Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 26, 2017

A Halloween Story: Road Trip To Italy’s Most Haunted Hamlet

fullsizeoutput_1999

“Where should we go today?”

“Let’s just get in the car and go,” said Sherry Kanani, my frequent travel companion. “We always find someplace interesting.”

Certainly, it seems anyplace can be interesting, if you have enough curiosity to find out why. And that is how we discovered what some people consider the most haunted place in Italy.

– – –

“Bussana Vecchia – Borgo Medievale” said a roadside sign, directing us up a steep hill from SS1, the coast road along Italy’s Riviera dei Fiori near Sanremo.

The road became more treacherous and tortuous, the higher we drove. It narrowed to barely one lane, with scant room to let the few cars from the opposite direction to squeeze by. Damage to the roadbed made it too dangerous to continue; we parked, and walked the short distance that remained.

“What is this place?” Sherry asked. “Something terrible happened here. You can feel it.”

Bussana Vecchia is not supposed to exist anymore. This hamlet, or frazione, was destroyed in a tremendous Ash Wednesday earthquake 130 years ago that killed an estimated 2,000 or more inhabitants in the area. Most buildings collapsed, including the roof of the hilltop church. Many bodies were never recovered.

Walking through here is like being in an unfinished graveyard.

IMG_1459

An Ash Wednesday service was in progress when the earthquake collapsed the church’s roof. (Jerry Garrett Photos)

Survivors decided not to attempt to rebuild; they moved down the hill closer to the sea and established a new Bussana (called Nuova). The areas of the worst earthquake devastation were declared off limits.

Despite that 1887 temblor, Bussana Vecchia has refused to die – even though Italian police and governmental authorities continue to try to kill it.

The ruined hill town, which dated from the 9th century by some estimates, lay abandoned for more than half a century. But after World War II, squatters – mostly displaced immigrants – began to trickle in, despite no water, electricity or sanitation facilities.

fullsizeoutput_199a

The vines are slowly taking over.

It was a precarious existence, as repairs were tricky to make; a collapsed section of wall might be holding up the side of an adjacent teetering building. Entry doors two or three floors up might no longer have stairways leading to them.

Police tried to run off the residents, but they refused to be easily dislodged. In the 1960s, hippies moved in. A few artists joined them. A small colony sprung up, existing in partially crushed apartments and homes.

An eviction order was granted in 1968, and police tried to clear the area. But residents barricaded themselves, and refused to leave without the confrontation turning violent. The police backed off. But the area was still considered officially “off limits.” Sporadic initiatives to roust the remnants have continued. As recently as 1997, the Italian government claimed ownership over the entire area, in hopes of evicting everyone. That didn’t work either.

IMG_1443

A few hardy souls still call it home.

These days, only a few hardy souls still consider themselves residents of this eerie ghost town. Several small artist studios are open sporadically. During the day, a handful of restaurants serve simple meals. Only the most primitive water and sanitation facilities exist. Generators provide some temporary power. But as night falls, the area becomes inky black and deathly quiet.

We decided to leave, before it became too dark to navigate the ruptured road.

Yes, Bussana Vecchia, officially, doesn’t exist. Once we left, it was like we were never there.

Jerry Garrett

October 25, 2017

Advertisements
Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 13, 2017

Strange Saga of the Superyacht Dilbar I

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 7.11.42 PM

Natita, off the Côte d’Azur (Burgess Yachts)

(Editor’s Note: This story is a name-dropping dream: Russian oligarchs, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Mar-a-Lago, Ivanka Trump, Goldman Sachs, billionaires, scandals, superyachts and even JFK!)

Dilbar is the name bestowed on what is currently the world’s largest superyacht.

Dilbar, as noted on this blog in a previous post, is owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, GazProm CEO and Vladimir Putin pal. The ship, which is 512 feet long, was completed in 2016 at a reported cost of $600 million. But the current Dilbar is not the first ship Usmanov, worth $18 billion and change (at last report), has owned by that name.

fullsizeoutput_1990

Current Dilbar (JG Photo)

The original Dilbar, or Dilbar I, is the subject of this story, which just recently experienced a new plot twist. The yacht now belongs to Goldman Sachs, and they seem flummoxed over what to do with it.

That yacht is now called the Natita, and it’s a 216.5-foot long version of Usmanov’s yachting fantasy that was built back by Oceanco in 2005, according to Superyachts.com. It set something of a new standard of luxury back then, with an interior by world-renowned designer Alberto Pinto. Just check out (below) the onboard pool, cited recently as one of the 10 most beautiful superyacht pools.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 6.36.33 PM

It also boasts a movie theater, eight guest cabins, a dance floor, and the obligatory helipad.

Still, it is less than half the size of the current Dilbar, and could supposedly fit entirely inside the bigger ship, with room to spare.

However, the original owner seemed never to be completely satisfied with it. It was completely refitted four years later, renamed, and then finally sold off. (A second Dilbar was commissioned and is now named the Ona, which apparently the Dilbar I was also named prior to 2010 – yes, it’s confusing to me too. So the mammoth current Dilbar would be, I guess, the third with that name.)

The original Dilbar cost something well into nine figures (possibly $263 million, according to one blog). When it changed hands in 2010, the asking price was somewhere around $80 million.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.26.51 PM

“Bill the Billionaire” not so popular in Peru

I don’t know if that’s what the guy who bought it, Houston oilman William Kallop, paid for it.

Kallop made a fortune back in 2009, when he sold his Peruvian offshore oil exploration operation for $900+ million to investors from Korea and Colombia. It was a controversial deal, to say the least; Peruvian activists claimed their government got screwed out of $482 million in revenue, plus they argued Kallop personally owed another $270 million in income taxes from the sale. His company had earlier been implicated in a spying and corruption scandal that had helped bring down the Peruvian cabinet.)

Armed with that windfall, Kallop went on an international spending spree. He took a seven percent stake in $3+ billion energy company Quicksilver Resources. He also bought a 300-year-old pisco liquor distillery. He acquired three Gulfstream jets. (Some internet posts erroneously claim he invested in Quiksilver, the surf apparel company, which went bankrupt awhile back.)

