Story by Stephen Mitchell
Back in the day, the Ferrari Owners’ Club in Los Angeles held monthly dinner meetings with invited guests as speakers. One of these was Franco Lini who, at the time, was the manager of the Ferrari Formula 1 team. Talking with him afterwards, I made mention of the fact that I would be at Monza for the Grand Prix of Italy. He said, “Come see me when you are there”, which was all I needed to hear.
Fast forward to September. The Saturday was sunny and warm and though I only had tickets for the race on Sunday, what better way to spend the day than to visit Franco Lini during practice for the Italian Grand Prix? I called a cab and instructed the driver to take me to the Monza autodromo. He knew the way. When we got there, the driver wanted to drop me off, but I had other ideas. At the first gate, I told the security guard, “Franco Lini mi ha detto di venire” (Franco Lini told me to come). The man couldn’t get the gate open fast enough. Incredulous, the driver drove through towards the pits. “Non c’è bisogno di fare i biglietti?” (Don’t you need tickets?), he asked me. We’ll see about that, I told him.
We approached a second blockade and, though I suspected I would be turned away as we were very close to the action now, I repeated the magic words, “Franco Lini mi ha detto di venire” and the gate was practically shoved off its hinges. There was one last obstacle in the form of a pedestrian gate into the paddock and pits compound. I left the taxi driver to decide for himself whether to stay and watch the Formula 1 cars practice or return to his duties and approached the security man who was restricting traffic through the gate and who I could see was nobody’s fool. After I threw him the line his demeanor changed, the gate opened and, if my eyes didn’t deceive me, he saluted (!!).
Now I’m in the paddock. There is John Surtees going into the office, Jackie Stewart going out in the March, Jo Bonnier arriving in his Mercedes. Too much to take in all at once. I make my way to the Ferrari pits where, believe it or not, Franco Lini remembered who I was. This surprised me more than anything else and he seemed delighted that his name had served as an all-access pass. Not wanting to impose any further, I left him to his work and took up a position where I could watch the cars from above as they accelerated out of the pits onto the track.
Later, I found myself standing in the paddock again wondering what to do next. I am peripherally aware of someone staring at me. I look at him and he continues to look at me. He is a familiar figure and my first impression is that he is someone I know. Then it dawns on me I am having some sort of nonverbal communication with none other than Enzo Ferrari himself. I’d heard he didn’t attend races, but later learned that he did come to Saturday practice at Monza. In any event, there he was and he kept looking at me. I took this as an invitation and approached him.
I said, “Buon giorno. La mia GTO mi piace molto” (Good day. My GTO pleases me very much) to which he responded, “Sì” as if to say, How could it not? He was curious about how I’d come to own a GTO, being little more than a teenager at the time, and as we spoke, Juan Manuel Fangio walked up and joined us. He smiled at me and listened politely as Ferrari and I conversed.
After a time, I took my leave and wondered at how easily this encounter with two of the greatest figures in auto racing had come about. The taxi driver would never have believed it! From that time forward, I would receive an annual new year’s greeting card from Ferrari signed in his personal purple ink. They arrived like clockwork. He also sent signed Ferrari yearbooks that featured text and photos of Ferrari’s racing and passenger cars. I was surprised at the time to be the recipient of these gifts. Looking back, I am amazed that he took the time.
There is a postscript to the story. For all these years, I’ve assumed that the encounter with Ferrari was coincidental and that my presence in the paddock had been sufficient to arouse his curiosity as I was clearly not a journalist or part of any Formula 1 team. It was only recently that someone hearing me tell of this meeting suggested that Ferrari knew exactly who I was as he stood staring at me; that Franco Lini had told him about the kid from California with a GTO who had bluffed his way into the very sanctum sanctorum of the Formula 1 scene. Though the idea had never entered my mind, it was immediately apparent to me that he was right. Ferrari had been looking at me wondering how I came into possession of a GTO and how I gained access to the pits without credentials. Whatever else he may have been thinking will forever remain a mystery.
[Source: Stephen Mitchell; photo: Ferrari SpA]