First-ever driving festival could put French Lick on the map of exotic vehicles

September 1, 2008

The $160,000 Ford GT arrives just ahead of its sweet-sounding exhaust note. It sidesteps into a downtown parking space and rolls to a stop.

It's hard to tell what's more taut--the supercar's suspension or driver Kevin Lee's nerves. He's parked the GT just far enough from the curb that its low-hanging passenger door doesn't strike concrete, if opened.

Imagine being responsible for a whole fleet of rare cars. If anyone should be popping tranquilizers like breath mints on a first date it is Lee, managing partner of Gasoline Alley-based event management firm LeXeffect.

Nerves--and at least $895--can put you behind the wheel of a dream car like this, on a 45-mile course in and around French Lick and the Hoosier National Forest. Organizers of the inaugural World Class Driving Festival at the West Baden Springs Hotel Sept. 3-7 hope to put Indiana on the map when it comes to exotic cars and potentially lucrative business opportunities surrounding the lifestyle.

"We want to create the 'Pebble Beach of the Midwest' at French Lick," said Jean Paul Libert, a former race car driver in the 24 Hours of LeMans and co-founder of World Class Driving Inc.

The Delaware-based company was launched last year to give car enthusiasts an affordable way to drive their dream cars for a day. Libert's firm has done a number of one-time events, for about 5,000 drivers so far, but would like to establish an annual event on both coasts--and in French Lick.

"We're trying to create a whole new event unlike anything that's been seen here in the Midwest," said Mark Bommarito, vice president of sales and marketing for West Baden Springs Hotel.

Beyond muscle cars

For starters, there's a Playboy "Playmate" coming to French Lick for the event, with a camera crew from Playboy TV in tow. Motor Trend magazine, a co-sponsor, will have folks in French Lick. As will Motor Week and Speed Channel.

Bommarito said West Baden Springs Hotel has guests registered from all over the United States. Many will pay $2,800 to drive 12 cars in a package that includes deluxe accommodations, a dinner gala and Rolls Royce chauffeur service.

"I think it's going to take a little longer for the local populace to understand," he said.

Indeed. In this meat-and-potatoes state, restored muscle cars, not Lamborghinis, are haute couture. Sure, there are some older Ferraris making flatulent exhaust sounds on the streets of Carmel. But, comparatively speaking, this part of the country is no Beverly Hills when it comes to exotic vehicles appearing as naturally as a colony of nudists in July. In the realm of production exotics and supercars, Indiana is more like Beverly Hillbillies.

And French Lick is off the beaten path from even Indianapolis, let alone Chicago or Los Angeles. But to Libert, it's a gem, what with the historic West Baden Springs Hotel, with its huge, domed atrium and turn-of-the-century splendor that once drew U.S. presidents.

Besides the $35 million-plus renovation of the hotel by Indiana billionaire Bill Cook, there's the casino down the road at the recently renovated French Lick Springs Hotel and a golf course befitting a, well, a $1.3 million Bugatti Veyron--one of the cars on display at the festival.

"The chemistry is just perfect," said Libert, originally from Belgium. "The Cook family did an amazing job."

But as Lee is quick to point out, the festival will be more than a mere show.

"This is the only event we know of where you can actually touch them and drive them and feel them," he said of the two dozen cars in the driving stable. They include the ultra-rare Ferrari 430 Scuderia (only about 20 in the United States), Lamborghini Gallardo, Audi A8, Aston Martin DB9 and Mercedes SLR McLaren. Many are part of World Class Driving's fleet; others are owned by car manufacturers and private individuals.

And they're new--2008 or 2009 models, worth at least $12 million--with not a seat stained by carelessly dropped pate.

Drivers will take the cars on the 45-mile course that runs north and south of the hotel, on sparsely driven local roads that twist and turn through the Hoosier National Forest. They're ideal for these kinds of performance cars and were another plus in luring World Class Driving to the hotel, Bommarito said.

So far, at least 250 people have signed up, most from outside the state and from such cities as Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Miami.

These participants aren't afraid to drop big bucks. In fact, curiously, Libert said he's having a hard time selling the least-expensive driving package, the $895 deal to drive three exotic cars.

Exotic 'value'

Even those picking the top-of-the-line package--lodging, dinner parties and a 12-car drive--arguably get a lot for $2,795.

Libert talks about "value," which seems odd coming from someone who caters to affluent car enthusiasts, many of whom could write a check for a supercar on the spot. Yes, his firm could charge much more for the experience, but that would exclude others of more modest means who still have sophisticated tastes.

"The formula is very simple. First of all, we are a people with a passion for cars," he said.

Sponsors like Italian tire maker Pirelli help keep the costs down.

"We don't want to hammer people," Libert said.

Meanwhile, Lee's LeXeffect company is scrambling on behalf of client World Class Driving to complete the arrangements in French Lick and to get all the cars in place.

Lee cut his teeth on high-anxiety logistics. About three years ago, his company put together an event in New York City for a Swiss watch company that wanted to build a U.S. presence. He somehow arranged to get two open-wheel racing cars to New York City so Mario Andretti and other celebrities could drive them down Fifth Avenue, in traffic.

Of course, "we're not getting Joe's towing company to move a $2 million vehicle. ... The transportation alone for an event like this is probably close to six-figures."

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