He must have needed those jets to hop between his eight residences, which included a Peruvian mansion, two homes in the Dominican Republic, a working cattle ranch in Texas, and a couple of south Florida estates.

And he bought lots and lots of yachts — at least seven of them over the past eight years.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 12.04.05 PM

The Honey Fitz (myhoneyfitz.com)

That total does not include the Honey Fitz, a 93-footer used by five U.S. Presidents including John F. Kennedy, that Kallop bought at Sotheby’s Camelot auction in 1998 for about $9 million. Kallop had it painstakingly restored in the early 20-teens, but he suffered many millions in unexpected costs in the process. It sits, as of this writing, in a Palm Beach area marina.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 5.24.47 PM

Bill, now 74, married Peruvian wife Cristina, 57, in 2008.

A worse fate befell his 104-foot La Diva, once owned by Ivanka Trump; it burned to the waterline in a weird 2010 blaze at a different Palm Beach marina. The yacht had been purchased from close friend Donald Trump, according to Bill’s wife Cristina, who for some reason referred to it (or some boat they owned) as the “Jackie O”. The flamboyant Cristina was a noted hostess on the Peruvian and Palm Beach social scenes (she once masqueraded as Marie Antoinette – while Bill was a pirate) and held parties on the yacht, and at Mar-a-Lago with Trump as a guest.

Three or four years ago, Kallop’s financial situation seemed to come under stress.

The worst hit had to have been with Quicksilver, which made some multi-billion-dollar bad bets in the oil shale business and went downhill rapidly. The company actually was liquidated at the end of 2015 (there was an auction for its last $245 million in assets in January 2016).

In 2014, Kallop borrowed $21 million from Goldman Sachs for a 12,000-square-foot Polynesian-themed waterfront mansion, just down the cart path from his neighbor Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

Also in 2014, he decided to draw another $32 million from Goldman Sachs against the equity in the Natita and another yacht, the Bad Girl.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.10.29 PM

A Kallop Palm Beach mansion

Two years ago, Kallop sold one of his Palm Beach mansions for $19 million. About the same time, he listed the Natita with yacht brokers at $67 million. He also offered it for rent – at $495,000 per week! He kept dropping the sales price, but the fish weren’t biting.

Last month, the Natita was seized in West Palm Beach by U.S. Marshals, at the behest of GS, which claims Kallop stopped paying on the remaining $28 million balance on his earlier $32 million loan. The marina is claiming millions in back mooring fees. The Natita reportedly has fallen into such dilapidated shape that a charter party walked off of it in March 2016. Goldman Sachs groused about having to refill its fuel tanks – just to keep its generators running – at a cost of $67,000!

While the Natita molders in impound, the Bad Girl seems to have vanished. Last February, off the coast of Punta Cana, Dominica; its locator beacon stopped sending signals.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 1.54.50 PM

Bad Girl

According to the Wall Street Journal, former employees have sued Kallop for – and won – millions in back pay and benefits.

What’s next? For Kallop, hard to say; his lawyers did not respond to calls for comment. Same with GS. For the Natita, it seems like the auction block could be the answer. The asking price has been steadily dropped to $39.9 million. It is likely to sell for much, much less.

Maybe Usmanov could pick it up on the cheap, and use it as a dinghy for Dilbar III.

Jerry Garrett

August 12, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 5, 2017

Rough Seas Ahead for French Riviera Superyachts

fullsizeoutput_1990

Dilbar, largest yacht by tonnage in the world, off coast of Monaco

(Jerry Garrett Photos)

MONACO

Superyachts cruise back in forth all day, in front of my modest balcony here, overlooking the Côte d’Azur.

Where are they going? To Monaco to visit their money? To the casino? To take on a new load of supermodels and aspiring actresses for another big “Wolf of Wall Street” type orgy? The imagination runs wild.

The truth, it turns out, may be rather boring. Many are just headed to Sanremo, Italy to get gas.

Big deal? Wait: This actually is a big story.

A fill-up for a superyacht can mean 200,000 liters of fuel! Enough for a trans-Atlantic crossing. The tab can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of euros. That’s if you fill up in French ports like Monaco, Nice, Cannes or Saint-Tropez.

fullsizeoutput_198b

Just another thirsty superyacht.

If you can make it to Italy – Sanremo is only about 20 nautical miles from Monaco – you can save tens of thousands!

In fact, a fueling station attendant in Monaco tells the story of a mid-size 42-meter yacht owner who missed the station closing in Sanremo by a few minutes, and ended up paying an extra €40,000 to top up in Monaco! Ouch!

By “superyacht” I will arbitarily focus on yachts longer than 67 meters, or 220 feet. There are at least 200 of those in the world. In many countries, yachts larger than 24 meters must have a fulltime professional crew. Believe it or not, there are something like 5,000 yachts longer than 24 meters right now in the world.

The yacht pictured above, the 156-meter-long (512 feet) Dilbar, is the world’s largest yacht by tonnage (15,917 gross). Its 30,000-kilowatt diesel electric engine is the largest fitted to any yacht, said its builder, Lurssen.

Delivered to its new owner, Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, in May 2016, it reportedly cost more than €500 million.

It can accommodate 40 guests, and has a fulltime crew of 80 crew.

Right now, the Dilbar is berthed in Porto Cervo on the Italian island of Sardinia. It has moved to Italy – from Monaco, where I spotted it – as have so many of the world’s biggest yachts this summer. Why? Because of a bit of a dust-up over French prices and taxes.

The average daily mooring fee in Porto Cervo is actually twice as much as, say, Saint-Tropez (about €2,500 a day versus €1,200 or so). But fuel is cheaper in Italy now. And that crew of 80 costs literally millions less to base there.

fullsizeoutput_198c

Fuel ahoy!

More and more yachting money is flowing out of the south of France to Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and other Mediterranean countries, because the French have tried to tighten the screws on loose regulation of taxes and social services that they claim yachts are supposed to pay.

