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.

Each driver buys his stock 360 Modena (in earlier seasons the cars were the now outmoded 348, then the 355) from a Ferrari dealer who prepares it for racing with six-point seat belts, a roll cage, fire-extinguishing system, racing seats, Pirelli slicks, and performance tweaks to suspension and brakes. Engines may not be modified. The dealer stores and maintains the car between races, transports it to the track, provides a repair and maintenance team to keep it racing, and hauls the car back to the store at the end of the event.

Enter the Italians again. They do not, claimed some of last year’s Ferrari challengers, exactly restructure their engines, but they have been known to tear them apart on delivery, blueprint the parts, and reassemble the whole, which is always good for a bonus in horsepower. “Our teams have two or three mechanics at the track whose day jobs are working on Ferrari road cars for dealers,” says one American racer, not as a complaint, but as a comparison of driver skills and a comment on the level of this playing field. “The Italians usually have a five- or six-man team of professional racing mechanics who spend months working on their cars. Then the Italian driver practices all year on the Italian circuit until he knows it like the back of his hand. We arrive at the track a week before the event and barely have enough time to make sure our decals are on straight.”

Yet the Americans, with their ranks bolstered by several Canadians, continue to come to Italy and compete valiantly, usually earning some podium time for finishing in the top half of the international pack. For them, there is satisfaction in simply being in the Italian finals and wearing Old Glory (or Canada’s equally glorious Maple Leaf/l’Unifolie) into battle against more than a dozen other nations.
 
The trip to Italy is preceded by a six-race North American season that this year begins April 1 at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and concludes August 7 at the Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wis. The season also includes events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (May 13 through 15), Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal (June 10 through 12), Mont Tremblant in Quebec (June 24 through 26), and Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn. (July 7 through 9). The 2005 Italian finals will be held in October on dates and a track still to be determined.

The 360 Challenge has evolved into a series tolerant of serious learners but with little patience for poseurs. “There are a lot of jokes about white wine–drinking, but when you look around, you’ll see people very serious about what they are doing,” says Jeff Ehoodin, public relations manager for Ferrari of North America. “To become part of Ferrari’s racing experience lends much to the seriousness of the Challenge.”

Serious, indeed. With an entry fee for the season of $17,500, the price of a few racing extras, airfares and personal expenses, plus the $180,000 cost of the car, some Challenge budgets have tickled $500,000 a year. Ehoodin describes the Challenge as “the centerpiece of what Ferrari is all about: getting back to client racing, which Enzo Ferrari started in the ’40s.” Not incidentally, he adds, the series creates endless marketing, sales, and public relations benefits for Ferrari and its dealers.

The Challenge’s maiden meet 12 years ago at Willow Springs International Raceway north of Los Angeles produced what has become the typical field of drivers. It included among the three dozen middling- to high-rolling racers a Connecticut investment banker, Elton John’s drummer from Liverpool, a San Antonio orthopedic surgeon, and a Toronto television producer.

The Texas surgeon was Steve Earle, who won multiple Challenge titles, became consumed by racing, eventually turned professional, and drove a Ferrari 360 GT at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Earle has said that racing is his reward for success at marriage, medicine, raising five children, and “begging mother [his wife] for three years so she would let me go racing.”

Jim Kenton, a pharmaceutical executive from Lake Forest, Ill., also was at Willow Springs for that inaugural event. His biography from that year’s Challenge program lists his previous racing experience as “Watching ESPN.” But Kenton stayed with the sport for a decade and was the Challenge’s points champion for 2003. “You get out of that car after laps at speed, and the feeling is just absolute exhilaration,” he once said. “And it’s not just the speed. Anybody can mash that throttle and go fast in a straight line. No, it’s putting together one lap where everything works. It’s finding every apex, every exit, and putting all nine corners together. Being smooth, being comfortable, being quick. The pleasure is absolute, knowing you have done something well.”

Last year’s field upheld the tradition of placing professional careers before amateur competition. One event or another included a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens with a risk clause in his contract preventing him from driving in the finals, a female financial management consultant who donated her sponsorship money (drivers can have sponsors) to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and a Hollywood-based producer for the Rolling Stones.
The competition also included Emmanuel Anassis of Montreal, a husband, father of two daughters, bulldog on the track, and flier of relief missions to wherever there is war, famine, or disease in Africa. “This [the Challenge] is about half the risk of that [flying in Africa],” says Anassis, noting that he often returns his car to the pits without a scratch. “But I wish I had a dollar for every time I found a bullet hole in my airplane.”

Anassis has found a kinship between racing a Ferrari and flying a De Havilland Buffalo. “The engineering, the challenge of the machinery—since they both began, cars and airplanes have been so related,” he says. “A driver operates within three dimensions, needs to feel the car, must apply focus, knows weather is always a factor, and has to drive in formation. Flying requires the same considerations.”

Another Challenger, Kurt Carlson, is seen by some as a magnet for excitement. An Army Reservist, Carlson served during Desert Storm, and in 1985 was a passenger aboard TWA Flight 847 when it was hijacked in Athens and flown to Beirut. One American sailor was shot by the terrorists and tossed to the tarmac. Maj. Carlson would have been next had the crew and hostages not been rescued.

