Quest For Driving Perfection: GTO Europe Adventures Part 1

About two years ago, I received orders to Italy, and at the time I really didn’t know much about the country. Well, at least not much outside of the fact that it’s headquarters of Ferrari and Lamborghini. So, like any reasonable car enthusiast, I consulted Top Gear BBC with all of my questions concerning Italy. At the time, Season 18 Episode One, just so happened to air the same day I received word of my next assignment.

This particular episode consisted of a Super Car Challenge where the guys start in Lecce and drive to Rome, which ends the episode. Once fully informed with my new found knowledge of Italy from Top Gear’s educational special, I created my dream sheet, packed my stuff, and shipped my car to Naples.

My beloved GTO is a 2005 M6 and has the 6.0-liter LS2 versus the 5.7 LS1 that the ’04s came with. At the time she had never left the states and only had about 73 thousand miles on the clock prior to shipping. The importation process was, in my case, limited to those who military members on orders greater than two years in length. It was pretty straight forward and nothing the local personal property office can’t help you with on base. The wait for me was just over two months before I would see her again. Shortly after my GTO arrived, I wanted to get a feel for the local scene and see what it had to offer. I took a drive through downtown Naples and it was a bit surreal.

Simply rumbling through the streets with a feeling of displacement greater than anyone in the entire city (literally), and seeing the reflection of the Impulse Blue metallic paint in the window of the cafe and gelato shops really put being in Italy into perspective. Especially considering how different just driving in general is compared to the states. There aren’t speed traps and patrol cars like you’re used to, locals don’t generally have the same road etiquette as one may be used to. As a local friend had explained put it, “We’re not so much worried about the rules, as long as we know what you’re going to do.” Not to mention, there are speed camera’s everywhere, but not all of them (if any of them) work.

After a while, I searched Facebook Groups and the international section of the Ls1GTO forums looking for local car meets, and came across one called “Ipercoop.” As it turned out, Ipercoop was just a store where local speaker car (a type of hot rodding in Europe) enthusiasts hung out at on the weekends.

It was much like your typical weekend meet, except with Fiats and Alfa Romeos with more audio work than engine under the hood. Eventually, I did attend my first track day at a tiny track called “Circuito Internazionale Di Limatola,” just outside of Casserta (about 45 minutes or so from Naples). This was not only my first larger car show, but also my first time on the track in the GTO. It was an, uh … interesting, experience to say the least, especially being a long time drag racer myself.

Photos from Limatola

Not to be intimidated, it couldn’t be that bad, and took it head on. Two or three spin outs on the track later, and I thought I had the hang of it (and removed the dirt from my wheel wells too). I even placed third behind a Ferrari F430 Scuderia whose driver seemed really adamant to make a statement at the track. The backdrop, complete with vineyards, cottages, and tiny towns in the far distance, definitely made the trip that much more enjoyable.

As much as I loved the meet and greet events, the only thing that really mattered were the drives in the country side. I did a day trip through the Abruzzo Mountain area one weekend after Limatola. It is a very popular spot for motorcycles and road drivers alike. The only problem is, I never actually made it to Abruzzo because I got lost. After driving around for over an hour, I decided I was going to drive on someone’s mountain that day. I ended up in Cervaro because I took the wrong exit a few miles too early. I drove until the road started to go up the mountain and the scenery became really nice. I got to a point where I figured I should turn around before I get myself really lost. However, the drive was great, the weather was picturesque, the car sounded awesome, and I managed not to get even more lost than I already was, so all in all it was a good day.

The Amalfi Coast is a very windy drive along the coast that goes for about 11 miles or so. Above is one of the spots you can pull over to take a quick picture.

Shortly after my Cervaro escapade, I attended the Rome Tuning Show at the Fiera Di Roma (a type of convention center).  It can be compared to the U.S. Sema Show and it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting from the home of Ferrari and Lamborghini. I just assumed I’d walk into room after room of Italian Sports cars ranging from mild to wild. So, I entered the GTO in the show just as an excuse to have exclusive access to everything in the convention center.

There was everything from 500 plus horsepower Ford Escort Cosworth, to a YSi Supercharged LS3 Camaro. I managed to take plenty photographs, and even rode in a stunt car on two wheels for five euro (about $7 USD).  I found myself in a rev contest with the turbo Toyota Supra parked across from me. All in all was a good time and definitely something to add to your to-do list if you find yourself in Rome around that time of year.

I did finally make it to Abruzzo — in the snow might I add. It was stunning and better than I could have imagined. There is a tunnel at the bottom of the mountain, just before the last town prior to entering the pass, that makes an excellent acoustic testing facility, coupled with a lot of constant elevation changes and hairpin turns to keep a good pace without getting carried away.

I arrived near the peak of this mountain only to learn that people sled down the snow packed sides. They also parked awkwardly in the street, requiring one to really slow down and creep by — after which, it was back to business as normal. Lots of dense forestry and light rocky edges lined the road until it opened up into a beautiful snow-draped valley.

