CRESTED BUTTE — The driving conditions near Crested Butte are perfect: ice-crusted and snow-packed curves winding through an absolute whiteout.
It’s a yeehaw kind of day for a cadre of professional drivers who are roaring down a course carved into a rolling cow pasture. At speeds up to 90 mph on straightaways, they slide sideways into curves, one after another, and disappear into the storm trailing huge rooster tails of snow. They are relishing the kind of weather and road conditions that would have drivers sweating bullets on Interstate 70.
This is winter driving school for customers, associates and reviewers of Maserati – a luxury car brand that doesn’t usually come to mind when Colorado motorists think of good vehicles for bad conditions. This is the brand of car more commonly envisioned purring down Rodeo Drive or roaring around a big-venue race track.
But last week, a whole fleet of Maseratis was dropped off in snow-clogged Crested Butte to make a point: Luxury SUVs and sedans named after warm Mediterranean breezes (the Levante) and African desert winds (the Ghibli) can hold their own at 8,885 feet above sea level and in an environment blanketed with nearly 4-feet of midwinter snow.
With their signature trident grill emblems and their rumbling high-horsepower sound, they were a head-turning anomaly in this funky-vibed old mining town turned ski resort – a place where mud-and-snow-crusted-Jeeps and balloon-tired snow bikes are more the norm. A basic Maserati starts at about twice what many Crested Butte service workers make in a year.
But Crested Butte has become a popular locale for winter-driving training for high-end vehicles. For seven years, luxury cars have been whizzing around a pasture south of town in winter. Aston Martins have taken to the snow track most of those years. This was the first year for the Italian-made Maserati.
Crested Butte has joined the ranks of frosty corners of the globe like Finland, where Porsche is having a winter-driving school this week, and Sweden, where a Jaguar school is scheduled next month. Iceland, Mongolia and New Zealand are also popular luxury car winter-demo locations.
Colorado has not been a total stranger to snow driving done for thrills, teachable moments and publicity rather than for struggling to get from point A to point B.
Aspen has hosted winter-driving training for Ferraris and Lamborghinis in the past. Colorado also has a well-known permanent training program for more ordinary vehicles in Steamboat Springs. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School trains drivers of any types of vehicles to drive better on snow and ice.
For Maserati’s first Crested Butte go-round – an event organized in partnership with Pirelli to show off that company’s snow tires — the town offered a bit of Wild West novelty along with a whole lot of snow and ice.
“Most of these drivers have never been here (Crested Butte) before so they are enjoying the experience along with the driving,” said Kas Rigas, head of communications for Maserati North America, as she huddled in a giant puffy coat in sideways snow.
Rigas said winter driving schools for cars that can top out at about 178 mph aren’t just about mashing pedals to the metal (with special thin-soled driving shoes) while a professional on a walkie-talkie gives instructions. Participants are wined and dined and put up in plush accommodations. They are given time to experience a location.
Their trackside headquarters is a cozy Colorado-made yurt appointed with antler chandeliers, scented candle lanterns, sheepskin chair warmers and fancy rugs. Servers pass through bearing silver trays of s-mores.
The 40 mph winds shaking the fabric top of the yurt don’t rattle the drivers preparing for their next snow runs on the event’s most challenging winter-weather day.
“It’s going to be like driving on another planet,” warns Don Harple, a longtime professional driver who can be found in pace cars for high-profile races when he isn’t teaching.
Harple is the lead drive instructor for Radius LLC, Maserati’s partner for creating the Crested Butte track, developing the training curriculum and providing the professional driving instructors for what is officially called a Winter Performance Drive event.
“I ask you as drivers to just loosen up behind the wheel,” Harple tells the drivers — automotive publication writers and tech “influencers” — before he sends them out to a track in conditions he warns can drop to zero visibility in the blink of an eye. “Loosen up your eyes to get them ready. Keep your eyes moving.”
Cows in the summer, cars in the winter
The track is on one of the many picturesque ranches along Colorado 135. It is owned by Bill Lacy, owner of Lacy Construction earth-moving company. Each year, just after the grazing cattle are moved out of his rental pastures, Lacy invites the track builders to move in and specify how the track should be graded and bermed for maximum thrills and teaching moments.
Edward Gwythel, a Brit who works with Radius, said he had been working with Lacy’s crew to shape the track since Thanksgiving, when he first came to Crested Butte to map out the course. Once the snow started flying, the crew began packing the track and spraying it with water to create layers of ice – all the better to demonstrate Maserati’s “ICE mode.”
That mode, accessed by the push of a button, technically has nothing to do with ice except that it does throttle the vehicles down on curves, tames the pedal response and makes shifting smoother.
At Harple’s invitation, the non-professional drivers could choose to forego that mode and “go rodeo” inside their comfortable cockpits with heated leather seats and steering wheels, and a screen showing them a 360-degree top-down view of the vehicle from built-in cameras.
The three-day Maserati driving school had a full day set aside at the track for the media and influencers who will tell the car-focused world about how the Maseratis do in snow.
Vincent Nguyen, the founder of Phoenix-based digital tech review site, SlashGear, travels around the globe reviewing vehicles and technical devices, and he was totally pumped about his drive in a blizzard that froze his outside-mounted camera.
“It’s challenging out there, but the car handled really well,” said Nguyen, who drives a Honda Odyssey when he is back in Arizona with the family and not trying out a brand that ranges from around $70,000 to $150,000 without any fancy add-ons.
Aaron Cole, the Denver-based managing editor of Internet Brands Automotive Group, was one of those more familiar with Colorado driving conditions, but he was also one of those who ended up in a Maserati stuck in a snowbank.
“I wasn’t driving,” he quickly pointed out. “I was a passenger.”
Those that slid off had to be pulled out by a Dodge Ram pickup truck – a vehicle more familiar to the ranches around Crested Butte than a Maserati.
The last day of the Maserati event in Crested Butte took place in bluebird conditions. The Maserati and Pirelli flags were fluttering rather than violently flapping. The surrounding mountains offered a jaw-dropping view rather than mere suggestions of peaks.
Maserati officials unveiled a new sports package that makes basic Maseratis look “more aggressive” for customers who don’t want to drive around in just any old unenhanced Maserati. The Blu Emozione, Bianco Alpi and Grigio-colored Maseratis sparkled on the track in high contrast to the slush-covered vehicles trundling down Colorado 135, speed limit 55 mph.
The Maseratis streaked across the snow, in sight of the Crested Butte-bound drivers, but in another world.
Rigas said Maserati will be evaluating that world for a possible return in the future.