But in recent years, those taxes and fees have been getting dodged.

Many family members of yacht crews officially reside in France, where they enjoy generous social services, while claiming tax-free salaries because their wages are earned offshore. France now is sending out tax bills reflecting tougher rules, collections for pensions, health insurance, and other compulsory contributions – which are up from less than 15 percent of their wages to now 55 percent!

France is also now strictly imposing a 20 percent VAT on yacht fuel sales, which were previously much easier to avoid.

fullsizeoutput_1992Harbors on the French Riviera have seen busier summers.

Revenue at the iconic marinas such as Saint-Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Toulon are off 30-40 percent this summer, prompting a needy letter from local leaders to President Emmanuel Macron, asking for relief.

Their letter cited an example of a 42-meter yacht being refueled in Italy instead of France “gives a saving of nearly €21,000 a week because of the difference in tax.” Fuel sales by the four largest French marine fuel vendors has fallen by 50 percent this summer, the letter added.

As to crew wages and taxes, the letter stated that while the least experienced crew member may only make €24,000 per year, a captain can command €300,000. The letter noted that “the additional cost of maintaining a seven-person crew in France is €300,000 a year.”

Do the math on how much that crew of 80 on the Dilbar must cost!

Not surprisingly, crew members are being laid off in droves.

Even less surprising: Over one-third of those 5,000+ over-24-meter yachts are up for sale.

Yes, the people who own these yachts can probably afford to pay more, but not surprisingly, they prefer not to. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for them.

But there is a wider problem here, and it’s a problem for France’s new President Macron, who is trying to revamp the country’s severe labor and tax laws.

Wine producers in the south of France claim that it costs them far more to produce their wines than it does for producers in neighboring Italy or Spain. Liquor also costs far less in Italy; the same is true of building materials, designer clothing and food. Market days in Ventimiglia, Italy, on the French border are thronged with French shoppers, buying all they can carry.

Screen Shot 2017-08-05 at 3.40.49 PM

Artist rendering of what Ventimiglia’s yacht harbor will look like.

His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco just recently bought the entire unfinished yacht harbor in nearby Ventimiglia, Italy (for a bargain €34 million); he means to finish it off and open it as a cheaper alternative affiliated with the harbor in Monaco.

Nicholas Edmiston, of the Edmiston yacht brokerage in Monaco, recently told The Daily Beast, “The possibility of this happening if taxes and fees were increased has actually been talked about for the last two years, and everyone warned what would happen. This where the French government so often goes wrong, this attitude of, ‘Well, we are France, people will always come here.'”

This time they may have miscalculated.

Edmiston said yachting is an important contributor to the Côte d’Azur economy, beyond the port fees, fueling costs and taxes, because yachts bring high-end shoppers and home buyers.

fullsizeoutput_1993

If people are not made to feel feel welcome in the area, he warned, they will go elsewhere.

Something like this happened about 30 years ago, he recalled, and the yachting community did indeed go elsewhere – and they stayed away until the French eased off.

Maybe this is just history repeating and the problem will be eventually solve itself. Until then, it could be costly for France’s economy, but a welcome boon for beleaguered neighbors like Italy.

Jerry Garrett

August 5, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 8.02.05 PM

A Chinese schoolgirl designed a prototype of this wing for Nico Hulkenberg’s F1 Renault. (Courtesy of Renault Sport F1)

The Renault Sport Formula 1 team raced at the recent British and Hungarian grands prix with a derivative of a new rear wing developed by a Chinese schoolgirl. Okay, that’s pretty weird, huh? But wait, there’s more…

The student who developed it, Sally Li, is an intern this year in Infiniti’s Engineering Academy near the Silverstone track in England. The academy is, among things, an innovative recruitment tool for both the F1 team and Infiniti, its technical partner. I mean, how do you entice top talent to come work for an F1 outfit – much less a Japanese luxury car brand in Europe – at an out-of-the-way factory of a twice-failed team?

“Sally’s Wing,” as it’s called, has been used in testing, with noteworthy results, said Tommaso Volpe, Infiniti’s global motorsports manager. “A derivative of it,” he pointed out, was used only because the actual “Sally’s Wing” awaits final approval for use in races, from the sport’s sanctioning body.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 7.18.26 PM

Sally’s drawing of her wing (this appeared in Autosport)

 

“I am working in the aero department,” Miss Li said of her internship. “My mission is to add aerodynamic performance to the racecar using development tools such as computational fluid dynamics and the wind tunnel.

“In particular, I have been working on developing the range of rear wings, in an attempt to extract more performance from them. We try to look at old problems with new eyes.”

Miss Li, then 21, was selected in January from among 12,000 applicants last year for the unique program, which provides opportunities for up-and-coming engineering students to go straight from undergraduate work to racing’s front lines, with a Formula 1 team.

“Who gets to do that, at my age, and from my background?” added Miss Li. “This is an opportunity like no other.”

The international academy, in operation for four years now, annually offers internships for seven aspiring automotive engineering students in an Infiniti program that shares them with Renault Sport. It also helps Renault Sport, which is headquartered in a rather unappealing gravel pit in Oxfordshire, recruit against F1’s more elite teams for engineering talent.

“It’s only open to students,” Volpe said. “We want to create opportunities for them, that they almost certainly would not have, if they were competing against professionals for openings.”

Interest in the program has grown exponentially – from about 1,200 that first year, to an estimated 20,000 applicants for the Class of 2018, he said.

Word is getting around among engineering schools, Volpe noted, “that this can be a ticket straight to the top.” Would you agree to work in a gravel pit? Yes, yes, I believe I would. (Now where is my F1 hard card, thank you.)

A 2014 participant in the program, William Priest, earned a fulltime engineering job at Infiniti, upon his completion of the program. Daniel Sanham, a 2015 graduate, now has a fulltime contract with the F1 team.

Last year, Caitlin Bunt, of Rockport, Ill., became the program’s first female to win a placement.

