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3 Days Through Death Valley with Donnie Callaway, Two Vintage Ferraris, a Hot Rod Porsche, and an Irritable Dachshund. PT. I

How many of us were utterly, hopelessly captivated by exotic cars as kids? It’s one of the most common childhood fixations in the world and – at least for generations raised before the advent of digital tablets – spotting a Ferrari screaming by in the opposite lane was a proper daymaker that measured up with unexpected sweets or a new toy.

Hell, for me, the new toy in question was typically a diecast model of a Ferrari (and there’s a veritable scrapyard of scarred 1:24 scale Maisto and BBurrago Ferraris in my attic to prove it). But how many of us actually get to experience a Ferrari in any truly meaningful way as adults? 

Obsessions are outgrown, transmogrified into new passions as we age, or simply killed in cold blood by the merciless butchers that are reality, pragmatism, and bills. For most, these functional sculptures, these objects of desire, these bright red daydreams that most kids have no true sphere of reference for outside of fleeting encounters at local car shows or in a parking lot on a lucky day, that for many, exist exclusively in glamor shots on school folders (do kids still carry folders?), as little toys, or on screens, ultimately remain daydreams.

The fact of the matter is it’s a rare experience to drive a Ferrari in any real way and with the market’s recent dramatic ascent, a classic Ferrari is aspirational at best for many. Sure, if the rigors of adulthood haven’t beaten that daydream out of your psyche altogether, you might rent one on a birthday to tool around town in for a few hours, or maybe you’re fortunate enough to know a Ferrari owner that’ll let you trundle around in their car briefly – but the truth is that the essence of what makes these autos magical simply can’t be understood via a short grocery store jaunt with a nervous owner in the passenger seat. No – to truly understand what makes a Ferrari special, you need some real seat time. For Ferrari restoration wunderkind Donnie Callaway, sharing that kind of experience with his inner circle is all part of living out his own daydream. 

If you’ve been following the C + T Journal recently, you may have read our comprehensive interview feature or seen the episode of our series the Details featuring Callaway. For the uninitiated, Donnie Callaway is the guy true insiders trust to return their Ferraris to what they were intended to be when they left the factory. Callaway is an industry lifer that’s considered one of the absolute best in the world at what he does and he’s put together an indescribably cool restoration workshop in an aircraft hangar on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Antelope Valley, CA. It’s a space choked to the gills with incredible old Ferraris in various states of restoration, boxes of new-old-stock parts, and the kind of vintage paraphernalia that would send most petrol-minded eBay crawlers into conniptions. Callaway is also the kind of raconteur that seems to have friends everywhere and never seems to run out of wild stories to share. From taking delivery of the very first 288 GTO on the West Coast during his days at Hollywood Sport Cars to altercations with Miles Davis and sneaking into the Starwood to see Black Flag in the ‘80s, to say that Donnie Callaway has led many lives is a gross understatement.

The last time we hung out with Donnie, the C + T team felt like family immediately. Passion tends to recognize passion and we left that experience knowing it wasn’t the last we’d seen of Donnie or his workshop – we just didn’t know how incredible our next meeting would be. 

When we wrapped up shooting the aforementioned episode of the Details, we had Donnie pull out a few cars for us to photograph with their lights on at sunset; we wanted to get that “school folder” glamor shot. With an ‘87 328 GTS burbling away at idle in the gravel of the airfield, I recognized what I thought may have been my best opportunity to finally experience a vintage Ferrari from the driver’s seat, and I asked (gently hassled) Donnie to let me have a little rip around the airfield in it – which he obliged without question. It was a moment I’ll cherish: All I really wanted was to feel that mystical gated shifter clink-clink-clink through a few gears and to hear that V8 growling in Italian behind my head. I got that and more over those few hot laps, but it felt like it was over in a heartbeat. Gracious goodbyes and emphatic thanks were exchanged as we’d been in Donnie’s hair for 10 hours that day, and as we were leaving Donnie shouted “Come back again and we’ll spend a whole day driving them!” 

Somehow, you just knew the guy meant it.  

A few days after Donnie’s episode of the Details went live, I received a DM from him saying we needed to do something else together soon. I asked what he had in mind.  

“Let’s do a run! Let’s take a few cars and do a 3 day run through Death Valley!” 

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Are you serious? Don’t fuck with me, man – that’d be wild! Let’s get some dates on paper and do it!” 

