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453 South Spring St. Suite 1100. Los Angeles, California 90013.

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

After our surreal private Top Gun display came to a close and the F-35s disappeared beyond the horizon, we got back into our cars to complete our tour of Panamint Valley’s delightfully twisty mountain roads.

The pack remained tight and the spectacular roads on this particular stint really allowed the cars to shine. It felt like these machines were truly in their element and so were we.

The proverbial fourth wall of the drive was generally unbroken between Randsburg and our lunch break. Aside from the out-of-place modernity of the scant few other cars we encountered on the road, it was surprisingly easy to allow one’s mind to disappear into the cinematic desert scenes. Surprisingly easy to be fully swept up in the thrall of these intoxicatingly analog autos. Surprisingly easy to divorce oneself from the context of the present day altogether.

A meditative presence takes over after a while: All you can focus on is the next curve in the road, blipping the throttle at the right moment to nail a smooth downshift, brushing the brakes just gently enough to stay in the pocket. Plenty of writers have waxed poetic about the joys of driving something fast and balanced in the mountains, but the thing is, that kind of driving really does become second nature after a few hours in the seat. There’s a rare magic that happens when your mind and body meld with a properly dialed-in driver’s car and once you’ve experienced it firsthand, it’s incredibly easy to understand why those that put miles on their classics with abandon are so critical of those that sequester old sports cars away behind suburban garage doors, only to trot them out at a local car show occasionally.

The terrain eventually flattened out and we were afforded some relaxed highway cruising to cool down from our stonking mountain rip before stopping for lunch at the Furnace Creek Golf Course’s 19th hole burger shack. Keys were swapped in the parking lot after lunch and the next stint saw Cam and Chris take a turn in the menacing black Testarossa, Donnie behind the wheel of Jolene, and I was finally thrown the keys to the 328 GTS. We had roughly 30 miles on State Route 190 between us and the supposedly haunted Amargosa Opera House and Hotel (where we had reservations for the night) and those 30 miles offered more of the arid hills, breathtaking desert vistas, and high-intensity driving we’d enjoyed before lunch. 

As I got reacquainted with the 328’s brilliantly responsive V8, I basked in each exaggerated throw and “clink-clink” of its gated shifter. It felt like the only thing missing from the scene was a soundtrack of Italian library music – perhaps some of Piero Umiliani’s synthesizer-era stuff? That said, there is nothing quite like the undiluted sonic delights of a Ferrari V8 at speed, especially with the GTS’ roof panel removed.

We pulled into the Amargosa Opera House’s gravel parking lot just as the afternoon sun went hazy over Death Valley Junction. Aside from a pair of friendly bikers who had stopped to tell us how cool they thought the old exotic cars were, the area was void of other visitors and there was an inescapably eerie, stagnant air hanging about the place. The paint was peeling off the old hotel’s stucco exterior, the entryway was decorated with vintage gas pumps that had been festooned with cow skulls, and there were empty rooms with dusty windows and debris-covered floors that looked as if they’d been left to nature for years. The possibility of spending the night there genuinely seemed far more unpleasant than I’d even imagined when confronted by the oppressively ominous building in person, and it was immediately obvious why David Lynch chose the decripit hotel as a shooting location for Lost Highway and why it’s been featured on multiple cable TV ghost hunting shows. Were we really going to sleep here tonight? This wasn’t some manicured Disney spookiness – this was the real fucking deal.

Donnie went to collect our room keys from the clerk’s desk. When he returned, he suggested we check out a nearby scenic road before we lost all of our light. Keys were swapped again and I found myself behind the wheel of the Testarossa, Donnie took over in the 328, and Cam and Chris were reunited with Jolene.

As much as I had enjoyed the visceral sounds of the Testarossa’s 12-cylinder motor in parking lots and in pursuit, it’s the kind of brazen exhaust note that sends chills up your spine in the driver’s seat. And it’s a sound that accurately speaks to the jaw-dropping torque and power lurking beneath the car’s absurd, ping-pong table rear deck. While the 328 felt lithe, nimble, and exceptionally well-balanced in the bends of the mountain roads, the Testarossa offered a decidedly different driving experience. Though still extremely balanced and graceful in its handling, the Testarossa has a remarkably planted feeling that is accentuated by the immense torque output of its flat-12 engine in a way that makes the car feel like a two-seater freight train. It has seemingly infinite torque in every gear and it feels simultaneously brawny and agile, explosive, yet refined. It’s a car that just wants to go.    

