RACER guest contributor and “editor-at-play” Melissa Eickhoff, also of My Life at Speed, was back in action this past weekend for the Maserati Trofeo World Series, FIA World Touring Car and Auto GP weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Here's her take on the sensory experience of driving and working with Patrick Dempsey and Greg Tracy's efforts in the Maserati races. A full gallery from the weekend can be found on our Facebook page.
After my last European adventure in racing at Le Mans this summer, I was genuinely looking forward to the U.S. debut of the FIA World Touring Car Championship Weekend at Sonoma Raceway – I wasn't disappointed.
As always, my life at the races is never simple. This past weekend I helped Maserati GranTurismo MC Trofeo World Series play host to guest drivers Patrick Dempsey and Greg Tracy. Patrick is well known for his day job, so I won't bore you with those details. His real passion is racing...specifically, road racing. He's a historian and enthusiast of the sport and I always learn so much from him.
A little secret – want to chat with the Dempsey? – talk racing, and forget the acting. Patrick's passion for road racing translates to getting as much seat time in any race car, as he believes that it all rolls up to whatever series or car he races – the Mazda RX-8 in the Grand-Am Rolex Series or the Lola Judd P2 in ALMS. Plus, it was his first time racing at Sonoma Raceway.
“I just think that whenever I get the chance to race, I should take it,” he said. “It's all applicable. I'm still learning and getting out of my comfort zone. I learn a lot – a new track, a new car, a new teammate – I had no idea what to expect. It was fun.” The challenge and opportunity to improve his race skills is part of his ultimate push to any podium.
As for Greg Tracy (LEFT), one of Hollywood's top stunt drivers, his story isn't too different from Patrick's. Greg was the real deal race car driver in his youth, making a name for himself in formula series – 1995 Hooters Formula Cup and USAC F2000 Championships to name just a few of his racing pursuits. His more recent racing career has been all about the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, where he is a six-time Champion, and one of the factory riders for Ducati. Greg also has a long history of running and winning the Baja 1000.
Professionally, he's been a stuntman since 1991, working on films like Act of Valor, Talladega Nights and The Fast and the Furious. He's even won the World Stunt Award for The Bourne Ultimatum. He is also part of Hot Wheels Team Green and captured a Guinness Book of World Record for the Hot Wheels Double Loop Dare at the 2012 X Games – 7 stories high, at some 7Gs! Now, life has come back around and he's ready to follow his real passion, racing. The Maserati Trofeo race was the perfect re-entry point for Greg. It opened up the world of GT racing to him and with lots of insight from Patrick. They were a great team.
A few friends and family came along – but mostly Greg's, as Patrick is a solo traveler when it comes to races. He relies on the Dempsey Racing team to manage his time. Greg doesn't have a race team, yet. Yet is the key word, as Greg is in hot pursuit of putting together a team in the near future. Greg's entourage included: six family members, a couple friends and his team from My Life at Speed (Greg is the CEO and founder of one of the cooler, hotter motorsports blogs going, and one of F1 driver Mark Webber's favorites). Greg said it best: “When my family and friends found out that I was going to be racing Maseratis, in wine country...well, I knew they would show up.” Funny guy.
After adding in some friends and clients, it grew to be a big, unruly, fun bunch. Thank god for the generous and amazing Maserati hospitality – Jeff and Jiannina really took care of everyone. They were set-up at Turn 2, which was a great vantage point. Sonoma Raceway is one of the best set-ups for watching a road race. Similar to Le Mans, Sonoma has a tradition of serving wine instead of beer. The Maserati Trofeo drivers and their guests came from all over the world and they were right at home. At one point, they ran out of some of the wines. It was also the reason for some sleepy heads… I saw naps on the grass, on the couches and sitting up in a chair. It was small-scale, early morning Le Mans all over again.
My favorite part was the paddock and garage. You're surrounded by people, culture, and languages from around the globe. They bring some Euro-style to their team wear. You get to meet new faces, make new friends and racecar drivers. And don't forget the double-cheek-air-kiss. [That's not a Motor X freestyle trick.] The mixing of the American and European cultures is very cool. They are genuinely interested in meeting each other, comparing notes about races, circuits and racecars. I met Yvan Muller, who's in the running for the World Touring Car Championship, James Nash and Tiago Monteiro at the driver's reception at Ram's Gate Winery. It has a view of the racetrack and great wines, so, I'm afraid these guys were a bit spoiled. Hopefully, they don't expect this kind of spectacle at every American race…
Another highlight was meeting Pippa Mann. I'm a fan. She joined the Auto GP series for this race. It is her first time in a race since the IndyCar crash a year ago in Las Vegas that claimed the life of Dan Wheldon.
The US Touring Car Championship was also on the track over the weekend. Patrick visited his fellow Mazda drivers at TNI Racing. What a nice team! They are the bread and butter of grassroots racing. TNI Racing driver Felipe Cabezas is leading the championship in a Performance In-frame Tuning Mazdaspeed 3.
