From winner's circle to workshop: Racer Nicky Pastorelli's journey to preserving classic cars

Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photography by Shayan Bokaie

Eventually, every professional athlete faces the end, when the time comes to hang up the spikes or the helmet and concede that the pursuit to which they’ve dedicated their entire life can no longer define their days. Many athletes resist this moment for as long as possible. For others, like Nicky Pastorelli, this moment comes as a relief.

Pastoreli shopPastoreli shop

By the time he retired in 2019, racing had defined Pastorelli’s life for more than a quarter of a century. Born in The Hague to an Italian father and a Dutch mother, Pastorelli grew up around the workshop of his father, Franco. It was here where the young Pastorelli learned the basics of automotive restoration by helping his dad work on everything from classic Ferrari 330 GTCs to more modern Testarossas. On weekends, Pastorelli would tag along to the local oval tracks around Holland where Franco raced little econoboxes like the Fiat 131 against his fellow enthusiasts. Before long, Pastorelli had caught the bug and was pestering Franco to take him to the karting circuits.

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“I had to ask him many, many, many times to bring me to a go-kart track, which he didn't want to do,” says Pastorelli. “He thought it would not be a good career choice for me, but I insisted so much that he had no choice. And so, when I was 10 years old, after asking him a million times, he brought me to a go-kart track and that's when my racing career started.”

Very quickly, Pastorelli’s life took on a single focus: to become a professional racing driver at the highest level. He was willing to do whatever it took.

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“I was about twelve years old and my dad gave me the choice,” recalls Pastorelli. “He said, 'Listen, I will support you if you commit 100%, but that means that you have to leave everything else and go for it. If you're not willing to do that, we stop here.'"

Pastorelli was committed. By the age of twenty-one, he was the 2004 European Formula 3000 champion. A year later, he was appointed the official Formula 1 test-driver for the Jordan Midland F1 team. In 2006, Pastorelli made the jump across the ocean to race in the Champ Car series in North America, followed by stints racing Porsche 911s in the American Le Mans Series, where he earned his reputation as a skilled endurance racer. In 2013, he won the GT Open championship in a Corvette C6 GT1.  

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“First I had racing, which I loved and I was able to make it my job. Now I have my second passion for restoring cars.

Through it all, however, Pastorelli knew that there was more to a successful racing career than simply being fast. 

"Being fast is maybe 40% of it," says Pastorelli, "and I'm good behind the wheel and in terms of the technical aspects, but I could have been a better race car driver if I was more skilled at the politics and the social side of it."

Pastorelli shop

Shortly after winning the GT Open title, a friend came to Pastorelli with a request. This friend had recently purchased a 1952 Ferrari 212 and wondered if Pastorelli would spearhead the restoration. Pastorelli’s post-racing future, it turned out, had just shown up on his doorstep. 

"I managed the whole restoration and it went really well and I really enjoyed it," says Pastorelli. "At the same time, it was also the start of this company, which I thought I'd build in my spare time but it grew immediately and started to take over the time I had for racing."

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Retirement from any job opens the door to a new life – one that is both exciting and uncertain – but professional athletes face a unique challenge. Not only are they faced with the end of their childhood dreams, but they must also replace the adrenaline, the competition, and the accolades that came with a life in the spotlight. Moreover, whereas most new retirees are easing into the twilight of their lives, athletes face this moment at a relatively young age – in Pastorelli’s case, at age thirty-six. Fortunately for Pastorelli, he was pulled out of racing by the excitement of new opportunities – specifically, the focus on growing Pastorelli Classics, his restoration business that he now runs with friend Joost Keijzer – rather than pushed out against this will. Not that he disappeared from racing entirely, however: Pastorelli still gets plenty of seat time in both vintage races throughout Europe as well as in the role of test driver for various racing teams. Unlike his early racing days, however, Pastorelli is now able to pick and choose his opportunities.

Pastorelli shop

"It was a relief [when I stepped aside from full-time racing in 2019] because I was not financially dependent on it anymore," says Pastorelli. "I was very lucky because I had a lot of nice opportunities to do things that I liked in racing, meaning a lot of classic car races, a lot of testing in classic cars, so everything happened at the right moment in my life." 

On most days now, Pastorelli can be found at his shop in Maranello, Italy, where he and his team of craftsmen work on everything from classics like a 1956 Maserati 300S and a Ferrari 250 Lusso to a Lamborghini Diablo GT1 car and a 1992 Peugeot 905 Group C car, a spaceship of a race car that reminds Pastorelli of just how far he has come in life.

Pastorelli shopPastorelli shop

"I remember seeing this car on TV and on some race tracks [back in the 1990s]," says Pastorelli. "For me, it was something out of this world. I would've never imagined that I'd get to drive one or to work on one. And now we have it in our workshop, so that's quite special for me."

Charlie Gehringer, the Hall of Fame second basemen for the Detroit Tigers in the early 20th century, once said of professional athletes, “First we play, then we retire, then we go to work.” Nicky Pastorelli, however, may have found a loophole in this “go to work” rule.

pastorelli shoppastorelli shop

“First I had racing, which I loved and I was able to make it my job.” says Pastorelli, “Now I have my second passion [for restoring cars]. If I compare [restoration] with racing, maybe I like restoration even more because it is less about politics and the people that I'm working with really feel like a team, like a family.”

A young Nicky Pastorelli would be pretty impressed if he could see what his future self gets to do for a living nowadays. 

“Old Nicky,” says Pastorelli, “thinks it’s pretty cool, too.”

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Meet our contributors

Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive. You can see more from him by checking out his Instagram (@aaronwmckenzie).

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