Jerry Seinfeld, Mario Andretti, and me – Racing at 120 mph

racetrack

I’ll tell you a sure way to die. Get in a half million dollar car, go up to 120 miles per hour and weave and turn around a 4 mile racetrack as I did in mid-2008. Oh, and start off without telling the person who lent you the car that not only you don’t have a license but that you regularly have very visceral hallucinations when behind a wheel.

Throw in the fact that you are about to get divorced, that once again you are losing a ton of money, that you have a lot of people you are angry at and who actually wouldn’t mind if you were dead, and on top of it you had semi-suicidal tendencies. Altogether you might end up at least crippled, brain damaged, or with several limbs sliced off in emergency roadside surgery.

(The Monticello Racetrack I was driving 120mph on)

I don’t have a driver’s license. It’s been taken away from me more than once. One time, I almost killed a 70 year old man when I went right through a stop sign while daydreaming about a chess lesson when I was 17 years old. I had just beaten the US champion in a game of blitz chess. I had sacrificed my queen and three moves later it was mate. He laughed and shook my hand. So, naturally, I was daydreaming about it while cruising past a stop sign at sixty miles an hour.

Four white picket fences on all four corners were destroyed and the 70 year old man in the station wagon that happened to find himself that split second in the same intersection as me (but he got there first), broke his leg, barely surviving. I went straight through the glass of the car window but was miraculously unscathed. Supposedly when you go through a glass window your penis and testicles get sliced to shreds. God wanted my daughters to be born, however, so somehow this fate was spared me.

Which starts to tell the story of how I ended up in mid 2008 going 120 miles per hour on a racetrack in the new Ferrari 527M Maranello.  My passenger was a professional race car driver and instructor with thick arms that I could see tense as he held to the side of the passenger seat, as if he had a better chance of jumping out in a worst-case scenario than risking whatever death I was getting ready to plunge into.

We were at the Monticello Motor Club, where for reasons known only to God and the angels that had abandoned him I had decided to become a member despite not having even driven a car for the prior 4 years.

Well, I take that back. I had driven. I had to move two cars in my driveway in early January, 2008, and right there in the driveway I ended up smashing both cars and causing thousands of dollars in damage. I then neglected to tell my ex-wife what happened and I walked to the train station and went into the city, completely avoiding the potentially nuclear situation that could occur. One car was a PT Cruiser that has held on now for a good ten years. The other was a Chrysler Pacifica. Buy American.

Now I had the honor of being the first member ever to go on the Monticello Motor Club racetrack because my friend Ari Straus, an owner and now-CEO of the club, called me to tell me they had just laid the asphalt down and the track was finally ready after years of planning and building. Did I want to come be the first non-employee of the club to drive on it?

(Ari Strauss at the racetrack)

The track is 4.1 miles. My passenger was Tony Funicello, a former diplomat who retired, switched careers and then became the chief instructor of the Ferrari Club before joining the team of the Monticello Motor Club. I was terrified to drive because I don’t like going fast, even when I’m a passenger, and quite frankly, I have a horrible tendency to hallucinate at critical moments behind the wheel. This is part of my problem when driving.

In my ego-driven moments I conclude that the hallucinations are visions of the future. i.e. eventually another car will, in fact, occupy the intersection that I am currently at. So of course I’m seeing it right on my car, forcing me to swerve uncontrollably to avoid it. But to outside observers it simply appears that I’m mentally ill and should never be allowed behind a wheel.

We drove around the track a couple of times while Tony showed me the basics: how to keep my hands on the steering wheel in the right way so I never have to go hand over hand. How to get wide before the turn before then hugging the edge of the turn. How to start accelerating before the turn is over. Finally, right before the straight which is close to a mile long he said, “ok, slam on the accelerator” and I did. I got up to 70 miles per hour before feeling my heart start beating fast to the point of exhaustion and I had to slow it down. But by the time I went around the track on the eighth or ninth time I was a little more comfortable and ready to really gun it. I hit 120 miles per hour, although Bill McMichael, the then-CEO of the club blew past me at almost 200 miles per hour.

It was just a few weeks earlier that Ari called me to tell me to check out the racetrack. For years Ari had been my 6am Scrabble opponent before my daytrading day began but then Ari disappeared for all of 2007 to build what I thought was “his toy”, the racetrack. “You have to come check it out,” he said, “we’re going to have a 5000 sq ft spa, it’s the largest private racetrack in the country, we’re going to have 5 star facilities for a restaurant, hotel, race car instructors, a helipad. It’s the only exclusive private racetrack in the country and we’re limiting the membership to 500 members. You should definitely join. Jerry Seinfeld is a member, Mario Andretti is a member, a ton of hedge fund managers, billionaires,etc are joining.”

“But Ari, I don’t drive. I don’t like to drive. The last time I drove a car I got stopped for driving the wrong way down a one way street with a suspended license and no paperwork for the car.” But Ari is very persuasive and so I, along with my good friends Jerry Seinfeld and Mario Andretti, became a member of the largest private racetrack in the country. Despite no interest in cars, racing, driving, or 5 star restaurants for that matter.