Now that I think of it…I was spoiled this weekend. I need to adjust my race expectations back to reality. Maserati really put this weekend over the top for me. Let me start by saying I'm not a car girl – I prefer my rides to be a bit higher, my last 3 have been a Touareg, Jeep JK and a Ford Explorer, combined with my off-road dirt tendencies, I haven't paid too much attention to luxury performance cars. I admire them, understand them and appreciate them for their engineering and style – from afar. Maserati changed that for me. Along with awesome hospitality, they asked me to experience the GranTurismo MC for the weekend. Yeah, I'm a convert.
I got over the seat position really fast. The front, mid engine placement means I see the road just fine. I'm always annoyed by my line of sight being broken up by a hood the length of a football field. That was not the case in this Maserati. The seats were very, very comfy, the interior styling was elegant and simple. Cup holders were convenient, the seats warm and the old school key in the ignition was a nice touch. I never figured out the radio/GPS component – no patience and since the top was down and the polarized sunglasses on, I couldn't read the screen. In general, it made my picky self, happy.
The driving part won me over. My conversion is complete. I want. Top down, in a red convertible, cruising the winding roads of Sonoma County in a fast car that sticks to the road, can do that to you. The sound of the Maserati adds to the experience. The exhaust note is power and sophistication tuned in perfect harmony. They even employ sound engineers to make sure the Maserati is properly represented in looks and sound.
Then there's the performance…since I don't do this, like...ever...my report is simple. I was confident and comfortable driving through tight corners in the Sonoma area, winding, mountain roads and appreciated the sport mode changes. The braking was great fun, too. That thought surprised me, and now I have a new appreciation for brakes.
Did I mention that I did this driving on my way to a wine tasting in Sonoma? [Not to worry, I followed Sonoma wine tasting protocol and after swishing the wine over my palette...well, I spit.] Just getting around in a Maserati is an experience. You get looks. BIG eyed, deer in the headlights, envious, “I wonder what she does to have a car like that?” kind of looks. People smile and are more curious since you don't see many Maseratis on the road. It just looks great, in a classy, understated way. And only I know it's a loaner…
Total package and balance is what gets me excited about vehicles and driving them. The Maserati is all that for me. We all have our opinions about cars but in the end it comes down to what balance of performance, looks, style and brand works for you. Maserati is a great brand with solid heritage in racing and style. They take care of you beyond the purchase. I met a few Maserati owners being entertained at the race and their stories spoke of the total Maserati experience. They are happy people, as am I.
My initial resistance to experiencing a car like the Maserati is probably because I knew I'd get the bug. Maybe I can't take on the trails but I've officially discovered the need for another kind of adventure in my life. Driving school here I come…
Back to the Maserati Trofeo World Series races… The Sonoma weekend arrive and race program was a field of 23 cars with gentlemen drivers and professionals as well – Alex Popow and Johannes van Overbeek competed. GranTurismo MC Trofeo series cars are derived from production road Maseratis and prepped by a reputable bunch of engineers. The paddock was full of the Italians who run the series as well as racers from over a dozen countries. It's pretty impressive given the size of the field. The series races around the world, from Europe, to the U.S., to China. The final race is in Shanghai, November 4.
I learned a few things about working with a European-based race series. I was in charge of Patrick and Greg's entry paperwork and a couple items were missing – their racing license numbers. I knew this – no big deal, I thought. I called the appropriate persons, jotted down the numbers and gave it to the man in charge. No bueno. I needed something physical to give them. Thankfully, after another ten phone calls, and just minutes before the first practice, I was able to get scans of the actual licenses to the Italian paperwork guru. Whew.
Patrick qualified P10 and finished P6 in the first race, while Greg qualified P11 and finished P10 in the second. Even though the races are only 30 minutes long, they took on an endurance attitude. It paid off for Patrick but not as much for Greg as the attrition of the first race just didn't happen in the second. Greg took on the third, 50-minute race solo but he didn't get far. At the start, in Turn 1, he was taken out with a hard hit and push into the wall. The car didn't survive. After everyone knew that Greg exited the car safely, the announcer said, “It is always difficult to see a wrecked race car, but a wrecked Maserati race car...”. That's racing. I think Greg learned some Italian hand gestures…
Greg wrapped up his weekend in his usual big-picture style, "It felt great getting back on the race track. I get to do amazing, fun stuff in cars all the time, but it isn't the same. I'm competitive. I think the itch to race is officially back."
After the weekend finally came to a close, we all counted the experience a success. For all of us involved, including Maserati, the race weekend was put together for the adventure of it all. Patrick got more seat time, Greg got back in a racecar, we mingled with new friends from around the globe, drove incredible Maseratis in a beautiful setting and woke up dreams and passions new and dormant.
Photo Contributors: Melissa Eickhoff, Nate Napierala, Pattie Meyer, My Life at Speed