With our bags still stowed in the cars, we split for Donnie’s scenic gem of a road and wound out the cars a bit more, running in the opposite direction of the vibrant purple sunset before stopping to refuel at an alien-themed gas station (which was across the street from Alamo Fireworks, “Home of the World’s Largest Firecracker”). As we filled the cars’ dry tanks and bought novelty Death Valley t-shirts, the question on all of our minds was finally voiced:

“What the hell is there to eat around here?”The answer was not a whole lot of anything, and it was all closing soon. The following question seemed as motivated by hunger as it was by our collective desire to sleep anywhere else after experiencing the Amargosa Opera House’s tangibly bad vibes firsthand.

“How far are we from Vegas?”

We were only an hour and a half out. Everyone agreed they had the energy to make the drive safely, and there’s always hotel vacancies in Las Vegas – right? Right. We hit the road and the pack hurtled through the cold desert night towards the beaming neon metropolis, juiced up on gas station coffee and excited by the prospect of a decent meal after such a long day on the road.     

There are few feelings quite like that of driving an old Ferrari up the Las Vegas Strip on a busy Saturday night. The drama of staring down the hood at the back of those painfully ’80s pop-up headlights, the reflections of neon and marquee lights dancing off the hood’s perfect paint, the buzz of the city mixing with the burble and eager first gear revs of the pack’s engines. The sensory overload of being surrounded by droves of people on their worst behavior was almost too much – somehow too close to a film to be real – especially on the tail end of a pandemic. 

The woman in the car next to me had her window down and shouted across the lane “What do you do for a living?” alluding to the car. 

I shouted back “I steal cars. These old ones are the easiest to boost.” 

Even for a Saturday night in Vegas, the city felt choked with traffic and people, and our efforts to hunt down a few rooms were yielding surprisingly few vacancies. All of the majors on the Strip were full and all of the charming smaller spots that lined the adjacent blocks seemed to be as well. We stashed the trio of cars on the top floor of the Park MGM’s garage and decided we’d sort out the lodging over dinner. But seriously – what the fuck was going on in Vegas tonight? 

Turns out an awful lot was going on in Vegas that night: There was a decent UFC card (Makhachev vs. Green), the Vegas Golden Knights had a home game against the Colorado Avalanche, and Metallica, Billy Joel, and Silk Sonic all had shows in town between Friday and Saturday night. Oops. 

We crept through the Park MGM’s bustling gaming floor led by Waffles, who wore a little gray dachshund-sized hoodie and was convinced he was acting as our security by barking at anything that moved. The team sat at a table in the Park MGM’s Eataly location, tucked into a modest feast of excellent medium-fancy pizza and pasta dishes and (after several frustrating phone calls) found a hotel nestled at the edge of Vegas’ burgeoning Arts District with enough rooms and a safe parking garage. Delirium began to set in as I fought off the impending carbohydrate coma I’d so willingly signed up for and all I could do for the moment was rattle off dialogue from Ocean’s 11 and drink in the scene. The Silk Sonic gig wrapped as we made our way out of the casino and we flowed out with the concert crowd – many donning outrageous ‘70s-inspired outfits. What was I saying about sensory overload again?

The hotel was unremarkable, but it may as well have been the god damned Four Seasons after nearly staying at Amargosa. A welcome port in the storm. The next morning, we explored the Arts District a bit, Cam and Chris burned some film, and we enjoyed breakfast and the first truly great cup of coffee any of us had had in days at Vesta Coffee Roasters. That was the last taste of civilization we’d have for most of the day. 