Later that Saturday afternoon after my lesson, Ari called me to tell me what Tony, the instructor said about our lesson:  “In my 20 year history as a senior racing instructor and chief instructor for Ferrarri club, I’ve never had a worse student behind the wheel, but he has potential because he has absolutely no driving habits to unlearn.”

Last week, and three years after this driving experience almost to the day, Ari calls me again. “You haven’t been here in three years and you’re a full-fledged member,” he said. “You have to come down and try out the track again. Come on a Thursday, the track is not so busy and we’ll set you up with lessons.”

I don’t think I have the same suicide wishes I once had. But I guess I’ll find out.

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  • Doug Armey

    James:

    I only found your blog a couple of weeks ago and it is one of the few I always read.  Not sure what I learn from it but it is always interesting and insightful.

    Not sure what good this comment is good for except to encourage you to keep it up.

  • Scott Thomas

    Damn you, James Altucher. Had I found your blog 20 years ago I would have saved thousands of dollars and hours I wasted in self-help books and therapy.  Your stuff is better than any self-help book, even when you’re writing about Ferraris. 

    Anyway, speaking of Ferraris, in an article you wrote for seekingalpha, you said one should only lease and not buy a car. I get your logic for renting and not buying a house, but could you please  explain the reasoning behind only leasing cars?  I thought it was financially more prudent to purchase.

    Thanks James.  Can’t begin to tell you how much you help.

  • ‘vivian andrade

     Would be great if you could have a video archive of this upcoming Thursday event. 

    • http://twitter.com/kamalravikant Kamal Ravikant

      That would be fun to see a video piece of this experience.  

  • St

    Haha, I think how you became friends with Jerry Seinfeld should be the subject of your next post.

  • St

    Haha, I think how you became friends with Jerry Seinfeld should be the subject of your next post.

  • http://twitter.com/ritholtz barry ritholtz

    Fun track  — I was there 3 weeks ago, and lost my wedding ring there to boot ! 

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Lets go together! I can bring guests. We’ll race. Claudia is nervous about going. 

      • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

        Uhh, how did you lose your wedding ring there? It flew out the window of your car?

        • The Window Washer

          Obviously he fell in love with the wrong car and that was that. Ms BP told him she wanted a Z car.

      • Molly

        Is she nervous about watching you or nervous about being there?  I very much like hanging out there, but I never go in a car.  I figure my kids could survive OK with one parent, but not with zero.  Thus, Ari is the only one of us who gets to race, and I keep my feet firmly on the ground.

        • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

          Hmm, thats a good point. I think she’s nervous about seeing me in the car. I don’t think she would get in a car. So she’s got a double nervousness. 

          • Molly

            The first time I saw Ari race I was completely calm, so much so that, ironically, the calmness unnerved me completely.  I found myself wondering if maybe I didn’t really love him and I just didn’t know it or something weird like that, because really, wouldn’t a good wife be terrified?  I finally figured out that the key to my calm was trust.  I trust Ari and his driving (I’m not sure this is the key to your own argument) and his judgment and assessment of risk – but I also trust the car.  Have Ari walk Claudia through all the safety items on these track cars.  They are basically stripped of the normal car stuff you see in your own vehicle and rebuilt with the express purpose of protecting the driver in crashes – kind of like a very protective very specific egg crate.  Ari hit the wall at 95 mph a few weeks ago and walked away just fine.  He wasn’t even worried enough to have “last minute” reflective thoughts – more along the lines of “I wonder how bad this will hurt tomorrow.”  (I think the answer to that question, BTW, was some, but surprisingly less than he had imagined.)

  • Walter

    If you get into one of Jerry’s old Porsche the keys to driving them is “When in doubt gas it out!” and don’t brake while turning. The other key is to breath in the corners. Helps with hallucinations and such.
    I would be happy to come on out and hang out at the track should you ever return or need a guest.

  • Anonymous

    I’m in absolute awe.  You don’t even drive and you join the largest private track in the country.  I’d love to just shadow you for  a few days, just to see what your life is like. You seem to find yourself in the oddest circumstances.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      In a couple of days i have my 2 daughters for the weekend. My circumstances will be every 21 minutes (thats the average I’ve clocked on them) they will bicker with each other and I’ll break it up until they are laughing again. But every now and then I get out the door and do something fun. 

  • http://twitter.com/kamalravikant Kamal Ravikant

    That last part of what Tony said is brilliant, “he has potential because he has absolutely no driving habits to unlearn.”  Very Zen.  

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      He seemed like a good guy and was patient for me. I really didn’t enjoy it but I was very receptive about learning to be better. Hopefully I’ll improve. 

    • http://twitter.com/air_hadoken Bradley Momberger

      His cup can be filled with tea because it is not already filled with poison.

