The New Privateers

Challenge Club Racing has put a fresh face on Ferrari racing in the U.S.

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February 21, 2014

LAST OCTOBER, the roar of barely muffled Ferrari V8 engines ripped through the air at NOLA Motorsports Park near New Orleans, Louisiana. With more than 2,600 spectators watching, a rainbow field of Ferrari Challenge cars tore around the circuit, slowly stretching out as the faster drivers pulled away from the slower ones. The action at the front was fast and furious, with three classes of cars fighting for the coveted podium positions.

Wait: Three classes? That’s not how Ferrari North America runs its 458 Challenge series. Actually, these Challenge cars weren’t even 458s; they were older, a mix of F430s, 360s and F355s. And a quick look at the calendar reveals the Ferrari Challenge series has never run at NOLA.

So what was this mysterious event? It was the final round of the privately run 2013 Challenge Club Racing series, which is dedicated to putting older Ferrari Challenge cars back on track. For 2014, the series has been renamed the FORZA Tifosi Challenge (as you can read in this issue’s “Commentary,” this magazine is now a sponsor), but much more important is that this series offers a revolutionary, grass-roots, budget-friendly way to race a Ferrari.

OKAY, LET’S BACK UP TO 1993. The Toronto Blue Jays win the World Series. The Dallas Cowboys win the Super Bowl. Time’s “Man” of the Year are “The Peacemakers,” specifically Yasser Arafat, F. W. de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin. Schindler’s List wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Beanie Babies debut. And that July, at Lime Rock Park, Ferrari North America introduces a new race car for a new racing series, both called the 348 Challenge.

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At the time, Ferrari was in a bit of a slump. The 348 had debuted a few years earlier to mixed reviews and serious quality concerns. As a result, sales were slow, as they were across the board: Mondial production was wrapping up, demand was down for the Testarossa line and the 456 wouldn’t arrive in the United States until 1994, the same year the 550 Maranello would debut. Ferrari needed a boost, so it decided to go racing.

The 348 Challenge series was aimed at wealthy amateurs who wanted to race in an organized series without stepping up to the pro ranks. The cars were standardized—dealers installed Challenge “kits” (i.e., roll cages, racing seats, etc.) on customers’ 348s—professional drivers were banned, contact with other cars was frowned upon and no prize money was awarded. The format proved to be an instant hit.

In Europe, the 348 Challenge began in 1993, while the first full season run in the U.S. was in ’94. In 1996, with the F355 having replaced the 348 on the street, the F355 Challenge became the de facto car of the Challenge Series, with the 348 relegated to second-class status for one year before being retired. The F355 was later replaced by the 360, the 360 eventually gave way to the F430 and it, in turn, was replaced by the 458.

Over time, as Challenge cars became faster and faster, and further separated from their road-going cousins, the series began to evolve, focusing more on driver development and less on gentlemanly racing. Today, the factory’s 458 Challenge series is still going strong, with championships run in Italy, Europe, Asia and North America.

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There’s something missing from this picture, however: What happened to the hundreds of “retired” 348, F355, 360 and F430 Challenge cars? They didn’t simply disappear, of course. Over the years, some have been turned into street cars. Some have been snapped up for track-day use. Still others have been raced in SCCA and NASA competition.

Then, in 2011, someone decided to put together a new racing series specifically for these put-out-to-pasture competition cars. Two someones, actually: John Houghtaling and Franco Valobra, longtime members of the Ferrari Club of America Louisiana Chapter.

In the Ferrari world, Valobra and Houghtaling are best known as two of the founders of the French Quarter Classic. This famous, or infamous, three-day Ferrari fest in New Orleans, which started in the early 2000s, features a track day, a concours and a parade of Ferraris—doing burn-outs down Bourbon Street in the middle of Mardi Gras. You get the idea. (We went to, survived and wrote about the French Quarter Classic in issues #27, #33, #44, #52 and #61.)

Anyway, in 2004, Houghtaling and Valobra bought a 360 Challenge car (which, with a set of police lights bolted to its roof, proved a perfect escort for the road-going portion of ’04 French Quarter Classic) and started going to FCA track days. That decision started them down a long road that led to today’s FORZA Tifosi Challenge.