Donnie led the pack in the Testarossa, I hopped back in the 328, and Cam and Chris were in 911 again. We carved through the traffic out of Vegas as a team. By this point, we’d gotten a feel for each other’s driving styles and the dance between our cars felt choreographed, confident, and predictable. The 328 does this thing where it hunkers down on its haunches and feels unbelievably easy to drive at [exactly the posted] highway speeds. It felt like we escaped the city and were back in the majestic desolation of the desert in no time.  

Donnie led us to another picture-perfect two-lane highway which had asphalt that felt like it had barely been driven upon – grippy and smooth. We roared up the strip of fresh tarmac towards a perpetually vanishing horizon for a few miles before pulling off at the mouth of a dirt road. Among the desert scrub and Joshua Trees, we were once again given a chance to really ponder the sculpture of these incredible cars. Their graceful lines and the sheer audacity of their designs positively screamed when juxtaposed against the stark desert landscape. These things so obviously didn’t belong out here, yet they looked so very right in this environment.  

As we’re shooting photos and checking out the scene, Donnie stares into the distance and points out more plausible locations for nuclear testing. I look down at my feet to find that I’m standing over a pair of spent Remington shotgun shells. Donnie trails off and says:

“You spend a few days in the desert and all the noise stops and it’s like your mind falls into neutral.” 

“You spend a few days in the desert and all the noise stops and it’s like your mind falls into neutral.”

He was right. The stillness out there is absolutely remarkable. Even punctuated by the extreme stimuli of a night in Vegas, there’s something deeply calming about the desert once you unplug and stop fighting it. We lingered there a bit longer, but Donnie had an appointment to keep that evening back at the hangar and there were many miles between us and the Antelope Valley. Back on the road. 

After a few hours of highway cruising, a few pockets of unexpected traffic, and a raucous few miles catching up with one another [at exactly the posted speed limit] after traffic separated the pack, we stopped for a late lunch at a fabulously tacky gyro spot called the Mad Greek Cafe – which was situated off the Mojave Freeway in Baker, California. Everything was painted blue or white and you’ve never seen so many columns or statues of Grecian deities in all your life! It felt like stepping into a Greek cartoon or a John Waters movie. The food was great.

As we sat down to eat, I clocked an older guy wearing a Gulf Oil blue t-shirt with a 911 silkscreened above some text about an annual Porsche meet up. I commented on the shirt and explained that we had just put quite a few miles on the white ‘75 911 in the parking lot. The guy, named Paul Bernardo, turned out to be a Porsche lifer that’s spent over 60 years racing and wrenching on them. He was on his way back from a Porsche-specific swap meet in Chino and was delighted to share charming stories of the good old days racing around California, the follies of experimental suspension set ups, and the cars that got away. We couldn’t get enough of Paul’s tales, but it was time to hit the road. 

The final stint of the trip put us on Route 15 towards Donnie’s hangar. The highway was empty and for miles and miles, it was just our trio of cars – unobstructed and as free as when the trip first began. We swapped places in our driving order throughout; Cam wound out Jolene and her yellow-tinted headlights jutted in and out of my mirrors as Donnie cruised ahead in the Testarossa. By some incredible stroke of luck, we had timed our departure from Baker in a way that put us on one more perfectly empty desert road right at sunset. By that point I felt a deep bond with the 328 and as our little caravan pushed towards the hangar, the desert put on one last opulent show for us. With the top still off of the 328 and the cool air whipping past, I queued up Van Halen’s “Panama” on the stereo, downshifted into 3rd, and dropped the hammer, coaxing the car towards a painted sunset that grew more and more electric with each minute. As David Lee Roth howled and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar screamed, I flicked the pop-up headlights to life and cruised past the other cars in the pack. It was the final, ideal dream sequence on a drive that had been rife with them.

We pulled into Donnie’s hangar after dark, bedraggled, smiling, and exhausted. And what of the appointment Donnie had to be back for? As we moved our packs out of the vintage exotics, a flatbed pulled up with a Dino 206 GT in a lush dark green on the back. Donnie’s next patient. We stood and watched as Callaway pulled the car off the flatbed, briefly ripped it around the airfield, and said something along the lines of “Wait until I’m done with this one!”

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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