Big, Easy, Rally

We head to New Orleans for the CentoMiglia, a smaller, shorter, simpler take on the Mille Miglia formula—with a few special touches.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 1
January 11, 2018

I didn’t know what to expect from the inaugural CentoMiglia rally, but I wasn’t hopeful. I’ve never understood the appeal of driving a car, on public roads at the speed limit, from Points A to B to C in a set amount of time, as a competition. Not even in the Mille Miglia Storica, the world-famous, 1,000-mile regularity rally which inspired the CentoMiglia.

“I know exactly what you mean,” CentoMiglia co-founder John Houghtaling told me. “I felt the same way. When Franco [Valobra] and I went to the Mille Miglia this year, we expected to hate the competition aspect. But we loved it, and afterward we knew we had to do something similar in the U.S.”

Houghtaling and Valobra, the New Orleans tifosi behind the Louisiana Chapter of the Ferrari Club of America (which they helped found in 1998), the French Quarter Classic (1999-2008), and the FORZA Tifosi Challenge (2009-2017), made a modestly convincing case. So, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I flew to the Big Easy to join the festivities.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 2

Pre-event skepticism aside, I quickly get into the rally’s casually over-the-top spirit, and just as quickly get caught up in the competition. My heart’s definitely beating faster than usual when I and co-driver John Suarez line up for the event’s final Prove Speciali, or Special Stage. We’re sitting mid-pack in the standings, and this is our last chance to move up. Our scores have improved at each test, but the gaps are incredibly small.

“Ready?” I ask Suarez.

“We got this,” he replies, eyes fixed on his iPhone’s timer.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 3

The starting horn sounds, I gently release the clutch pedal of the Ferrari 512 TR, and we’re off—and, basically, we flub it. We finish the stage 16th, nearly 65-percent off our time in the previous stage, our best. As we find out later, though, that score lifts us to 13th overall. Rounded up through the lens of a day spent behind the wheel, cheering crowds, police escorts, and a triple-digit dice with a Testarossa, it feels like a top-ten finish. And to my surprise, I discover I really, really wanted to finish in the top ten.

THE CENTOMIGLIA is kind of the third chapter in our story,” says Houghtaling. “First we had the French Quarter Classic, which was all about driving fast cars on the street; we couldn’t do that today in the era of cell phones! Then, after we started to get concerned about safety, we created the FORZA Tifosi Challenge, driving fast cars on the racetrack. Now we’ve come full circle, back to the street, back to something more accessible than Challenge cars and race teams.”

As mentioned, the idea for the event came from Houghtaling and Valobra’s experience in the 2017 Mille Miglia. “I had thought we would just go over there and drive around, but the competition was intense,” says Valobra. “The way I look at it, it’s a way for people who wouldn’t put on a race suit, strap on a helmet, and buy a roll cage to go racing. I have a lot of friends who love their cars, who love competition, but don’t want to put themselves or other people into danger. Plus, in a regular rally, the navigator can’t wait for their chance to drive; they’re just sitting there, bored. But with the regularity rally and the Prove Speciale, the navigator has just as much fun, a real challenge.”

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 4

While he felt the format had potential, Valobra wanted to simplify things. “When we went to the Mille Miglia, we had two days of teaching beforehand,” he recalls, “and that was nebulous at best. By the time we figured out what was going on, we had racked up 60,000 penalty points; we finished 316th out of 500 cars! After that, I knew we had to make things easy.”

He also knew the CentoMiglia had to be short. “We were in Italy for more than a week, and it was a very expensive undertaking,” says Valobra. “I didn’t want people not to participate because they didn’t have time. Everyone’s busy these days, with family, with business, with other commitments. We knew it had to be a one-day event.”

Concludes Houghtaling, “We just wanted to try out the idea with some of our friends, see what they thought. But then five friends turned into 10, then 20, then 30….”

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 5

ALL THIS IS HOW, on November 18, 41 cars line up outside the Lakefront Airport, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, for the start of the first CentoMiglia. Given Houghtaling and Valobra’s background it’s no surprise 34 of the entries are Ferraris, although they themselves arrive in a matching pair of Jaguar XK120s.

“We were both going to buy pontoon-fender Testa Rossas,” jokes Valobra, “but we couldn’t quite afford them.”

The Ferraris on hand run the gambit from Jim Glickenhaus’ 159S Spyder Corsa (s/n 002C), driven by two-time Mille Miglia winners Giordano Mozzi and Stefania Biacca, to a pair of 488 Spiders. Most of the other Prancing Horses come from the 1990s or later, with Michael Green’s 275 GTB/4, Dana and Chris Parr’s Dino 246 GT, and Mel Jacobs’ Daytona standing out as the “older” models.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 6

A DeTomaso Pantera and a ’56 Ford Thunderbird (!) look suitably out of place among the Ferraris, but if there’s one car that really stands out from the crowd it’s Glickenhaus’ SCG 003C. This stunning carbon-fiber Honda-powered prototype, the same car that snatched pole position at the 24 Hours of the Nürburgring in 2017, was developed by the team behind Glickenhaus’ Ferrari-based P4/5 Competizione [“Iconoclast,” FORZA #111]. And, like the P4/5C, it’s street-legal.

There’s plenty of good-natured confusion among the enthusiastic participants about what exactly’s to come. (“DO NOT follow the car in front of you, they may be just as lost as you,” the route book cheerfully warns.) Nonetheless, at 10 o’clock the first car, ringers Mozzi and Biacca in the Spyder Corsa, heads through the gate and onto the road. Start times are staggered by one minute, so Suarez and I, in car #19, head out at 10:19. Less than two minutes later, we stop behind a long line of traffic; a nearby drawbridge has been raised to allow a ship to pass.

