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Rumble Seat 

Ferrari North America--the Italian carmaker's retail arm in its most important market--finds itself beleaguered by good fortune. The American economy is producing free-spending neo-megs (new millionaires, for the jargon-impaired) by the boatload; the factory in Maranello is producing the world's most desirable sports cars, cars with dependability unimaginable 20 years ago. And so the company's sales are stronger than ever, supported by young and affluent arrivisti.

So where's the downside? Simply that Ferrari as a sports-car commodity (think is not the same as Ferrari the Legend, that special provenance brooded over from beyond by il Patron in the dark glasses. Ultimately it is the mystique that is the firm's most important asset. How to confer the poetic dimensions of the brand from the gray romantics with the vintage cars to a new generation of callow magnates?

Enter the Ferrari Challenge Rally Championship, a company-staged program of annual road rallies open to all Ferrari owners, perpetuating the culture of the brand and promoting general bonhomie. In 2000, the Championship will comprise three, three-day rally events, each including time-distance rally stages over public roads and a gymkhana, or slalom, stage, where competitors can push the cars a little harder.

The first of these events was held this summer at the Sagamore Hotel on Lake George in the Adirondacks. Situated on a small island on the lake, the Sagamore is typical of a 19th-century grand hotel returned to glory by new money. Thirty driver/navigator teams paid $4,500 to attend, the fee covering deluxe accomodations, food and beverage, official video and truly covetable FRC jackets.

"The focus is on driving and amenities," said Sherman Wolf, who brought a museum piece to the rally, a 1952 212 Barchetta once driven by Phil Hill. "These events help Ferrari fulfill its reputation as a top-of-the-line company."

But even the best of companies cannot control the weather. On the day I attended, the Adirondacks were shrouded in fog and cold rain. Meanwhile, the township of Bolton's Landing, near the resort, was hosting a vast cruiser-bike jamboree, so that the roads were clotted with 50,000 Harleys and Honda Gold Wings, puttering indolently down the road in groups of 10 to 50, slowing up traffic like two-wheeled Winnebagos. Ferrari's scheduling seemed dubious.

Yet most teams were undeterred, including my new personal heroes, Scott and Jody Rosen, who bravely cinched down their leather driving helmets and tore off in the rain in their open-top 250 Testarossa, a car most collectors would have kept under glass. "We got soaking wet, but we were having an awfully good time," said Judy, after she had dried off. (Wolf, on the other hand, declined to drive his 212 in the rain and competed in his daily driver, an ice-blue 275.)

On Friday, the format called for competitors to leave at one-minute increments from the hotel and arrive exactly 2 hours, 19 minutes later at the gate at Mount Equinox in Vermont. But between the bikes, the dump trucks, school buses and other rolling roadblocks, most competitors couldn't find a clear road to themselves. This caused long lines of over-anxious Ferrari owners, many of whom charged across double yellow lines and made truly harrowing passes around blind corners in order to make up time.

At dinner that night, Carlo Fiorani, Ferrari's press agent, sternly lectured the competitors, commendably using the word that was most apt: "What I saw today, that was stupid."

Ideally, competitors would have gotten the red mist out of their system during the timed "Special Stage," a gymkhana section over a mountain switchback that had been blocked from traffic. This was an excellent course, technical yet fairly safe. Afterward, teams drove the rest of the way to the hotel at the top of Mount Equinox for a lovely Italian lunch of pomodoro salad and frutti de mare.

After lunch, it was another timed rally stage back to the hotel, through the dark, tree-ribbed corridors of the Adirondacks, past achingly quaint New England villages.

"If you really enjoy driving these cars, these rallies allow more than enough driving to make you happy," said Wolf.

Deborah Allen, who, with her husband Michael Barber, competed in a red 355B, mused: "We both commute two hours a day and have very tense jobs. We think it's funny that for a vacation, we find somewhere to drive with a little tension."

Teams were competitive, and there was a little more risk to the event, and a lot more rain, than perhaps Ferrari NA might have liked. Still, as new owners and vintage connoisseurs warmed themselves by the fires of their mutual enthusiasm, the rally had to be counted as a success for Ferrari.

"Racing is key to Ferrari's image," said Wolf. "The Rally encourages people to feel a part of that in a pleasurable way. It makes them feel special."

Everett Singer, owner of a luscious 1960 Ferrari 250 SWB California Spyder, observed: "As a company, Ferrari's focus has to be on the new pieces. But the vintage cars define the passion of the marque over the years. The rally brings these things together."

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