One applicant is selected from each of seven geographical regions: Asia/Oceania, Canada, Mexico, China, the Middle East, Europe/Russia and the United States.

Miss Bunt said she now works with the chassis team at Infiniti, and has been pleasantly surprised at how much input she’s been able to have in her projects.

“We’ve been able to try a lot of things that maybe they haven’t tried before, or haven’t had personnel to work on before,” she said. “I love it.” Some of the projects she has been working on are likely to end up on production models.

Miss Bunt said she is undecided what her next move might be, after completing her studies, but she said, “There is no shortage of choices for me, going forward.” (She wishes she knew someone in IndyCar. Hint, hint.)

Screen Shot 2017-07-31 at 8.21.05 PM

Here’sssss Sally!

Likewise, Miss Li has not formalized what’s next on her career ladder, but Infiniti and Renault have each expressed interested in keeping her on, she said. So it is safe to say, on the market for F1 engineering talent, her stock is headed up.

“I have always been passionate about race cars and always curious to learn how everything is made and how it works,” said Miss Li, who was attending school in Beijing when she was selected. “During my time at university I found that engineering is not only about what we learned from a book, but also about the experience. The more experience I gain here, the more determined I am to become a racing engineer and to realize my dream.”

Using “Sally’s Wing,” which the team says really does make a significant aerodynamic difference, was an admittedly unorthodox move by Renault Sport. But they’ve been working especially hard the past two seasons to breathe new life into the remains of the defunct Lotus team.

Team principals believe these sorts of daring, out-of-the-box ideas are helping Renault Sport make the leap from the ranks of also-rans in Formula 1 this season, to the elite level of championship contenders like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

(Editor’s Note: A different version of this feature appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, July 30, 2017)

Jerry Garrett

July 31, 2017

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 30, 2017

Migrant Crisis Tearing Apart Historic Italian Border Town

fullsizeoutput_198a

Ventimiglia (Jerry Garrett photo)

VENTIMIGLIA, Italy

July and August are supposed to be the height of tourist season here in Ventimiglia, an historic seaside town near Italy’s border with the French Riviera.

But the beaches are half-empty this year. Dozens of shops in the traditionally popular commercial center are closed down. Restaurants now employ greeters beeching passing pedestrians to enter. By 9:30 p.m. – even on weekends – most everything is shut down.

What’s the problem? Most people will agree it is the town’s burgeoning population of migrants, and the problems they bring. Most come from Africa – Sudan, Chad, Senegal, Niger, Eriteria, Algeria, Libya, etc. They don’t fit in at all.

The locals – hardly a cosmopolitan demographic – were initially surprisingly kind and accommodating. But what started as a temporary problem of desperate people, backed up here because they are being denied entry into France, has gone on too long; a backlog of nearly 1,000 people has formed, more are on the way, and the residents here have lost patience.

Hundreds of migrants sleep rough in the Roya riverbed – eating, sleeping, bathing, defecating and littering along the once-pristine banks of a scenic river that flows down from the coastal Alps.

Beggars panhandle at every door, on every corner, around the clock; hordes of them have become trinket salesmen, armed with Chinese-made tat and designer knockoffs, and they constantly pester everyone, like ants at a picnic.

The 50,000 or so mostly blue-collar residents here are not rich; they have little for themselves, much less others. The Italian economy, as a whole, is horrible; here it’s worse.

Local volunteers, charities and churches have tried to help with basic needs like blankets, medical attention and food. But too many people have now arrived; the city recently demanded that the swelling throngs be moved farther away from the overwhelmed city center to a nearby Red Cross camp. They didn’t want to go.

So, riots broke out in June, with police tear-gassing rampaging migrants (who demanded to be let into France). This mortified the populace. Now, the international notoriety the town has been blighted with is seen as the crippling blow to this summer’s vital tourist season.

When I started spending extended periods of time in Ventimiglia four years ago, it was an off-the-radar dream destination – the kind travel writers fantasize about.

Julius Caesar himself was reputed to have settled this area; the main drag, named after Marcus Aurelius, still leads to Rome. With breath-taking views of the French and Italian Riviera coastlines – including Monaco, azure waters, fabulous cuisine, low prices and an almost ideal year-round climate, it was pretty appealing.

The locals were kind, generous and welcoming.

img_0284

And then the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers started coming, in greater and greater numbers. They had no jobs, no money, no food, poor hygiene and little clothing. The Italian Navy had rescued many from treacherous crossings of the Mediterranean; authorities deposited them on Italian shores, and expected them to keep going farther into Europe.

For awhile, that was the case. But the system started to back up, as England, and then France, Switzerland, Austria and others started refusing to let them in. So this flood of humanity has backed up in Italy. And the blockage is most acute at Ventimiglia, which is now being tarred with the epithet “Little Calais”. (Italian cities farther from the border seem far less affected.)

Uncounted thousands have successfully made the illegal crossing through the porous border, but many of the most pathetic, unprepared and ill-suited to the journey fail.

The craggy crossing into France here is so treacherous it has come to be called the “Pass of Death”. Migrants can be seen at all hours marching along railroad tracks, dashing across the high highway bridges into dark tunnels, or even swimming in the azure sea toward France. Dozens have drowned, been hit by vehicles, crushed by trains, electrocuted, or just vanished in the rugged terrain.

If they make it to France, a massive police and armed forces presence awaits them. Every day hundreds are arrested, put in vans and buses, and taken back to be dumped in Italy – usually in Ventimiglia.

The Italians protest that it is illegal for the French to do this; the French claim they have a right to protect themselves. Four years ago, the border was unattended; now, on a high-alert day (whenever the French decide to declare one), it can take hours for anyone to cross into France. This has a truly chilling effect on Ventimiglia’s renown as a market town – with a revered six-day-a-week flower and farmers market, a Friday flea market that draws bargain hunters from as far away as Switzerland, and monthly antiques sales.

Among the shops that are still open, “70% off” sales are now common.

It’s not a sustainable situation.

