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.
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.
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.”
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….”