Porsche or Ferrari? Car clubs let you try them on

Supercar Life leads the all-access drive for dream machines at almost $5,000 a spin. For exotic car fans, it’s a chance to switch from one high speed to another.

How much would you pay to puke in a Porsche 997 Turbo?

For Bruce McDonnell, the tab came to $4,990, plus airfare and hotel. He said he’d gladly do it again. “I tossed my cookies,” said the 50-year-old computer salesman from Arlington Heights, Ill. “But what an amazing car.”

This month, McDonnell joined a group of exotic car enthusiasts at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana to participate in Supercar Life, the latest — and fanciest — in a growing group of four-wheeled fantasy camps that put drivers behind the wheels of cars that mere mortals cannot afford.

Under an overcast sky, he and several others steered Porsches, Ferrari F430s, Lamborghini Gallardos, Mercedes CLK AMG63 Blacks and Aston Martin DB9s (collective horsepower: 2,439) around the track. They flirted with 140 mph, then staggered out with legs trembling and grins on their mugs.

“It’s a great feeling to drive a machine like this,” said David McConnell, clambering out of the Aston Martin with the help of a smiling hostess, shivering a little in her shorts. “Good job!” she said, enthusiastically.

McConnell, a retiree who drove his Toyota Prius down from the Bay Area with his wife to take part, said his favorites were the Porsche and the Ferrari, but after several spins in the Lamborghini, he refused to drive it anymore: At 6-foot-2, he found he simply couldn’t fit comfortably. “They’re nothing like my Toyota.”

The chance to discover such things is the beauty of the event, said Supercar Life director Jan Otto. A car nut himself (he owns a Lamborghini Superleggera and a $450,000 Porsche Carrera GT), Otto and two friends founded Supercar Life in 2006 as a kind of exotic car club, where owners of elite machines would pay a fee for track time and the chance to try each others’ cars.

But soon, the founders decided on a new business model and bought their own fleet of imported, insanely overpowered brawn, dropping $2 million in the process, Otto said.

A key element was new technology that allowed for high-performance transmissions that eliminate a clutch and stick shift (thus lowering the risk of spinout), and automatic stability control (which keeps inexperienced drivers roaring around at sub-mach speeds from losing control and ending in a flaming wreck).

“This simply wouldn’t have been possible, technologically, just a few years ago,” Otto said, noting that the company’s waiver includes a provision that the liability coverage won’t cover drivers who disengage the stability control.

Now the Supercar Life entourage — professional race car drivers, hostesses and a group of crack mechanics, plus two of each supercar — travels the country seeking to cure everyday motorists’ high-torque fever.

For just under five grand, clients get breakfast, a brief class in high-speed driving and then buckle in and put pedal to metal. Throughout an eight-hour session, interrupted only by a lunch of beef medallions and chicken Monterrey, they drive each car multiple times, trying 0-60 acceleration and braking, slaloms and open-track acceleration.

Most finish sweaty, happy and thoroughly exhausted. “Some people have to stop because they get too tired,” Otto said. To date, only four women have paid to participate.

Supercar Life is hardly the first enterprise attempting to capitalize on the almost primal instinct for velocity in some Homo sapiens. A top competitor, World Class Driving, offers a similar lineup of European bravado at a significantly lower price — $1,495. But that program is on roads, rather than a track, which means that 140 mph is not on the agenda.

Some automakers have their own driving schools, such as the $1,795 Porsche Sport Driving School in Alabama or the $8,900 Ferrari Driving Experience in Quebec. However, participants in those get to drive only one brand of car.

Another option is to rent a supercar. Beverly Hills Rent-A-Car offers Gallardos and F430s for $2,500 a day, for example, while Dreamcars West gets you in a Ferrari F355 Spyder for the bargain rate of $749, including, according to the company’s online FAQ, the chance to be supplied with “a hot girl or guy to ride in the car.”

But that doesn’t offer the fun of switching from one supercar to the next, said Richard Hammon, a proud Saturn driver and marathoner who, at 72, gave himself a day at Supercar Life as a present.

Hammon, like most of the other clients, is a veteran of driving events, having paid for the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School. What set Supercar Life apart, he said, was the quality and variety of cars. “I liked the Porsche, but didn’t care for the Lambo,” he said.

That there is an appetite for this kind of high-octane wish fulfillment isn’t all that surprising, perhaps, but the fact that people would pay so much is. David Sercu of Rancho Mirage had been through two driving experiences before Supercar Life, including a two-day Ferrari love affair in Maranello, Italy, that cost $12,000.

“What can I say,” the Merrill Lynch banker (and owner of a not-so-shabby Audi A8) said. “I’m a car guy.”

The Prius-driving McConnell said, though, that one day was perhaps enough. “This is about fantasy,” he said. “If I could afford it, I would never buy any of these cars.”

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