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

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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