Next up was the Vallelunga Track track day, which was hosted by a very popular Italian car magazine “Elaborare,” at the world famous ACI Vallelunga Circuit. Having learned a bit from my previous track outing, I was pretty sure I was ready to take on a really well-known road course. I was bound and determined to bring a fresh dose of ‘Murica to the event — being the only large V8 there — or so I thought. I showed up expecting more speaker cars with the occasional bolt-on streetcar here and there at the track.

However, what I arrived to instead was the Ferrari Club, Porsche Club, Lotus Club, a classic car club, and an American car enthusiast club with a Knight Rider replica, complete with the red strobe and all. Admittedly, I was really hoping to breeze through everything on the track with exception of the GTR and a 911 GT2, who, for whatever reason, were in my group.

Two laps in and I realized how much GM short-changed me on my braking and overall handling capabilities of the GTO. Three more laps in and I realized that I not only needed to go back to the drawing board, but my clutch gave up the ghost and I was getting passed by everything, including a diesel 1.6-liter turbo Fiat. It wasn’t all bad, because I saw some very nice cars, and I got in some much needed seat time. Remember, my end goal was getting enough confidence and more importantly, experience-to take on the infamous Nurburgring.

The fifth turn before the front straight, with an iffy clutch (plus all the other internet excuses) I had quite a time fighting off all the tiny cars behind me.

In the midst of the events and weekend trips my wife and I (who was my girlfriend at the time), also the navigator, started planning a major road trip, which had an estimated 3,112 miles round trip,  according to Google maps. I spent several weeks ordering parts to ensure the car was ready to go.

I was really excited to see a Pro-Mod GTO here in Germany.

The following morning we headed north out of Italy as our first stop was Ramstein Air Force base in Ramstein Germany. We had plans to attend the Nitro Olympx at the Hockenheimring. I had never heard of the Nitro Olympx outside of a suggestion someone had given me and insisted that I go. It was very much like any NHRA event you’ve ever seen — except with a German twist. Teams from all over Europe drove, what were in some cases, retired cars from American teams back home.

The Hockenheimring has a drag strip on it’s back straight that reminded me a lot of Pomona Raceway. For a little while, I almost forgot we were in Germany. Hockenheimring aside,we also managed to see some back country and came across a little town called Speyer. As luck would have it, the town was having a celebration, complete with local food, and more importantly- genuine German beer! We eventually made it back to the hotel later that evening to prepare for our next destination: Brussels, Belgium. My navigator insisted that I wait for the one reason I absolutely had to have this trip, the Nurburgring.

This is by far, to just about anyone remotely excited about driving around corners, the best track in the world. Some never get a chance to drive it beyond their game console, and even less have done it in their own personal car, military or not. I started out with a pep talk to the girlfriend and the kids (the Ring during most days, has what’s called tourist rides, with set speed limits and rules for all to experience it, so kids are okay to ride). Complete with a warning about motion sickness and the elevation changes. Amusingly, her response was “Sure, yeah, whatever lets just get this over with.”

The kids were excited, I was definitely excited, and after a short wait in the queue, we were off. I hardly made it to the original start/stop line and it hit her … we’re on a race track. Needless to say, the Nurburgring was a lot better than I imagined, and not as scary as internet warriors made it sound. If you’re not carrying serious speed and have the ability to brake and turn as well as at least an M3 ,don’t be on the left side of the track.

If you’re like me and simply stay right, ride the slower line, and watch for faster cars, you are doing good. Don’t get me wrong, I could have stayed on the left side but I just did not have the braking and tire to do so safely.
Well, that combined with my wife shouting, “SLOW DOWN SLOW DOWN AAAHHHHHHH WE’RE GOING TO DIE!” I couldn’t really go hard in the proverbial paint. The kids had a blast. I laughed so hard I almost cried, and we moved on through Brussels to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, and Munich over the next couple of days.

To be honest, we only spent about a day & a half in both Brussels and Amsterdam we really only had time for a few pictures and to eat. The drives in between combined some of the best roads through America found in a few hours compared to the amount of days it would have taken in the states. Far Western Europe is a lot like driving though California. In that the roads are nicely paved with modern places to stop and pull over for emergencies. This continued to be the case from Amsterdam back into Germany.

By this time my wife had learned to take heedto my driving warning and decided to read a book while I enjoyed Passo dello Stelvio. Through Austria to Northern Italy.

The last piece of this trip that seemed as the icing on the cake was Stelvio’s Pass. We started on the Austrian side leading to the top and finishing just outside of Bormio, in Northern Italy. By this time, my wife had learned to take heed to my driving warnings and decided to read a book while I enjoyed Passo dello Stelvio. This, in a nut shell, capped off our trip as we checked into our hotel and started talking about our next road trip. The entire experience became aptly named “GTO Europe Adventures.”

Photo gallery

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About the author

Cardea Blue

Cardea Blue has been writing off and on for the past few years while on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Having traveled the world doing what he loves, he picked up a few things about the car scene abroad. Current projects include a '98 WS6, '05 GTO, and a V6 Firebird. Cardea's primary passions are engines, no matter the make or manufacturer. He is a freelance contributor for Power Automedia.
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