The Last Gentlemen Racers

  • Paul Dean

They race to few cheers before grandstands containing only a scattering of spectators—just friends and families. Speed Channel does not televise their heats and finals. They are perennial second bananas, auto racing’s repertory company, the warm-up acts for the headliners, the F/1 and GT drivers who have made it to The Show.

They could also be auto racing’s worst investors, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars when the only tangible return is a silver-plated bowl worth $40. However, these men and the occasional woman do not feed on applause, purses, or podium poses in this private racing world of theirs. Their rewards are the races themselves, when they campaign identical Ferraris—motoring history’s finest sports-racing cars—and experience the rush of pegging a tachometer and achieving 170 mph on the historic circuits: Laguna Seca and Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta and Lime Rock.

And then once every fall, they fly to Italy, where they go wheel-to-wheel, grille-to-tail, and occasionally fender into door with drivers from a dozen European countries. Do well on the circuit and the prizes are a chronograph awarded by Girard-Perregaux and that inexpensive silver bowl suddenly made priceless because it is presented by the unbeatable Michael Schumacher. Simply hanging in during the competition merits photos with Schumacher (while wearing an identical driving suit in Ferrari scarlet) and a chat with his bosses: Jean Todt, director of Ferrari’s F/1 program, and Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s young chairman.

Best of all, for one shining moment and for much more than 15 minutes, all drivers become a small part of the greatest motorsports dynasty ever. Their names are written in company annuals and history books, where such American unknowns as Earle, Peterson, Kenton, and Anassis are listed only 12 pages back from racing’s household heroes: Ascari, Barrichello, Schumacher, Ickx, Andretti.

This special niche, the Ferrari 360 Challenge, is a series that for more than a decade has stood as the last bastion of gentlemen’s racing. It is a throwback to the sport’s beginning years, when factory teams seemed to attract the moneyed, successful, well-schooled, and often titled amateur sportsmen with fortunes and guts to burn: Prince Bira, Tony Brooks, Wolfgang Von Trips, Sir Tim Birkin, Dr. Dudley Benjafield, Baron d’Erlanger.

During that era, the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, when sports actually involved sportsmanship, the rules of motor racing were like an unspoken knight’s code. Drive hard but clean. Salute the man who passes you. Console the driver you have passed. To smack into another car was a stain on male honor. Champagne was for toasting, not spraying.

In such a spirit, Ferrari formed the 360 Challenge in 1993 with no openings—at least in the United States—for professional drivers, past or present, or any youthful hot shoe hoping to become one. The Italians have chosen to ignore this requirement, and so they have been crammed into a division of their own, where blocking and shunting is habitual.

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