“Are we being timed?” Suarez asks.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 7

“I dunno,” I say, “but I really hope not.”

It turns out we are, but only in the sense that we have to cover the 73-or-so miles to the lunch stop in two hours and 45 minutes. That’s a relief given that it takes about 10 minutes to cover the two miles to the first special stage.

Prove Speciale are the real challenge in regularity racing, and look deceptively easy right up to the point you find yourself starting one. The basic premise is that you have to cover a set distance in a set amount of time and you rack up penalty points for being too early or too late. I didn’t see the difficulty when Valobra described the particulars—15 seconds to cover a straight 250-foot course—but immediately realize my error as we roll toward the finish line with no real concept of how to trip the timing gear at exactly 15 seconds. As a result, we’re 1.17 seconds late, which earns us a 117-point penalty.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 8

“You really have to be under 20 penalty points to be competitive,” comments the always-smiling Mozzi, who finishes the stage two-hundredths of a second late. “The key is that the navigator is more important than the driver, for they must count down the time.”

“The Mille Miglia has what they call concatenated Prove Speciale, where you have four or five or 15 timed spans coming sequentially, one after the other,” adds Valobra. “If you miss the first span you’re done, you’ll never catch up, and they have 120 Prove Speciale! We decided to limit it to just four, with just one timed section.”

That was a brilliant decision, and it turns out 16.17 seconds isn’t bad in terms of position; it puts us in 16th place. It still seems absurd to have missed the finish by more than a full second, though, and I’m not the only participant who feels that way.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 9

“When I saw our result [158 penalty points], I was like, ‘This is not gonna happen!’” exclaims Kate Dixon, who was navigating for husband Todd in their Challenge Stradale. “I told him we had to get better.”

Whatever the Dixons change, it works: At the second Prove Speciali, they cross the line in 15.00 seconds—literal perfection in regularity-rally terms. (It’s a feat even Giordano and Biacca can’t match, though they do set a 15.01 later in the day.) Suarez and I improve to 90 penalty points, and I feel even better when Todd Dixon admits he felt no difference at all between their two runs.

That evening, Houghtaling, who finished the event in third place, tells me, “One of the tricks is to put a piece of tape on the driver-side door, line it up with your eye, and kind of use it as a gunsight. That way you know exactly when you cross the start line and can predict when you’re gonna cross the finish.”

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 10

When I ask why he didn’t say anything earlier, when I might have put the tip to good use, Houghtaling just grins.

AS A VALOBRA AND HOUGHTALING PRODUCTION, the CentoMiglia carries a few of their trademark touches from the French Quarter Classic. The most obvious element is a cordial relationship with the local police, who provide the only motorcycle escort I’ve ever experienced and regularly stop cross traffic to allow the exotic convoy to pass.

Then there’s the parade through the French Quarter. It’s our second checkpoint of the day, and my left foot already hurts from manhandling the TR’s hefty clutch through all the stopping-and-going, but it’s a small price to pay to be greeted by a cheering crowd (about a third of which is drinking, Bourbon Street being only two intersections away) and interviewed by the event emcee (another personal first). As they say in these parts, laissez les bon temps rouler—let the good times roll.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 11

After that, the route book leads us out along the series of levees that surround New Orleans, where, happily, the aforementioned constabulary displays a nicely liberal attitude toward speed limits. There are occasional stops for checkpoints and Prove Speciale, often located at local landmarks such as Oak Alley Plantation and Metairie Cemetery, but most of our time is spent simply motoring along, romping with whatever Ferraris happen to be heading our way.

“We just went for it!” says longtime FORZA Tifosi Challenge racer John Fatigati, who recruited fellow FORZA Tifosi Challenge competitor Ken Marlin to ride shotgun in his F355 Challenge. “My car has a custom central exhaust and it sounds awesome when you really wind it out. I think we got to the lunch checkpoint 40 minutes early.”

The inaugural CentoMiglia ends at New Orleans’ Botanical Gardens, where the occupants of the remaining 36 cars spill out, tired but excited. Now it’s time to bench race, share stories of the day, find out the final finishing order, and, in another Houghtaling and Valobra touch, receive a wine bottle engraved with our car number and a small gold Prancing Horse pin.

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 12

“This was so much fun!” Kate Dixon says as we sip soft drinks at the award presentation. (Wisely, since everyone still has to drive home, alcohol was reserved for the after-party at the aptly named Houghtaling Mansion—the only house I’ve ever been to with a Mardi Gras band and accompanying dancers, more than a dozen people in total, marching through.) “We will definitely do this again.”

I hear the same sentiment from everyone I talk with, and I feel the same way. The key, as far as I can figure it out, is the mix of competition, camaraderie, and VIP-style nuttiness. Remove any one element and you’re left with a bunch of people driving around aimlessly. Blend all three together in the right proportions, though, and you get the sort of event you’ll tell your friends about with a sense of wonder that it really happened.

Houghtaling and Valobra rightfully view their event as a success, and hope to expand it. “I would like to see CentoMiglias organized by each chapter of the Ferrari Club of America,” Valobra says. “It’s a taste of the iconic, historic Mille Miglia, without the commitment. And we’ll do it here again, of course, and make it a little more challenging.”

Photo: Big, Easy, Rally 13

Whatever comes next, FORZA will be there.

Also from Issue 164

  • 400 vs 456 vs 612
  • 250 GT Tour de France
  • Inside Ferrari Classiche
  • Legends: F2003-GA
  • Ferrari in Formula 1: 1947-1960
  • Market Update: Road-car prices
  • F1: Out With a Whimper
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