But what will happen next? The French seem unwilling to back off their stance. Ventimiglia can’t absorb any more. It seems some kind of eruption is imminent.

Jerry Garrett

July 30, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 2, 2017

What Ever Happened To NASCAR?

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 3.05.45 PM

Weird race: Eventual winner Ricky Stenhouse drives under a crash. (NBC)

 

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida

“I’d rather fill the seats we have, than look at empty ones,” Bill France Jr. explained to me in 1977. I had asked him why he turned down a proposal to add a mere 5,000 new seats at Daytona International Speedway. “Tell me we can sell those seats, and I might change my mind.”

That seemed such conservative thinking to me at the time – the Daytona 500 was always a sellout back then – but the perspective of history has brought France’s logic into clearer focus now.

“Yes, we sell out the seats we have for the 500,” he added, “but we don’t sell out the July race. Or any other race we have here – and we have more than a dozen each year.”

He and his father, Bill Sr. the NASCAR founder, had been through high times and lean times since the racing sanctioning body had been founded in 1949. They were so broke after the first Daytona 500 in 1959 – a very successful race – they couldn’t afford to clean the grandstands or haul away the infield trash afterward (they got the Boy Scouts to volunteer). The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 had thrown an existential scare into them.

“We’re always trying to look for ways to improve our product,” France continued, “but we’re pretty happy with what we have now. We don’t make changes, just to be making changes.”

Eventually, however, those seats at Daytona, and whole lot more, got built – at the behest of others who challenged France in his waning days of control of the sport. Ironically, 44,000 of those seats at Daytona got taken right back out in the past couple of years (in the $400 million Daytona Rising “expansion”) because NASCAR couldn’t fill them in a tanking economy. Many other NASCAR tracks that also ill-advisedly over-expanded have had to do the same thing.

Empty seats, to television viewers, look like failure. Empty seats have helped get the conversation started about what has gone wrong for NASCAR, which up until 10 years or so ago was so wildly popular. But so many other factors now play into NASCAR’s sagging fortunes. The conversation is definitely started.

Nowadays the once-sacred annual slate of races now changes yearly; sponsors come and go (mostly go). Teams, tracks and backers go out of business. Officials jigger constantly with rules, formats, points and strategies in a (so far) failing attempt to get their groove back. Race times and dates change. Night races were added to appeal to TV viewers, while stifling live gates. The big-bucks television packages include events on obscure cable channels like Fox Sports, NBCSN  and CNBC – boo-yah!

What would Bill Jr., who had a heart attack in 1999 and was in declining health until his death in 2007, have thought of NASCAR today? His successor, his son Brian, and the braintrust he has assembled to run the sport seem forever in search of an answer.

Those changes Bill Jr. was always so loath to make are now made freely – almost weekly – by a an ever-changing leadership team that seems to still be trying define what NASCAR is, or ought to be, or could be, in the 21st Century. Perhaps there is no better example of how much is changing, and how quickly, than the rather unsatisfying outcome of the wreck-plagued Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last night. The capriciousness of the pervasive violence in NASCAR these days has drivers vexed, if not downright fed up.

“Way different race tonight than usual,” Brad Keselowski, the outspoken former series champion, opined on Twitter afterward. “Combo of the short stages & softer Goodyear tire has made the track super easy to drive = wreckfest.” The list of top ten finishers looked like names drawn out of a hat; the preparation, attention to detail, skill and excellence of the top teams mattered less than blind luck.

Keselowski was among the 15 non-finishing victims, out of 40 starters. Another casualty was the overwhelming pre-race favorite and sentimental choice Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fastest qualifier who was taken out in yet another crash not of his making. Even the surprise winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., only got to the finish line safely by driving under a car that flipped in front of him. Even many finishers were battered, bruised and covered in duct tape.

Outcomes are almost impossible to predict in a new 2017 format that breaks races into thirds, or fourths, like soccer or basketball, with breaks between segments. Every lap is an inconclusive mad scramble of cars packed ever-more dangerously close together. Old, time-tested strategies are out the window.

NASCAR “Cup” races, as the major league events have long been known, were once epic affairs that lasted for hours – five hours was once considered about the norm. Plenty of time to consume a whole cooler of beer.

The series – year after year – visited the same eccentric, colorful venues scattered about the Southern States, from whence the sport evolved: Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Rockingham, Richmond, Bristol, Nashville and Darlington. Two stops a year at each of those bullrings, plus visits to the big “superspeedways” at Charlotte, Daytona, Talladega and various venues in California (Riverside, Ontario, Fontana and Sonoma). Indianapolis was a popular addition in 1994 (its appeal has since faded embarrassingly).

Fans used to come for the spectacle, and they seldom went home disappointed. It was a tried-and-true format that produced ever greater returns. Up until newcomers – old hardliners might call them “carpetbaggers” – started fiddling with the formula.

The growing profit potential of owning a NASCAR racing track, with its attendant slate of annual race dates – the “Cup” races being almost sure-fire money-makers – inspired a number of would-be promoters to build new racetracks. Opulent venues, with almost gladiatorial grandeur, were built – unlike anything the sport had seen. When NASCAR balked at expanding its schedule to accommodate all the potential new races they were offered, the race track owners started buying the “weak sister” tracks like Wilkesboro and Rockingham – just to close them down, and expropriate their race dates. So the series began a process of re-defining itself in new non-traditional markets like central Texas, suburban Chicago, Kansas City, greater Miami and Las Vegas. Brian France even bought a large tract of land on Staten Island for a suburban New York speedway (it has yet to be built).

With the growing popularity of the sport, and its offbeat cast of Old School, tough-as-nails drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt Sr., came the interest of television. But there was a catch: Television wanted to re-program NASCAR into a “Reader’s Digest” version of itself – with races jammed into tight three-hour formats of action-packed racing that maintained couch-potato interest from beginning to end. Oh, and the networks also wanted to shoehorn at least an hour’s worth of distracting advertisements into that format. Sometimes it worked; most often, it didn’t.

