Red Mist: Ferrari Challenge

Robert Viva Ferrari North America

Wearing a scarlet firesuit festooned with sponsor logos, Robert Herjavec slides between the stout metal tubes of a factory-installed roll cage and slips into the race seat of his Ferrari 458 Challenge.

Herjavec's 562-hp car is prepped by professional race mechanics from Ferrari of Ontario, which runs a full-on Grand-Am program. (A professionally built racing car like this turned faster lap times than the GT machines in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.) He will be racing on the Autódromo José Carlos Pace at Interlagos, home of the Brazilian Grand Prix. Up in Race Control, the action will be monitored by longtime Grand-Am official Mark Raffauf and Ferrari Challenge head driver coach Didier Theys, who won Daytona and Sebring in 1998 in a Ferrari 333SP. They'll be watching footage provided by the same film crew that broadcasts the traditional season-ending Formula 1 race here. Basically, everything about the event is professional -- except the drivers. Which is exactly the point of the Ferrari Challenge.

"I know this sounds funny because I'm not Fernando Alonso or Felipe Massa," says Herjavec, a wildly successful, cigar-smoking technology entrepreneur who's achieved national celebrity as a panelist on the television show Shark Tank. "But Ferrari does a fantastic job of creating an experience that's special and unique, and I really feel like I'm part of the Ferrari team."

Twenty years ago, the Ferrari Challenge was inaugurated to give Ferrari customers a chance to play big-time race car driver for a weekend in a relaxed but exclusive setting that burnished brand image and fostered marque loyalty. The Ferrari formula -- single-make racing for well-heeled gentleman drivers -- has worked equally well for Porsche, and premium carmakers such as Maserati, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and Lotus have launched similar series.

Nobody, however, puts on a better show than Ferrari. It begins with the 458 Italia street car, which is so capable that it needs only minor modifications to go racing. Moreover, the Ferrari name carries enough cachet to attract fans and sponsors in surprisingly large numbers. The organizers of the Ferrari Challenge understand how to coddle clients with a program that couples the trappings of major-league professional racing with the posh amenities of a five-star country club. As Remo Ferri, president of three Canadian Ferrari dealerships, puts it: "It's a private racing club."

Still, the most important element to the success of the Ferrari Challenge is how thoroughly it's been embraced by Ferrari itself at both the local sales and corporate levels. Here in Brazil, the garages are full not only of Ferrari dealers but also what seems to be the entire staff of Ferrari North America, up to and including president Marco Mattiacci, a charismatic and almost unfairly handsome Italian who speaks a delightfully cosmopolitan brand of English.

Yes, Mattiacci acknowledges, the Ferrari Challenge is a business. But it's also a passion born of the DNA of a marque that began life as a race car manufacturer and still considers motorsports its raison d'etre. "We're not just establishing a relationship with the customers. We're creating a bond," he says. "And our customers become ambassadors for the brand."

The first Ferrari Challenge race was held in France in 1993, and the concept migrated to the United States the next year. At the time, Ferrari's motorsports program was in the doldrums. The Formula 1 team hadn't won a race since 1990, and there was no factory presence in any other racing series. The Ferrari Challenge reestablished the company's grassroots connection -- insofar as the term "grassroots" applies to Ferraris -- to the amateur drivers who'd once flown the company flag in sports car races, hill-climbs, and rallies all over the world.

In the beginning, the rules stipulated that customers had to buy street cars from dealers and then convert them into race cars. It's worth noting that this was the era of the 348, which is often described as the worst Ferrari ever built. Cynics suggest that the 348 Challenge was established, in part, to get rid of cars that had proven to be largely unsellable in the retail market.

Over the years, the series worked its way through the progressively better F355, F360, and F430, but the 458 Challenge, introduced for the 2011 season, was an order of magnitude better than its predecessors. Priced at roughly $300,000, Ferrari Challenge 458s come off the assembly line capable of more than 200 mph with the stock V-8 engine -- rated at 562 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque and -- and gearbox. Performance upgrades are limited largely to center-lock hubs, slick tires, revised gear ratios, and competition springs and dampers.

That doesn't sound like much. But when a Ferrari Challenge 458 comes screaming up the front straight at Inter-lagos and then snarls down through the gears with three deeply satisfying, fully automatic blips of the throttle before bending into turn 1, it sounds like a proper race car. It looks mean, too. But best of all, the 458 is a perfect weapon for amateur drivers.

The mid-engine architecture produces benign handling characteristics, and the dual-clutch, paddle-shift automatic transmission makes changing gears a can't-miss proposition. The lack of wings and splitters means drivers don't have to deal with the vagaries of aerodynamic grip. In terms of driver aids, the cars come with antilock brakes as well as a reasonably unobtrusive and easily adjustable traction and stability control system, which is turned off by the quicker drivers.

"They're elegant cars," says driver coach Craig Stanton, a longtime pro who has spent much of his time in Porsche 911s. "The 911 is a bit more raw, and you have to drive it more aggressively. These cars are so stable and so easy to drive. They do everything you ask them to do."

Ferrari Challenge cars must be bought and campaigned through dealerships. In the early years, dealership technicians handled race prep and trackside support for the series. These days, though, it's no longer possible to shut down street-car service departments while techs wrench on racing cars. So today, many dealerships contract with professional racing operations such as Extreme Speed Motorsports, which runs a prototype program in the American Le Mans Series, or with a team of longtime Indy-car mechanics put together by crew chief Bobby Golasinski.

