In 1961, as I recall, nonconformity wasn't encouraged. Not, at least, among well-to-do San Francisco housewives such as myself. We tended to be unemployed, help organize charity balls, go to the opera, mix early-evening martinis. One of the things we didn't do—or so I found out one fine spring day—was learn to drive V-12 Ferrari sports coupes.
"You'll kill yourself!" admonished a neighbor, ashen-faced, as the car and I lurched up our driveway. "Maybe so," I replied, a bit hysterically. The day before, recklessly gratifying an urge, my husband and I had plunked down the astounding (remember, it was 1961) sum of $9,000 for a used 1959 Ferrari 250-GT. "A work of art," said the old owner as he signed the pink slip. "You've gone around the bend," said a fellow sports-car buff, watching us polish our new possession.
Unfortunately, both seemed to have a point. The two-seater Ferrari did look marvelous, a swoopy low-slung bullet among blocky Cadillacs and Buicks. Driving it safely through the streets was anything but marvelous: The Ferrari had 240 hp, started with a throaty roar and had a finicky Latin gearbox that proved impossible to master. "Ease the clutch in slowly," said my husband, teeth gritted, as he attempted to teach me how to accelerate from zero to 15. "This car doesn't do anything slowly," I wailed as I either (1) stalled the engine or (2) sent us bucking wildly down the street, not unlike the prancing horse insignia emblazoned on its grille.
What I clearly needed was more advanced instruction. But from where? The local driving schools' curricula stopped at K-turns and parallel parking. We didn't know any other Ferrari owners; as far as we were concerned, ours was the only Ferrari west of Milan. "Someone used to driving fast cars," I told my glowering helpmate. In our little world, we might as well have asked for lessons in brain surgery. There were no listings for DRIVERS: RACING in the San Francisco Yellow Pages. I looked.
But then a tantalizing article in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle offered a chance for mastery of our expensive plaything. "Maybe this guy can help," I said, pointing to a picture of George Bignotti. Bignotti, said the article, was building race cars in nearby Burlingame. I'd never heard of him or the drivers working for him, but the cars were for the Indianapolis 500, which I had heard of, and I knew they drove very, very fast there.
The next day I called Bignotti and told him about my problem. The premier engine builder on the Indy car circuit (so I found out later) didn't seem at all put out by my inquiry. "I've got just the person to help you," he said. "Why don't you come on down?"
And down I came, lurching shakily to a stop in front of the white frame house where Bignotti both lived and had his shop. He was a middle-aged man, dressed in coveralls. With him was a much younger man, in his early 20s, I guessed, a bit stocky but well built. Bignotti introduced me to my crewcut driving instructor, who smiled a lot and talked with a Texas drawl. Where he came from, my new teacher explained, folks were often known by their initials, not their names. "Call me A.J.," he said, as we walked to the car.
A.J. helped me into the passenger seat. "Let's get the feel of this thing," he said with a chuckle. He then fired up the Ferrari, pulled smoothly away and proceeded to take me on the most astounding ride of my life. Astounding, mostly because for some reason I wasn't terrified, even though we were hitting 75 and 80 mph on the suburban streets of Burlingame. The Ferrari roared with a happy ferocity I hadn't heard before; houses, stop signs and startled residents passed in a blur. And yet, against all my instincts, I knew we were safe. For a magical half hour the Ferrari and its driver—both well within their limits—were working together. It was a work of art.
We pulled to a stop, my ears ringing. "Nice car," A.J. said. Then he and I changed places, and he proceeded to de-mystify my inscrutable automobile. The clutch, he said, was very stiff and demanded quick, decisive foot action—the fact that I usually wore high heels while driving hadn't been helping matters any. As for downshifting while cornering—and that seemed to be the case every time I needed to downshift—it was better done with heel-and-toe double clutching, a technique I'd never heard of that involved a tricky ballet in which the right foot worked the gas and brake pedals simultaneously while the left foot pumped the clutch pedal.
After a bit of practice, I demonstrated a modest proficiency at those procedures—at least enough for A.J. to say, "Let's head for San Francisco." We roared up the Bayshore Freeway and got off at a downtown exit. In heavy traffic, I did well enough, although the car would surely have preferred another workout with A.J. and—grumbling along at less than 25 mph—sent little mechanical maledictions back from the engine compartment to the cockpit.
None of this seemed to faze A.J. "Head up Mason Street," he said. Obviously, my final exam was to be a smooth ascent of this hilly, cobblestoned avenue. I looked over to him apprehensively, but he simply smiled and motioned me to go ahead.
A mistake. Mason Street, as most San Francisco residents (and some terrified tourists) know, angles almost straight up to a stop sign at its top. Drivers, having had to crawl up several hundred feet of the hill in first gear, must halt just below the summit, peer timidly skyward and then crawl cautiously into the intersection. And this is where I sat, trying to get the Ferrari moving without revving us into oncoming traffic.
I stalled the engine three times while trying to get slowly under way and not roll backward into the huge truck that was behind me. Traffic built up, horns started to honk. But what was most frightening was that A.J., frantically shouting instructions, wasn't the cool pro he'd been just moments before. In fact, he was sweating bullets. If he was scared now, I thought, what should I be?
Finally, A.J. told me very deliberately, "Set the parking brake, turn off the engine, leave it in first and...get...out...of...the...car." By that time we were surrounded by a knot of onlookers, fascinated by both my beautiful machine and its driver's ineptitude.
They cheered lustily as A.J. slid into the driver's seat and got the Ferrari moving over the crest. "Lunch?" he asked, the scarlet draining from his face. I nodded, and we rolled majestically over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. "You did all right for a beginner," said A.J. gamely at the waterfront restaurant. But he drove us back to Burlingame, and as we shook hands I thought, that's the last I'll see of that guy.
Well, not quite. Several months later, my husband and I listened on the radio to the entire Indy 500 race lap by lap and cheered as A.J. won. I saw his face on the front page of the Chronicle sports section. He was carrying a big trophy and smiling from ear to ear. He'd won his first Indianapolis 500.
Thrilled, I sent him a telegram directly to the Speedway. "Thank you and congratulations," it said. And I'd like to think that these days—perhaps when his clutch breaks or a driver spins out in front of him—A.J. remembers me.