A three-hour race wasn’t as alluring a prospect for fans to drive to, and spend the weekend tailgating at, especially if it was going to be on live national television anyway. Their old favorite tracks were gone – even the legendary Darlington track and its beloved Southern 500 were unceremoniously yanked from the schedule – and so the nostalgic appeal of attending in person was blown away. A sort of modern-day Gone with the Wind, courtesy of NASCAR’s new management team and consultants.

Tickets became unattainably expensive – especially for so many Americans who lost their jobs and homes in the recession that started in 2007 (and, for many, has yet to end.) So, seats sat empty.

Traditional sponsorships like those of Winston cigarettes – the sport’s mainstay for decades – went away, followed by a revolving door cast of cellphone companies, unrelated consumer product and retail companies, vanity projects, and tenuous charitable connections. Traditional events have lost their traditional names and now are bizarre conglomerates of “presented by” married to mouths-full of advertising slogans.

The whole sport has an identity crisis, and at many different levels. Racing used to be about finding who was the fastest driver, in the fastest car. NASCAR races aren’t about that anymore. Most of these races feature a gaggle of cars riding around in an aerodynamic bubble they’ve created, waiting to see what happens when they get too close together. The results are unpredictable, at best.

Drivers used to have productive careers into their 50s. But top still relatively young stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards walked away suddenly last year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving after this season. Others, like Danica Patrick – the sport’s only female regular, are sure to follow, especially as many of the older drivers, who cut their teeth on a more traditional form of NASCAR racing, become frustrated at the increasingly random nature of race outcomes. The explanations, if given at all, are usually polite creampuffs like, “It was just time.”

But all too often these days racers complain, “I was just cruising along, minding my own business, when – wham! – out of nowhere, I’m in a 20-car pileup.” Dale Jr. missed half of last season with his fifth or sixth concussion; Patrick estimates she might have had a dozen or more by now. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola have all had to endure broken bones.

Yet, every race the announcers breathlessly speculate when the next “big one” pileup will occur.

To entertain these ghoulish fantasies week after week is expensive; last night’s Daytona race probably cost more in wrecked race cars than it paid in purse money.

Though drivers accept that what they do is dangerous, there must be a margin for error, a feeling that to some extent they can control their own destinies, that they must have to continue to be willing to put their lives on the line. In today’s NASCAR that assurance is harder and harder for some to find.

Perhaps, as NASCAR is hoping, a new generation of promising talents such as Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty and Austin Dillon will help re-define the sport in a way that appeals to a new generation of race fans.

If that happens, you’ll know it when NASCAR tracks start adding seats again.

Jerry Garrett

July 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 22, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – A Happy Ending?

fullsizeoutput_197f

My Mercedes in the Genoa port customs impound.

GENOA, Italy

Today, for the first time in more than nine weeks, I saw my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL again.

It was sitting in a warehouse in the port district of Genoa. It was dusty and dirty from more than five weeks inside the 40-foot shipping container that brought it here from the port in Los Angeles, on the deck of the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship.

But it was otherwise unscathed.

I had been braced for dings and dents, maybe even some sea water encroachment into the container. But no, there was nothing wrong. The 5,600-mile trip inside the Duesseldorf Express, which I have chronicled here on this blog, was uneventful.

“It was unloaded last week from the ship, and brought here by truck from the Voltri docks, which are about 12 kilometers from here,” said the shipping agent. “We unpacked it, processed various paperwork that was needed for the authorities here, and pushed it out of the way to here. We did not try to start it; we just push it.”

Would it start? I wasn’t sure it would after sitting around since April 11 or so.

The big moment came, when I got my chance to fire it up. One turn of the key – vroom!

All that was left for me to do was pay the agent, obtain a few stamps and seals from the customs inspectors, the Guardia di Finanza (the Italian IRS), and the local police. I needed special permissions, I was told, to be able get it into Italy without customs duties. (My story is that I am just going to drive it around for my own personal use and then ship it back to America when I go home.)

But the authorities seemed to just enjoy seeing an old classic like that still in running condition, and they happily waved me out on to the freeway on-ramp in front of the port.

I stopped once for gas, on the 100-mile trip home; it cost 102 euro to fill it up. Yikes.

In some ways, it was so strange, driving my car from America down a road in Italy. In other ways, we seemed right at home.

Jerry Garrett

June 22, 2017

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 11.47.53 AM

The Duesseldorf Express arrived this morning at Genoa’s Voltri docks. (VesselFinder)

GENOA, Italy

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship arrived here at the Voltri docks, just west of downtown Genoa this morning, completing more than a month-long journey from Los Angeles with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL onboard.

But don’t break out the champagne just yet.

The ship was originally scheduled to arrive here late Tuesday night, which would have given port workers here plenty of time this week to unload the container with the car in it, unload the car from the container, and transport it to the pick up point for my retrieval of it. (Voltri is massive; it is where many cruise ships are built; including the Fincantieri models used by Costa, Carnival, etc.)

For 28 days, the ship kept admirably close to that schedule, set by the ship’s operator, Hapag-Lloyd. But then it hit Italian waters, and a slowdown started – I call it Italian Standard Time. Hence, its arrival here this morning, which was a good 36 hours behind that schedule. But don’t tell that to the local port authorities here.

“There is no delay in this case,” said the agent handling my shipment. There is no delay in their book, because they weren’t the ones who set that original schedule.

“We will receive customs documents from the shipping line Friday,” the agent continued. “The container will be collected on Monday the 19th and your car, if customs will not inspect it, will be ready for pickup on 20th.”

(Reminder: As mentioned in previous reports, nobody works in Italy from basically Friday afternoon to sometime on Monday. Certainly not Saturday or Sunday. And sometimes not on Wednesday afternoon either.)

I also have some hoops to jump through at my end. I must write a letter to customs, asking if I may please be allowed to bring my car into the country for tourism purposes. (If I would ask for any other purposes, such as selling it, I would have to pay import duties and probably register and plate the car. Not to mention, I would need to get an Italian driving license, which is a good six-week process.