Competition, Carlson says, is the seduction he finds in the 360 Challenge. “So many things have to go right for everything to go well, and I find that stimulating,” he explains. “And it’s more a matter of competition with yourself. They call it a challenge, and my friend the heart surgeon says that the excitement of a challenge is what keeps us young and alive longer.”

Doug Peterson, who owns design engineering companies, is always tussling with the series’ point leaders and has had his fair share of podium finishes. He says he races in part because it gives him an incentive to stay in good physical shape. The 360 Challenge also provides him with a sense of bonhomie and fraternity. “Although we compete on the track, we still help each other out with parts or advice,” says Peterson. “Someone will ask me, ‘What gear are you using in the chute, third or fourth?’ I’ll tell ’em, ‘Fourth, always.’ Unless it is Emmanuel [Anassis]. I’ll tell him, ‘Third, of course.’ ”

And so they came to Italy—Peterson, Carlson, and Anassis, along with seven other Americans and Canadians—to practice and race at the Monza Autodrome, a few kilometers northeast of Milan. Opened in 1922, it is the world’s third-oldest racing circuit, only a few years younger than the Indianapolis Speedway and Brooklands in England.

In weather that ranged from dry to damp to monsoons, the North Americans ran for five days, sharing the occasion with the owners of classic and modern Maseratis and Ferraris, older Grand Prix cars that spewed the sweet stink of Castrol racing oil, and a batch of new but retired and still fiercely fast F/1 Ferraris. The five days were like Pebble Beach with pasta or Le Mans with lesser wines.
 
Peterson won trophies for being the first American to take the checkered flag in a pair of preliminary races, and Anassis earned the largest silver bowl for collecting the most victories and points during the North American season. Four trophies for place finishes and sportsmanship went to Todd Morici, a New Jersey real estate developer, biometric expert, and construction company owner, whose father, 78-year-old Jerry Morici, still races Lotus cars.

Minutes before grid time on the Sunday of the world finals, the drivers indulged in fond rituals. Anassis, his wife, Mylene, and their young daughters, Olivia and Chloe, hugged as a group and prayed. Maria Homann, who manages the 360 Challenge for Ferrari of North America, visited each car to hold its driver’s hand. On a less spiritual note, Mary Lynn Morici gathered her female friends, who advanced on her husband’s car, did a 180 at his 360, and gave the fenders a butt-rub for good luck.

The grid was as expected, with those feisty Italians choking the first six rows. Peterson managed a position in the middle of the pack on row 11.  Anassis, his car plagued in the qualifying heats by engine problems and then a rain-saturated circuit, was the last to arrive on the grid. Such starting positioning always has been the reality faced by the North American drivers, but an overall win against the quasi-professional Europeans was never in any of their plans. They were here to race against their North American peers, to be as quick as the conditions and the competition allowed. And if a few Italians were passed in the process, then ciao, baby, and hurrah for our continent.

The North Americans fought the 16-lap battle well for more than half an hour, deriving the greatest satisfaction from the little things. Anassis plowed from last place to the second spot among the North American contingent, and Peterson’s fastest lap was only three seconds slower than that of eventual winner Nicola Cadei, who, of course, is from Italy.

Peterson moved up to finish 15th overall, first among the North Americans and less than a minute behind the race leader; Anassis was only two places and scant seconds behind; Morici finished third among the North Americans; and a few Italians were indeed passed in the process.

The mood was ebullient as the drivers wriggled from their cars and returned to the pits. They spoke in concert, sentences overlapping. “The car handled beautifully . . . But I had contact, then this guy spun in front of me in the chicane . . . It was pushing in the turns, I would get on the curbs and the back end was coming up . . . I’d get a little distance on Jim, stand on the brakes in the turn, and next time I looked in the mirror there was Jimmy . . . It was a fight out there and you killed me, you killed me . . . I had absolutely the worst start. You went right past me when it wasn’t even green . . . .”

Anassis, the quick-starting culprit, finally burst through the babble. “Ah,” he cried, “but when in Rome.”

Ferrari 360 Challenge, www.ferrarichallenge.com

Read Next Article >>
The lots include Carroll Shelby’s personal Shelby Cobra 427 Super Snake, which previously fetched $...
The new concept suggests that Bentley is gunning for the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé…
Patrick Gosling
The McLaren GTR Driver Program puts P1 GTR owners on the track with a dedicated race team…
Daimler AG - Global Communications Mercedes-Benz Cars
Robb Report runs the all-new sports car through its paces at the Laguna Seca raceway…
Photo by Scott Williamson/ www.photodesignstudios.com; Automobile courtesy Boulevard Motorcar Company
1948 Delahaye 135M Figoni et Falaschi Narval Cabriolet. The Delahaye Narval, the fantastic...
The new bike was put through its paces during a ride around California’s Salton Sea...
When the fourth-annual Austrian Alpine Rally set off from the starting line in Vienna on the...
Photo by UWE@FISCHER
The new “sport activity coupe,” as BMW calls it, drives with a nimbleness that defies its size…
Photo by Richard Prince
Chevy’s new supercar aims to redefine the American muscle car…
Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions
Mercedes-Benz 300 SLc are soaring at auction...