Weatherford Democrat

January 12, 2008

She loves the man, but just isn’t a racing fan


By Emma Vandore

Associated Press Writer

MONZA, Italy — Spare a thought for the weekend widow.

If your spouse has a passion — be it for football, fishing or Formula 1 — and you don’t want to lose him (or her) for significant periods of your leisure time, there is only one option: Join him.

That’s how I came to take my ultimate spousal endurance test: a three-day weekend at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, otherwise known as the temple of speed. In a tent.

Donato has a passion for Formula 1, or more particularly Ferrari. In the last 25 years, he claims to have missed only a handful of Grand Prix races.

During race season, which seems to last most of the year, a small portable television is a regular companion, joining us at the table in restaurants, and even once at a wedding.

On a recent romantic getaway in Venice, I was awakened not with sweet kisses — but by the ear-twanging sound of a fast car screaming from the hotel television at 7 a.m.

I’m sure many women — and, of course, some men — can relate.

Sure, we make our adjustments. I’ve learned to tolerate the presence of the television, knowing it’s preferable to Donato’s mood if it doesn’t work. And crucially, I’ve developed an ability to tune out the loud drone of the Ferrari.

But I completely fail to understand the appeal of fast metal — sorry carbon fiber composites — whooshing by so fast you can hardly see the car, and so loud you can’t talk to anyone around you.

“You might think cars are stupid, but you don’t understand,” Donato told me, after suggesting we spend a few days in Monza.

So I decided to try.

It was after midnight when we arrived at the campsite.

“You are entering a crazy, crazy place,” said Donato as we queued up behind a camper van full of Lithuanian race fans.

The first thing that hit me was the pulsating beat of a powerful sound system. The second was the flashing lights.

“Is there an on-site discotheque?” I inquired naively.

As I quickly discovered, the campsite was full of F1 nuts who take camping very seriously.

Many had arrived several days before the race, planting a flag to mark their territory before competing over who could build the biggest, most elaborate pleasure dome.

The field butts right onto the race track, and the earliest arrivals had constructed multi-tiered viewing platforms, complete with deck chairs, sun parasols and televisions. Downstairs, professional music systems and in at least two cases home cinemas provided evening entertainment. Cold beer was on tap 24/7.

Now I’m not averse to a bit of roughing it — the cold showers and squat toilets didn’t faze me — but I wasn’t prepared for the testosterone-fuelled antics that overtook our camp once the cars became silent.

On our first night we were woken by some Swiss lads setting off smoke flares and fire crackers to show who was King of the Campsite. Then we were roused by a drunk English man trying to get into our tent after getting lost on his way back from the toilet.

“It takes a certain kind of woman to appreciate camping in Monza,” agreed Jillian Campbell, 25, who’d traveled from Thurso, Scotland. “We come here for the party.”

“And the men,” volunteered her sister Susan.

For Campbell, Monza is a family affair. She comes every year with her aunt and uncle, Irene and Don McGee, whose passion for F1 was the main theme of their wedding.

Irene, who says she caught the bug from her husband, walked down the aisle to the Italian national anthem carrying red and yellow tulips — Ferrari colors — tied with a black and white checked ribbon. Her honeymoon was spent at Imola, Italy’s second racetrack.

A different breed of F1 women, who wouldn’t be seen dead on a campsite, can be found in the VIP area tottering around in heels so high that only Italians — or perhaps Sarah Jessica Parker — could walk in them.

Beneath the nail polish and the lip gloss however, the women’s’ motivations aren’t that different.

“I have a deep passion for fast cars,” said Christina Santarosa, 36, a Brazilian brunette sporting a form-fitting white T-shirt and perfectly manicured nails. “My first passion though, is men.”

By the end of Day One — used to adjust the delicate F1 cars to Monza’s particular track conditions — I’d gotten used to the noise and the oddly sweet smell of the expensive fuel. Camping within meters of the track, the roar was inescapable, but that didn’t deter me catching up on some beauty sleep after being kept up all night by the F1 revelers.

For the qualifying race on Day Two, I tried harder to get into the mood. My good will evaporated when a territorial beer-swilling, big-bellied German shooed us off his viewing platform.

We watched the rest of the race squeezed between two camper vans.

Afterwards, we fled the campsite for respite and a slap-up dinner.

In a last-ditch bid to win me over to F1, Donato bought sit-down tickets for the final — at the equivalent of $220 a pop.

The atmosphere was charged at the track with cheers for Ferrari star drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, and boos and Italian profanities for the silver of rival team McLaren.

Finally, I began to feel the excitement. By the time the red flag came down, my adrenalin was pumping. I felt a shiver of pleasure when I saw the red of Ferrari streak past. And as indignant as those around me when the silver car driven by McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton took the lead.

Then Scottish driver David Coulthard of the Red Bull team smashed up his car and there followed several boring laps when everyone was forced to drive slowly behind the safety car as the track was cleared.

When the cars began stopping to refuel it became “impossible to follow” without the lap times that appear at the bottom of the television, Donato admitted. So he spent much of the match on his cell phone asking friends who were watching at home what was happening.

Eventually the noise and the heat and the confusion took over, and I began dreaming of the Italian ice-cream I hoped to enjoy after the race. I felt nothing by the time Fernando Alonso was pronounced the winner for McLaren, except a slight concern that our last night on the campsite might not be so much fun.

Realizing my passion had failed to ignite, I sought advice from Alice Villa, 66, who has been running the Monza campsite for almost 50 years. The avid Formula 1 fan look at me quizzically.

“If you don’t understand what all the fuss about, then just stay at home,” she said, shaking her head.