Donnie wanted us to experience these cars as they were meant to be experienced: At speed blasting through the desert on roads void of traffic, law enforcement, and the concerns of our daily lives. Shit, you’d be lucky to have cell service where we were going! This trip was about the meditative zen of driving, about indoctrinating us into the small club of people that understood firsthand the magic and tactile delights of the cavallino rampante, and about using these things for what they’re built for, all while making the clear statement that if you’re the kind of individual that bought a vintage Ferrari just to let it rot in a garage and rub it down with diaper on the weekends, you’re the enemy. 

"Let’s do a run! Let’s take a few cars and do a 3 day run through Death Valley!"

The Plan

Donnie said he knew all of the primo roads in and out of Death Valley – the kind that lent themselves to hard driving and had scenic vistas – and he had a line on what he described as a “trippy” hotel that we could bunk at in Death Valley Junction. We’d meet at the hangar the night before, go over the particulars of the trip, shake down the cars, and take off early in the morning to get as much daylight driving in as possible.

Myself, C + T’s founder Cam Barr, and our creative lead, Chris Elkjar, left LA for Donnie’s hangar on a Friday afternoon. Cam drove his heavily modified 1975 Porsche 911S (known as “Jolene” for her propensity to steal men away from their women) and Chris and I followed in a Jeep loaded with our bags and camera gear. I wore my personal late ‘70s Heuer Montreal to pay homage to the brand’s history with Ferrari and motorsport (the shield logo on the upper nose of Niki Lauda’s 312T F1 car always felt right to me), and Cam packed a watch roll with a few other vintage motorsports-focused chronos and donned an extremely clean ‘70s Heuer Autavia “Viceroy” model. As luck would have it, the fastest route to Antelope Valley that afternoon put us on the famed Angeles Crest Highway and we spent a sunny afternoon carving those legendary twisties and drinking in the mountain scenery. Not a bad primer for the adventure ahead.

We arrived at Donnie’s place in time to catch a breathtakingly ethereal Mojave sunset. As we shot the shit with Donnie behind the hangar, the sun slowly sank behind the distant mountains and a helicopter pilot practiced touch-and-go landings on the nearest airstrip a few hundred yards away. It was surreal and time itself felt suspended in the cool desert air. We split for dinner and our team, Donnie, his girlfriend, photographer Virginie Petorin, and their adorable, but irascible dachshund, Waffles, ended up at a long table in the corner of a honky-tonk cowboy steakhouse in the absolute middle of nowhere. The food was comically large, the Western-themed decor was ancient, and the crowd was rough. It felt like stepping into a lost David Lynch flick – a feeling that would creep in perpetually throughout the weekend.

 

 

Dawn Patrol

We were greeted by a crisp morning that had left a layer of frost on Jolene’s windows. We made our way back to the airfield from the unremarkable hotel we’d stayed at and found that Donnie had been up for a bit and had the cars we’d be taking selected and prepped: A pristine 1988 Testarossa in black with a tan interior and the very same “resale red” ‘87 328 GTS I had my maiden Ferrari drive in last time. That 328 had only 7k original miles on it when we left, by the way. Along with Cam’s ‘75 911, we had one helluva trio of cars at our disposal and they certainly looked good lined up together.  

As we shifted our luggage and camera gear into the frunks and the shallow mini-trunk hiding behind the 328’s beautiful 3.2 liter V8, I asked Donnie if there was anything in particular we needed to know about the cars before we took off. 

“No, just don’t slip my clutch!” 

Walkie talkies were channel-matched and checked, and the Testarossa’s massive flat-12 barked to life – it’s rhythmic idle blending with the purr of the 328’s V8 and the beefy midrange burble of the 3.45 liter twin-plug racing-inspired motor that powered Jolene. Suddenly, I understood why every automotive journalist to have ever written a piece about a group drive with vintage sports cars so reliably threw the term “symphony” around.

Donnie (accompanied by Virginie and Waffles) led the pack in the sinister-looking Testarossa, followed by Cam and Chris in the 328, while I was left to my own devices behind the wheel of Jolene – which was probably for the best as smashing through the non-synchro gearbox of your boss’ beloved car (he named it, folks!) at high speeds could be a little nerve-wracking with an audience present. We took off towards the desert at a clip and Donnie made it immediately clear that he wasn’t just good at restoring these cars – he could drive the absolute piss out of ‘em! 