I also need to provide a copy of my driving license. And to extend my insurance coverage for me to drive on Italian roads (about $250 more from my insurer, Hagerty, the classic car guys).

The agent is supposed to hand over to me my original title, which I had to provide to the shipper before it could be shipped.

And one more thing: I will cost me another $540 to get the car unloaded, unpacked, through the paperwork and released to me. On top of the $1,405 that I already paid the shipping agent, Schumacher, to pack it and send it – way back on April 12.

I thought that was a bit odd. Sort of like buying an airline ticket from somebody to fly you somewhere, and then when you arrive, having to buy another ticket from somebody else to let you off the plane. The shipper countered that it was not odd at all. End of discussion.

This has been a real learning experience.

Jerry Garrett

June 15, 2017

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 12.46.16 PM

Mercedes-Benz organizes Tuscan tours in classic SL vehicles like these.

LIVORNO, Italy

Welcome to Tuscany, to the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship, which arrived at the port here yesterday.

In one of the containers onboard sits my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL, which is on the final leg of its epic journey to me in Genoa (Genova). It is supposed to arrive tomorrow (Thursday), a day behind schedule thanks to delays that have been encountered at stops in Italian ports such as Cagliari and Livorno.

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 12.00.49 PM

Location of the ship 5/14

The delays will translate to a further five-day delay in me receiving the car in Genoa – the container won’t be unloaded until Friday, which is now too late to do anything before the weekend looms. Nobody works in Italy on Saturday and Sunday; Monday might be inconvenient too, says the customs agent handling my shipment. So, figure on Tuesday, June 20.

Oh well. This is Italy. Delays have already caused the Mercedes to miss the Mille Miglia sports car tour, Villa d’Este car show, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Mercedes-Benz tour. You know, almost all of the things I wanted to ship it to Italy for. It is already a month late; what’s another week?

This journey started April 13 when the car finally was picked up at my house on the U.S. west coast and transported to the cargo loading facility in Gardena, California. It sat around there for an entire month, until finally on May 13 the container was loaded on the ship, to begin a 5,900+ mile odyssey down the west coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, across the Caribbean Sea and then the Atlantic, and now the Mediterranean.

I could have picked up the Mercedes here in Livorno, but Genoa is a few hours closer to where I am staying, near the France-Italy border. Though most of Tuscany is land-locked – and most foreigners think of that way – a small western portion of the state is on the Ligurian Sea coast.

This kind of Mercedes, I have discovered, is a popular item around these parts – especially in the Tuscan interior. A number of tour companies operate itineraries that travel around to various Tuscan hill towns like Siena, San Gimignano and Montalcino in classic SLs from the 1960s and 1970s. At least one of these tour packages is backed officially by Mercedes-Benz.

The official M-B tours happen twice a year; one just happened the first week of June. Another is coming up the first week of September. They last three nights, and parts of four days. Up to 18 people can participate; everyone flies into Florence and is transported to a castle near Siena called Borgo Scopeto (it was featured in the 2010 rom-com “Letters To Juliet” and written about in this blog).

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 12.43.34 PM

Borgo Scopeto

The price? 1,995 euro, per person, double occupancy.

Maybe I should look into renting my car out for one of these things. It might help defray the costs of shipping it here.

Jerry Garrett

June 14, 2017

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 1.54.38 PM

The red box is the ship.

LIVORNO, Italy

The Duesseldorf Express is not here today, as it was scheduled to be.

For a month now, the cargo ship carrying my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL from Los Angeles to a rendezvous with me in Genoa, Italy, has been running on time like a Swiss train – through a dozen ports, across more than 5,000 miles of ocean. Despite wind, waves, high seas and strong currents, the 282-meter-long ship has admirably kept to a tight schedule – until it reached Italian waters yesterday.

Then it plowed into a nearly immovable force we call Italian Standard Time. Instead of numbers, an Italian clock face has “domani” at each hour.

The ship was supposed to arrive in Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, early Sunday, and leave by late Sunday evening. Instead it was slowed down being allowed into the port, and slowed for its clearance to leave. (Not much happens anywhere in Italy on a Sunday, so maybe that part of the schedule was a little ignorant of local mores.) It was supposed to arrive in Livorno, on the coast of Tuscany, late last night, and leave for Genoa (Genova) by this afternoon.

Instead, it just left Cagliari this morning, and is chugging along the busy shipping lanes off the coast of Sardinia, as I write, at about 14 knots. It is now not due in Livorno until tomorrow morning. Domani.

And that will subsequently delay its arrival in Genoa until sometime the next day (Thursday).

Italian Standard Time is this gotcha in Italy that roughly translates to “whenever.” It’s like trying to play golf underwater, read while looking in a mirror, or climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Everything seems to happen in slow motion (if at all).

Here’s an example: We recently had to wait for three weeks for a plumber to come boost the low water pressure at our apartment; he finally came the other day, adjusted it a bit then left. We were actually left with less water pressure, because he adjusted it the wrong way, without telling us what he was doing or why; we called him immediately to come back and really fix it correctly this time. He says he may be able to come back in a week or two – and the guy’s office is a half-mile away from our apartment. It might take him five minutes.

If you try to buck the system, or ask for things to hurry up, you just piss people off. So, the Mercedes arrives Thursday, June 15 now. Or whenever.

Domani.

Jerry Garrett

June 13, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 12, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – Day 30 Cagliari

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 2.29.37 PM

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship in the port of Cagliari on June 12 (VesselFinder)

CAGLIARI, Sardinia

The Duesseldorf Express cargo ship docked at the port here this morning, a couple of hours behind schedule. It should have little or no trouble making up the time, and leaving on time this evening around the dinner hour on the next leg of its journey.

That will take it up the gloriously beautiful eastern coast of Sardinia, across the Ligurian Sea along the Tuscan coast, to Livorno, by tomorrow.