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OVER THE YEARS, FRANCO AND I spent a lot of time encouraging people to buy Ferraris and drive fast,” explains Houghtaling. “But after a decade or so of running track days in road cars, I came to realize just how devastating a crash could be for me, or someone else. It’s even scarier with current Ferraris, which have 600 or 700 horsepower or more; if you leave the track at speed in one of those cars, your life could be hanging in the balance. A Ferrari Challenge car was the perfect choice. It’s a factory-built racing car, with fantastic performance and safety.”

Houghtaling and Valobra drove their 360 Challenge for the next several years, and by 2009 Houghtaling was ready to jump to the next level. He purchased a new F430 Challenge with the intent of competing in FNA’s Challenge series, but then decided to take his new pony to several track days in order to gain some valuable seat time. He soon noticed that many other attendees also brought Challenge cars, which gave him an idea.

“I remember at one club event, at Watkins Glen, I looked around and there were 20 Challenge cars sitting there,” Houghtaling recalls, “I wondered, Why aren’t we racing?

In 2009 and ’10, they did. Working with the FCA, Houghtaling helped to organize a couple of low-key, no-contact races—and loved them. “We had so much fun,” he says. “We proved we could race without banging into each other. I think in those two years I talked eight of my friends into buying Challenge cars.”

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Houghtaling later decided to go it alone and develop his own series. “I wanted to keep racing with my friends but they were not interested in following me into the competitive and costly factory series,” he says. “I decided what we needed was a racing series for ‘previous model’ Challenge cars, those not eligible to run in the official Challenge series.”

Houghtaling didn’t want to encroach on Ferrari’s turf, so no current-model Challenge cars would be allowed. In addition, he says, “I called the president of Ferrari North America and told him what I was up to. He suggested that running a series was not so easy, and he was right—but I knew there was a need that was not being fulfilled, a desire for a series that was more exhibition-style racing than outright competition. And then there were a few hundred historic Challenge cars sitting idle in garages, with no place to race.”

THE PLAN WAS PRETTY STRAIGHTFORWARD. Houghtaling wanted to mimic the format of the factory Challenge series, but for the older cars and less money. “These cars were designed for a spec series, so the playing field was level and I didn’t want to change that,” he explains. “I also wanted the series to be about preservation of the marque, and didn’t want to see the cars get butchered or costs go out the window with people modifying them for more performance. Basically, I wanted to race them as they were raced in the factory series, with only a few limited modifications.”

Those modifications would be allowed only in areas where costs could be reduced or safety improved. For example, the F430 Challenge’s carbon-ceramic brakes are incredibly expensive, so owners would be allowed to replace them with cheaper steel units. On the safety front, 360 Challenges could be retrofitted with front splitters and rear wings from the 360 GT.

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“The 360 is so fast that it really needs them,” says Houghtaling. “A 360 without a wing and a splitter is a skittish car, but put a GT wing and splitter on it and it’s transformed into one of the best-handling GT cars on the planet. The end result is that the cars are more stable and you get fewer crashes.”

In another cost-and-safety ruling, car-to-car contact was strictly forbidden. “I got a lot of feedback that the fear of damaging the cars was keeping a lot of owners from racing,” Houghtaling says. “The later Challenge cars are made of aluminum, which is expensive to repair, anyway, and Ferraris being Ferraris means parts are expensive, too.”

Lower costs would also help encourage more participation, and the older Challenge cars perfectly fit the bill. “The cost of entry into the series is low compared to the factory series,” Houghtaling explains. “A 458 Challenge costs something like a quarter-million dollars, but an F355 Challenge can be bought for around $55,000. A 360 costs $80,000 to $85,000, and a good F430 runs roughly $140,000 to $145,000. Also, unlike the modern street cars, which can cost $400,000, most of these Challenge cars haven’t depreciated in a decade. This means that people can get in and out of the series without any loss of principal in the car.”

