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FEBRUARY 11, 2006

A Yank tries the fast track


Tom Sebastian is a part-time government agent, part-time car collector, racer, writer and actor who would gladly go full-time with the acting if only some producer would finance his over-the-top racing script, Miracle at Monaco which, he insists, would make a better movie than Grand Prix and Le Mans put together.

OK. So this Formula 1 is not an "American Thing". Hasn't really been since the grand old days at The Glen in Upstate NY. And people who catch the F1 Act only at Indianapolis will never really get what this is all about. And that's when all the cars were running. But, he clears his throat, I've been "Over there" and driven these things. And, well, let me cut to the action.

Who wouldn't want to follow Eddie Irvine into the Stars & Stripes Bar on the quay in Monaco and have all those exotic French chicks with that fast-means-a-higher-sperm-count mentality, jump all over them? That stuff just doesn't happen in Indiana so count me in! But wasn't I a bit old for this stuff? I mean to start into open-wheel racing at about the time most racers hang it up is not sane. But, then, no one ever accused me of that one.

OK, then, go for it! And without a second thought, I did just that.

A quick, 3-day racing course with a Formula Ford outfit got me started. I had hoped that past experience with my hopelessly overpowered Morgan +8 on back country roads would have, at least, given me a head start here. No connection. I was on terra incognita from the moment I engaged the brake at the last minute on the very first turn of the circuit. Whoops! So that's what those metre markers leading up to the turn were for. After a few more poignant mishaps and some dizzying incidental education, like having me lift off the power right at the apex of a turn, the people at Skip Barber Racing had to give me my very first racing certificate. I was unstoppable.

Their advice? "Race these 1.6-litre devils for a season or two and, when you get the hang of it, move up to the 2-litre competition. Then, when you are up for it, Formula Atlantic, Indy Lights, Indycar tryouts and so on. Forget it. Save that for the younger students. Tempus Fugit and all that. Who cares about Paul Tracy anyway? Senna and the boys - and those French babes - were "Over there". Next stop: The Riviera and Formula Renault! The Renaults proved a bit more cumbersome than the Fords but provided better networking opportunities for sure: I ran with a young, Emmanuel Collard that week fresh off his karting championship. And what did the Paul Ricard instructors make of the invading Yank? A bit conservative but pretty good technically (I picked up on trail-braking first time out; Emmanuel and the boys had to use me as their role model!).

Good enough! Skip that "Elf Series" talk. There's no time. I'm goin' to Formula 3! Somewhere near the foothills of the Pyrenees - in Pau, I think it was - I got a chance to jump into a VW-powered Formula 3 car and strut my stuff. Three days later - or was it less? - no matter: Bring on Formula 3000. That was more difficult to find for sure, but the offer to try out one of these things did, eventually, materialise. The thing was, it came after I heard about some Swiss outfit trying to recoup its investment on some ex-Leyton House F1 machines they had just purchased and ran in Monza, Italy. Could I come? I'll sponsor myself!

And so there he was. The Monza circuit! I couldn't believe it! I would be running over hallowed ground - right where old Yves Montand bit the dust in the Grand Prix movie! Moi! Or was it, Mio? Or, Mich, for the Swiss-German owners? Who cares!? It's Europe! And I'm one step away from all those flashbulbs and scantily clad Monaco chicks. The yachts, black-tie dinners with the Royal Family at the Hermitage, being feted with Eddie all over town as the only eligible bachelors in the sport. "I'll get this round, Ed. We shouldn't let these girls buy us every damn drink. By the way those girls on the yachts waving to us, they don't seem to be wearing. We sure as hell ain't in Indiana this week, Eddie!" Eddie takes my overly-strong slap on the back as a good-natured gesture from someone obviously nouveau to the scene and replies, as only Eddie can.

"Yee'll git eeyeeous't'it, bro. Loook'd a furr cree from EErreeland m'fi'st taym ays well."


But before Eddie has a chance to rephrase, I am nudged from my thoughts by the owner/coach of these expensive toys. Oh, shoot. Now I have to drive the thing!

He strapped the 5-point harness as tight as it would stretch across my shivering torso. He uttered something in French-cum-English-cum-Swiss about what I am supposed to do while, over my other shoulder, the driver just in from his run warns me in some fourth language to mind the width of those slicks in tight turns. I think that's what he said. Then. Toodleloo! That's it!? They are going to turn me loose with this thing with that amount of instruction? OK, babe. It's your investment.

I was well into the timed lap, just out of Parabolica when I checked my mirrors and there coming up on me was the F40 Ferrari of one of the team owners. It was only as I watched him disappear ahead of me out of Curva Grande that the thought occurred to me: That ain't supposed to happen. Group B racecars are not as fast as F1 cars!

"No way, Jose!" I heard myself scream above the engines, and got on it. I can still remember the slight tinge of embarrassment as I screamed past the other drivers on pit row. But no time for that just now. I had lost sight of the bright, Ferrari-red wing of my target. But coming out of Ascari I saw him and gave it all I had. Whatever the hell Eddie was talking about, those future Moet victory parties - all those French chicks. In short, my entire alternative life as Steve McQueen seemed to be coming down to these next two corners.

To be Continued...