, that’s everything.’
Photography Michael Miller