Further reducing costs was a plan to keep the series’ races close together. “The factory Challenge series criss-crosses the country, and the related expenses are huge,” Houghtaling notes. “I wanted a regional series, with regional race teams, to cut costs. Plus, if it worked, the teams could field five or ten cars each, thus diving the cost to the entrants even further.”

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The final significant decision was to make the series a non-profit entity. “I wanted it to be about the drivers, the tifosi, not the money,” says Houghtaling. “If we got a surplus at the end of one year, we would just cut everyone’s costs for the following year.”

IN 2011, THIS VISION CAME TO LIFE with the launch of Challenge Club Racing (CCR) and a six-event calendar. As with the factory 458 Challenge, CCR’s events feature two 40-minute sprint races: one on Saturday, one on Sunday. (The rest of the event is devoted to Challenge qualifying sessions—one each on Saturday and Sunday—and general track time for other Ferraris.) Similarly, CCR followed the factory’s arrive-and-drive format, with professional support teams handling car maintenance, repair and transportation. According to Houghtaling, “We really wanted to duplicate the experience offered by the factory series.”

Unlike the factory series, CCR features three classes—for F355s, 360s and F430s—all of which take to the track at once, although they are fighting for their own podiums. “We have yet to see a 348 Challenge, which would race in the F355 class, but I’m in talks with a couple of guys who have them,” Houghtaling reports. “They’re very rare, since most were converted back to street cars, and I wanna see ’em so bad they can come and race for free.”

CCR’s first race was held at Sebring that April, and Houghtaling decided to do something special to attract participants. “I pledged to give $1,000 out of my own pocket to every driver who showed up and raced cleanly,” he says. “After all the work, I was sort of holding my breath to see if I was right about the concept—and 42 Challenge cars showed up. So far as we could tell, it was the largest Ferrari-only race ever run.”

In typical French Quarter Classic style, Houghtaling didn’t hand out checks. Instead, Valobra went to the bank and stuffed his briefcase with $42,000 in $20 bills, which were handed out in stacks.

Partway through its maiden season, CCR ran as a Grand-Am support race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. “We had 25 cars there,” recalls Houghtaling. “There were Ferrari flags flying in the stands, and the promoters later told us we got the crowd more excited than the professional races. After that, we got offers to be a support race everywhere—Grand-Am, the ALMS—because we had a lot of cars and the money to do it. The problem is, under those circumstances you get very little track time. When we took a poll, the guys said they wanted to do one or two support races a year, but the rest would be at car festivals or club events.”

By the end of its first year, CCR had around 60 Challenge car-owning members. That number grew to roughly 75 owners in 2012, and around 85 the following year. The 2012 calendar featured seven events, including a support race at the 12 Hours of Sebring, while the 2013 schedule consisted of six events and two support races: the 12 Hours of Sebring and the FCA’s 50th Annual Meet at Road America. To date, the series has hosted 43 races, with grids typically containing 20 to 30 cars.

At present, CCR counts more than 110 Challenge car-owning members, roughly 70 of whom have purchased the series’ newly branded _FORZA_ Tifosi Challenge racing suits in anticipation of the 2014 season-opener at the Circuit of the Americas in March. “Around 20 guys have bought Challenge cars since NOLA, and we have 40 guys signed up for COTA,” enthuses Houghtaling. “At the moment, good Challenge cars don’t stay on the market for more than a week. I’ve got two, maybe three guys looking for them; with the F430s, we have more people than cars. We’ve actually imported a few to keep up with demand.”

“As far as the racing goes, I think we’re where we want to be—which I’m astonished to be saying,” Houghtaling concludes. “Normally, you build something and you want to build it bigger, better, all this, but we’re now using all the cars available in the United States, have grids that rival any series in the U.S. and we’ve proven you can race a Ferrari Challenge car at a reasonable price. There’s also a wonderful camaraderie that’s been created, and really fostered by the vintage-style racing. It’s not just about going fast; we encourage people who want to take the next step to join the factory’s 458 Challenge, and so far four or five guys have. It’s that these cars, and being in these cars, offer an end unto itself.”

For more information on the FORZA Tifosi Challenge series, visit www.challengeclubracing.com.

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