The ship is carrying a container, that it picked up in Los Angeles, with my 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL in it. And the plan is to bring it to me at the Voltri docks in Genoa by the day after tomorrow (Wednesday). The trip, as the headline of this article notes, has taken 30 days so far, out of an expected 32. The journey for my Mercedes will have covered over 5,600 miles, with stops in Manzanillo, Mexico; Panama; Cartagena, Colombia; Caucedo, Dominica; Lisbon, Portugal; Tangier, Morocco; Valencia, Spain; and now Cagliari.

I haven’t been to Cagliari before, but I have been to Sardinia a couple of times. In 1984, I was invited to the Costa Smeralda Rally. The rally was supposed to last almost a week, and I was assigned to videotape highlights for the old “MotorWeek Illustrated” racing show on WTBS. (Search YouTube; the video is still up!)Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.14.33 PM

To reconnoiter the island, I rented a car; I was given a Fiat that was so old and crappy the driver’s seat supports had rotted out of the floor boards. When I’d pop the clutch the seat would tumble over into the back seat. There were no seatbelts. The rear hatch would come unlatched over bumps. It could have been a last-generation Fiat 127 (or first-generation Panda 30); either way, it had an appalling 652-cc engine that produced 23 horsepower.

The night before the rally’s start, I nearly got stranded with it on the isle of La Maddelena, after an ill-advised ferry ride there to look around. I was the last car back on the ferry that Friday evening, beating out a number of irate drivers; I didn’t realize until later their extreme anger was because it was the last ferry until Monday.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.10.30 PM

A still from our video, before the crash

The driver whose exploits I meant to follow in the race, Audi’s John Buffum (#9), crashed out the first night of the four-day event.

We were staying at a fabulous alabaster white Moroccan style villa, so I went back and retired early. When I went down to the hotel breakfast room the next morning, nobody was there; I was told the American contingent had checked out and gone home.

I figured I’d better go too, since the people I was covering had left, and I didn’t want my host to get stuck for what I figured would be a big hotel bill.

But getting off Sardinia at a moment’s notice is not easy. There are more flights in than out – or at least back to the airport I had come from – Milan (this is not a math problem; the flights in, often go on to other places). I paid top dollar and got on a last minute flight to Rome, rented a car there, and drove to Milan. Gas was expensive and the tolls took the last of my lira. The drop fee for the one-way rental was a steep $200 (for 1984).

After I arrived at Linate airport, and returned my rental car, I was told I could not get an earlier flight out of Milan; my ticket was not changeable. I couldn’t re-rent my rental car either. So I had to sit around for three days in Milan doing nothing. I got a seedy hotel near the train station, and figured my host would appreciate that it was much cheaper than the luxurious villa in Porto Cervo.

My host did not appreciate my efforts, as it turned out.

“Why didn’t you just stay?” she said. “The room was pre-paid for the entire week.”

Oh.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.21.00 PM

Yeah, I shoulda stayed. (Visit costasmeralda.it)

Ironically, I returned to Costa Smeralda in 2011 on an Audi test drive program. We stayed at the same white alabaster villa.

(We even ate in the same expensive restaurant where, as I mentioned in my Day 29 report, we had spent a million lira on a dinner for five.)

Although it took 27 years, I feel like the universe finally gave me my lost three nights back.

Jerry Garrett

June 12, 2017

 

 

Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 11, 2017

Driving My Mercedes From LA To Italy – Day 29, Sardinia

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 11.37.55 AM

Position of the Duesseldorf Express cargo ship June 11 (VesselFinder.com)

CAGLIARI, Sardinia

My 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL is making good progress today, crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Valencia, Spain, to Cagliari on the southern tip of the Italian island of Sardinia. The sea is as smooth as glass today.

This is quite a trip, as the cargo ship in which my Mercedes is traveling weaves its way through the Balearic Islands of Ibiza and Majorca toward Sardinia. You could have a good argument over which of those islands has the most beautiful waters. A large section of Sardinia’s seafront is called Costa Smeralda (“Emerald Coast”) for good reason. The waters are the colors of precious stones such as emeralds, sapphires and turquoise.

I’ve written previously about Sardinia (My 36 Hours in Costa Smeralda) if you would like to know more.

Although Sardinia is a part of Italy, it is an autonomous region, that pretty much does its own thing. It has a long history of control over its own affairs, and in fact centuries ago controlled vast areas of Italy itself. Today, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated the whole island – especially the prettiest parts.

For instance, if you go out to dinner in tony Porto Cervo, the menus are printed in Italian, English and Russian. The joke is the Russians are the only ones who can afford to eat in the best restaurants anymore. (Years ago, at a dinner for five in Porto Cervo, we spent one million…lira – I think it was only about $700. But I always wanted to spend a million on something; the torta cioccolata for dessert put us over the top.)

The palatial waterfront homes are now owned by oligarchs; the yacht harbor is jammed with Russian-owned yachts.

Island life in Sardinia is very much dominated by travel on the seas. Yachts, ferries and cargo ships connect it to the Italian mainland, and the huge French island of Corsica, which nearly touches its northern tip.  At one time, I thought about picking up my Mercedes in Cagliari, driving around the coast to the short ferry crossing to Corsica, touring Corsica and then taking the daily car ferry from Bastia at the north end of that island to Nice (about 100 miles). But the price of gas probably would have bankrupted me! That whole trip would have been several hundred miles in total.

Anyway, the cargo ship, the Duesseldorf Express, carrying my Mercedes to its rapidly approaching rendezvous with me, will only be a short time in Sardinia; then it will wind around the southern tip of the island, before heading up its glorious eastern coast, toward its next stop in the Tuscan port of Livorno.

And then its on to Genoa, where I plan to pick the car up, as soon as port authorities tell me it has cleared customs and is ready to go (hopefully that process does not take as long as it seems to for customs to clear my lost luggage at Italian airports). This two-month odyssey from my house in the western United States to my temporary home near Nice – a month of it on the high seas – is starting to get real…

Jerry Garrett

June 11, 2017

 

 

 

 

Older Posts »

Categories