  • Tzipporah

    I’d seriously check into whether he’s taken out a life insurance policy on your ass.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Thats a good point. Ari?

      • Molly

        Molly here – but speaking for Ari, I am absolutely sure he wants you to stick around!  But both of you need to giggle occasionally, and putting you on the track is a surefire strategy.  Plus he’d get to see you and you could write a follow up …. sounds like win win!

        • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

          Excellent response! We can play scrabble in the clubhouse next time I’m on track. Btw, did you take that photo of him? 

          • Molly

            I can assure you that neither my skills nor my aesthetic sense nor my idea of who Ari actually is would allow me to have even imagined that photograph.  So, um, no.  But I secretly think it’s kind of a cool shot.

            DEFINITELY take a Scrabble board.  And be sure to take a picture of Ari all hunched and geeked out over some crazy Scrabble-only word like “aa.”  We could mount it as a diptych with the cool racer dude emerging from the fog shot as a study in contrast.

  • Anonymous

    Damn it man! You have finally made me envious!

    Keep up the fine work.

  • http://jlcollinsnh.wordpress.com/ Jlcollinsnh

    a number of years ago I had a job with an impressive title.  That got me into Audi’s sights and when they came to town they sent me an invitation to come on down and thrash around in a few of their latest high-buck performance cars.  had they done a bit more digging they would have known my income didn’t match the title, I despise debt, have never had a car payment and have only once spent more than 20k on a new car.

    But sure, if you insist….

    Had a great time.  after the first lap the instructor said,  “That was pretty good.  But you are not asking enough of the car.  It is far more capable than you imagine.”

    Ah, OK.

    Next lap I put it in the weeds.

  • Todd_Andelin

    At age 13 I had a job at a local raceway.    I worked in the staging lanes and the et shack.  fun stuff.

  • http://www.dinosaurtrader.com dinosaurtrader

    Wear a helmet cam. Do it for Stocktwits.

    -DT

    • http://twitter.com/seldomawake H Khan

      I’m a big fan of helmets.

  • Mahesh

    James , Is there something you have not tried doing?  sky diving?
    very interesting  

  • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

    Can I use your membership? I had an offer to drive a Ferrari once but the guy who owned it got into a horrifying wreck less than a week later and spent over a year in an intensive burn therapy in-patient program. I had no idea what had happened to him until he walked into the coffee shop where we used to play cards over a year later with burn scars over 80% of his body. The Ferrari had been sold to cover part of his medical expenses and he had developed a drinking problem unbeknownst to me. So happy to see him I took him out for a few drinks. And that night he got into another wreck and lost his license. (The first wreck was not his fault and had nothing to do with drinking.) 

    I haven’t seen him since. 

    But I’d still like to drive a Ferrari. 

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Wow, thats almost scaring me into not driving. 

      • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

        It was a freak accident and would not have done the damage it did had he not had an extremely large propane tank in the back of his truck. The propane tank exploded which is what caused the burns. 

        He was hit by a drunk driver in the original accident. In the latter he was the drunk driver. I think the real lesson here is not to drink and drive. I learned that one at a young age. First friend I lost to drinking and driving was only fourteen at the time. I was fifteen. I sometimes get a lot of criticism from friends over the fact that after my second glass of wine I refuse to drive, but if they had gone through the kind of early losses I did I think they’d get it. 

        • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

          Its amazing that every guy I know has had at least one accident as a kid. Combine that with drinking (or being on phone while driving) and the stats get much worse. 

          • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

            I’ve been in accidents that made me thankful to be alive. None of them were my fault. Most I wasn’t even driving. 

  • Jay

    Now that is a good story. Can’t wait to see the movie !!

  • Kevin M

    Video of this would be great, but even a picture of you sitting in the driver’s seat would be a win.

  • http://twitter.com/Aeo_ Alan Abbas

    Am I the only one that find the titles very very misleading ?
    Although I like the blog but come on..

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Well, this one might’ve been a lttle bit. Although they are all members. But all the other titles on the right are straight up. 

  • nysepete

    Why not just ride your Segway around the track and head straight home?

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Ha, that would be hilarious. 

  • Serghei Dascalu

    Rule of thumb: never drive faster than the flight speed of your guarding angel. (he doesn’t have a flying licence either, btw.)

  • ASKJACKCHAOS

    This is awesome I’m buying a racetrack- Jack

  • https://jarvisapp.com/ Jay Shirley

    I’ve been following Monticello since 2006 or so, whenever it was announced. I think it’s safe to say that’s my Disneyland. VIR also has villas you can rent, but Monticello just takes it to new extremes. It looks like a great track layout.

    I used to work for a racing organization and it’s been a passion (which I’ve tempered since I have kids after watching countless accidents).Taking a high performance car around a track with an instructor has to be an awesome experience (for those liking those sorts of things). I’m very, very happy to read you are willing to give it another try and continue learning high performance driving. I hope you do follow up on it and I can live vicariously through you and your writing.

    (Sorry for late response, I’ve been traveling and catching up!)