Whether outsourced or run in-house, race teams are responsible for keeping customers happy. "Some guys want this to be fantasy camp with all the bells and whistles," says Ryan Negri, who runs The Auto Gallery Motorsports team. "If they want them, we can provide motorhomes and private jets. But some guys just want to go racing. I look at it as managing show horses."

While the mechanics in the series are seasoned pros, the drivers are strictly gentlemen (and very occasionally ladies), usually of a certain age and most definitely by design. Several years ago, seventeen-year-old Jeff Segal made his racing debut by winning a race during his first Ferrari Challenge weekend. Shortly thereafter, he was politely but strongly discouraged from continuing to compete in the series. (He's now the reigning Grand-Am GT champ -- driving a 458.)

"We protect the gentleman drivers very specifically from professional drivers," says Maria Homann-McNeil, the series manager since 1999. "We also don't want professional teams to develop and rent cars. The drivers here own their own cars. We think this makes the racing more sportsmanlike. You don't see any animosity in the paddock. The drivers become a family."

Many of them have followed the path taken by forty-one-year-old lighting entrepreneur Chris Ruud, who began with track days and club races before moving up to the no-muss, no-fuss world of the Ferrari Challenge. "I love the arrive-and-drive aspect of the series," he says. "And I love being in a spec series because you can tell how good you are compared to the other drivers."

Here at Interlagos, the man to beat is John Farano, who won last's year GS championship in Grand-Am with pro driver David Empringham. But Farano, a Canadian businessman with a buttoned-down, no-nonsense manner, competes in the Ferrari Challenge precisely because he sometimes wants a respite from the pressure and ruthlessness of pro racing. "I'm not a professional driver," he says. "But when I'm at a pro weekend, I do everything the pro drivers do, and if that means staying late to study data, that's what I do. When I do a Ferrari Challenge weekend, I'm there to have fun. If I'm fastest in practice, I'm going to have a beer afterward."

At the other end of the spectrum is John Taylor, an affable sixty-five-year-old Texas entrepreneur who's never lost his broad Oklahoma accent. Taylor started buying Ferraris about ten years ago, and he probably wouldn't have gone racing if the Ferrari Challenge hadn't been there to welcome him. "My goals were pretty simple," he says. "I didn't want to be a danger to myself. I didn't want to be a danger to the other drivers on the track. And I didn't want to finish last."

Like most of the drivers, Taylor has hired a private coach -- in his case, two-time Rolex 24-winner Terry Borcheller. On the other hand, owners don't have to spend money on upgraded components to keep up with the Joneses since all parts are spec'd. (Graphics, however, can be personalized. Herjavec, for example, has decorated his car with shark teeth.) As a result, cheating is effectively a nonissue. As Theys says, "It's very easy to see if someone is going too fast."

Still, the Ferrari Challenge isn't for racers on a tight budget. Doing a full seven-race season, plus some testing, will cost more than $250,000, not including the price of the car. This includes high-profile races that are on the undercard of the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the F1 weekends at Montreal and Austin. But the other four events are, like the weekend in Brazil, all Ferrari, all the time.

At Interlagos, track time is reserved solely for twenty 458 Challenges as well as six 599XXs and four F1 cars, which are run through the XX and Corse Clienti programs, respectively. When you stroll through the pits, it feels like a weird-but-wonderful alternate universe where red is the dominant color and prancing horses are more common than house cats. Still, it's not clear how entertaining the action is going to be. These are outrageously expensive cars, after all, and the drivers don't have much experience. Sure enough, a local hot shoe rolls his 458 in light rain during Saturday practice, and the first race -- in tricky damp-but-drying conditions -- is pretty sketchy.

There's more rain on Sunday morning, but the track is mostly dry by the time the green flag falls for the second and final Ferrari Challenge race of the weekend. From the start, it's a NASCAR-style boys-have-at-it affair, with plenty of bumping and grinding. A car spins on the opening lap. Herjavec gets clipped as he tries to slip past, and the hit puts him in the hospital overnight with an extremely sore neck.

Elsewhere on the track, Mike Zoi -- described by the Miami Herald as a "serial entrepreneur" -- loses control after a tank slapper before coming to rest in the middle of heavy traffic. Meanwhile, two cars rub as they fight over an apex, knocking one of their mirrors askew. "Just a kiss of affection," a race official jokes in the tower as Theys looks on with a benign smile.

At the front of the field, Farano pulls out a five-second gap, while at the back, Taylor makes good on his goal of not finishing last by easing away from the red car running tail-end Charlie. The most stirring drive is Zoi's storming recovery from his spin. "You are the fastest car in the field," his driver coach, Jeff Segal -- yes, the same Jeff Segal who was unofficially banned from driving in the series -- radios from the tower. Zoi passes more than a dozen cars to finish seventh.

After the race, there's an elaborate victory ceremony with a Formula 1-style podium, interviews over the PA system, and the obligatory spraying of champagne. Back in the garage, Zoi laughs ruefully as he watches the in-car video of his spin, Ruud smiles wistfully as he pores over data logged during his race, and Taylor ambles through the pits wearing a grin the size of Texas.

"I have never seen anybody get out of a Ferrari Challenge car with a frown on his face," Homann-McNeil had told me before the race. Looking around the garages, I don't doubt her a bit.

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