About a half hour of 5th gear driving from Donnie’s hangar, our trio of exotic classics hooked a sharp right off SR-14 onto a desolate little two lane road called Route 58. Our speeds stayed constant as Donnie blazed the trail ahead of us (you’d be amazed at how rare a posted speed limit is out there) and while 58’s asphalt was smooth enough, it featured plenty of dips and drops that added some drama to the drive. At one point, Cam seemed to catch air in the 328 after taking one of the moguls a hair too fast. The vistas that hemmed in 58 looked like something out of a Peckinpah film and before long, we steamed into Randsburg – a charming, defunct gold mining town which had defaulted into use as a filming location and was home to a handful of colorful locals and a few sleepy businesses. 

As we lined up the cars on the main street, someone shouted “Hey! Donnie’s back!” 

We all got out of our cars, stretched a bit, and shared our first impressions of the drive. These cars were quick, but it wasn’t about the speed – it was about the feel. It was about how they got there. While Waffles ran off to take a piss and bark at strangers, we were introduced to Donnie’s old friend Tim, who lived in an immobilized, but nicely renovated school bus next to an absolute cracker jack tiki bar and fire pit. Tim shared a great story about meeting Donnie many years ago when the Ferrari wizard’s old Volkswagen Thing threw a belt and left him stranded in the desert. We burned a few rolls of film, Tim pointed out a few of the mining locations that dotted the mountains surrounding the town and explained the process cyanide played in gold mining, and a pickup truck carrying what must have been 10 barking dogs lumbered up main street. Those 30 minutes in Randsburg felt like stepping into a Tom Waits song.

“Nukes and Naked Hot Springs, Man!”

We fired up the cars again and crept out of Randsburg. The plan that day was to reach the “trippy” hotel Donnie had made reservations at, which turned out to be the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. According to most guest reviews, the derelict opera house offered a weird time at best, and was palpably haunted at worst – if you believe in that kind of thing. When we booked the trip, the idea of being forced to potentially confront the spirit world seemed like a reasonable penance for a few days behind the wheel of these remarkable cars, and the place admittedly looked like it’d be incredible for our photos, but the probability of a ghostly interaction was honestly weighing on my mind more heavily as the night drew closer. 

Once we hit the highway again, the speeds continued at exactly the posted legal limit, the road grew more challenging as Donnie led our pack towards Panamint Valley. Our trio of cars blasted through the undulating desert mountain road, we ducked around the occasional slow car that occupied our lane as a team, and everyone started to find a rhythm with their respective cars into the early afternoon. For those of you that haven’t had the good fortune to follow a Ferrari Testarossa being driven in anger through the desert, it’s exactly like that board in the ‘90s arcade game Cruis’n USA. You know the one. For me, the ‘75 911’s extreme torque and rear-engined driving dynamics felt incredible eating up those empty mountain roads; Jolene is a car that lives for high revs and while her exhaust howl was something I was already well familiar with as a passenger, it’s a very different song when commanded by one’s own right foot.

The spirited trek through the mountains was punctuated by Donnie having us pull off at a ridge that offered an unobstructed view of Panamint Valley’s full expanse. As Donnie traced the mountain range with his finger and explained where exactly we were and the route we would be taking towards Death Valley Junction, a pair of F-35 fighters came screaming over the mountains. The jets chased each other at low altitudes, dancing and jockeying a bit before rocketing out of sight. 

“Yeah, we’re right between Nellis Air Force Base and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. They run drills and practice their dogfighting through here a lot.” 

As Donnie continued giving us a visual tour of Panamint Valley – pointing out where the groovy, clothing-optional hot springs were and the locations of various nuclear bomb test sites – Chris and Cam snapped photos of the cars and explored the terrain a bit. But all I could think about was what my 10-year-old self would say if I could go back in time and tell him he’d eventually wind up watching fighter jets dogfight in the fucking desert while on a road trip with an old Porsche and a pair of poster-perfect ‘80s Ferraris. It was enough to take my mind off the ghost hotel we were hurtling towards. 

Join us next week for part two in which, we make it to the opera house, but the fat lady fails to sing on our drive, the crew trades ghosts for neon, and the desert sun puts on another show for the Italian ponies.

David Von Bader is the Senior Editor of Craft + Tailored. He’s based in Brooklyn and is typically available to drive your exotic car and/or attend your catered party in the warm months. He can be reached at dvb@craftandtailored.com or on Instagram at @david_von_bader.

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