Born to Race

As soon as the first Berlinetta Boxer arrived in the U.S., NART turned it into a race car.

Born to Race 1
November 29, 2018

The first time I saw this race-ready 365 GT/4 BB (s/n 18139), it was speeding past me during a late-1990s Ferrari Club of America track event at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. The car’s owner, Bob Coates, was doing double duty as both participant and event chairman, so there was no opportunity to ask questions—but the itch to learn more got stronger each time he or wife Caryn passed by, the un-muffled 12-cylinder engine roaring.

A few years later, I was finally able to learn more about the car, which is the first Berlinetta Boxer ever raced. Its story starts in the early ’70s, when it fell into the hands of Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team (NART), but our tale begins nearly two decades later, when a chance drive in a different flat-12 Ferrari put Coates on an interception course with this one.

At the 1993 FCA Annual Meet, Coates was offered the chance to drive a friend’s 512 TR on the Moroso Motorsports Park circuit. Always respectful of other people’s equipment, he spent a few laps babying the car. Then, he recalls, “I realized that I was going at least as fast as I was going in my carbureted BB when I was pushing it hard.”

His carbureted 512 BB was no slouch, but the 512 TR was “light years ahead.” That experience started the wheels spinning in his mind.

Born to Race 2

“For the first 20 or 30 minutes [of our drive home],” recalls the Staten Island, New York resident, “Caryn and I talked about how I loved the performance of the 512 TR. But then I began thinking to myself that, If the TR is that good, what’s an F40 like? So, for the rest of the trip, figuring out how to buy an F40 was all we could talk about!”

By the time they got home, Coates had figured out how he was going to find the money. The next day, he started to search for an F40. It didn’t take long to find what he describes as a “perfect” example at a dealership in Atlanta. After making the deal over the phone, Coates went to bed that night knowing he would soon be an F40 owner—or so he thought.

“I don’t know if it was during the night or the next morning, but I said to myself, They built close to 1,400 of these while they only built 25 BB/LMs. Why don’t I buy a BB/LM? I had always loved the BB/LMs, so I decided that’s what I was gonna buy.”

Locating one of those 25 race cars wouldn’t be nearly as straightforward as finding an F40. How the hell am I going to find one for sale? Coates wondered. Eventually, he reached out to Tony Wang, a well-known vintage racer, Ferrari collector, and BB/LM owner.

Born to Race 3

“I called Tony up and asked, ‘Are you interested in selling your car?’” he says. Wang wasn’t, but, “He told me that [Ferrari broker] Mike Sheehan had recently called him and said that he might have two or three of them that he was interested in selling.”

Coates called Sheehan, only to find out those cars were already gone. Luckily, the trail wasn’t completely cold. “Mike told me that he had a car that I might be interested in, and then he described what became my car,” he says with a smile.

In describing s/n 18139, Sheehan mentioned some of the books and magazines it had appeared in. Coates remembered one of them, a story called “The Racing 365 BBs,” written by Sheehan, that had run in Cavallino. Says Coates, “I had seen that magazine when it first came out, years earlier, and there’s a picture of my car in that magazine shot from above, looking down on the car. The first time I saw that picture, I brought it downstairs and I said to Caryn, ‘That’s what the Boxer should have looked like.’”

While neither of them had ever laid eyes on the car in the metal, that image had stuck with them. “I was in love with the car and pretty much knew I was going to buy it,” he says.

Born to Race 4

Although Coates set out looking for a 512 BB/LM, s/n 18139 isn’t one of those factory-built sports-racers. Instead, it started life as a street car—the very first 365 GT4/BB imported to the U.S., no less—and was converted into a competition machine by NART years before Ferrari got into the business of racing BBs. It’s thus historically significant as well as unique, which factored into Coates’ thinking.

“Did I want one of roughly fourteen hundred or one of 25?” he muses. “As it turns out, I got one of one.”

IN THE MID 1970S, NART’s Luigi “Coco” Chinetti Jr., Bob Craige, Dick Fritz, Joseph “Randy” Randazzo, and François Sicard were busy racing. I was able to interview then-team manager Fritz extensively about the car, including asking him what it took mentally to turn a brand-new, very expensive Ferrari into a completely unproven race car.

“Because Luigi Jr. and I were younger, we’d try anything,” he replies. “A lot of his father’s mentality was, you promote the product, you take any of the newer cars that came in, whether a Daytona or whatever, and you race it.”

Born to Race 5

When s/n 18139 arrived in Greenwich in late 1974, Chinetti Sr. was in Europe but Fritz and Chinetti Jr. were raring to go. “The Boxer had great potential,” says Fritz. “We thought, Wow, we can race it at Daytona. We got plenty of time; we got eight weeks!

Fritz laughs looking back at that fateful decision. “It was quite a project,” he says. “We worked days, at night, and on weekends to get it down to Daytona.”

Considering that they started the modifications on December 1, the fact that they made the January 22 race was nothing short of heroic. Needless to say, it was very much a team effort.

“We had François working on it, Nereo Iori was working on [the mechanicals], Randy Randazzo would be working [on the body] almost every day, Bob [Craige] did his work [on the electrics] pretty quickly, but he was [still] around a lot of the time,” Fritz says.

Born to Race 6

Sicard in particular was crucial to the job. “Without him the project would never have been completed,” states Fritz, who also credits Chinetti Jr.’s girlfriend at the time, Sha Muscot, with the design drawing around which Randazzo modified the bodywork to allow wider wheels and tires.

Since no BB had ever been raced, there were no specialty parts available and no road map to follow. Explains Fritz, “We used the parts we had. We used the wheels from a 512 M, ’cause that’s what we had. We wanted to get some more front weight bias, so I asked John Bishop at IMSA if we could put the gas tank in the passenger compartment, but encapsulated in aluminum. He said, ‘But it’ll be inside.’ I said, ‘No, no, it’ll be in an aluminum box, so it isn’t really inside the passenger compartment.’ This change would give better weight distribution and have less of an effect on handling as the fuel load dropped. To my surprise, Bishop said ‘Okay’ to that change.”

Fritz thinks IMSA ignored that potentially significant safety concern, and a few other smaller modifications, so that the series would have a Ferrari racing in it. And NART had no intention of running for the sake of being on the track: The team wanted to race, and win, at the highest level of motorsport.

“We wanted to work it up to a competitive race car to win Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, whatever,” says Fritz. “There wasn’t much competition. You look back in ’75, what the hell was there? There were no Turbo Porsches back then.”

Born to Race 7

Fritz felt the only car that could really challenge the Ferrari was the De Tomaso Pantera, but such a challenge would have required a commitment from Ford to build a stronger V8, something the Blue Oval never did. Says Fritz, “We just figured that with the horsepower that we could get out of that engine, which should have been about 500, and the handling of that car, it was like a go kart, it could be competitive, and because it was a Ferrari it could last.”

The amount of work required to turn a street car into something capable of winning an endurance race in less than two months is astounding. The NART crew extensively modified the chassis to make it both stronger and lighter. The wheels, tires, brakes, springs, shock absorbers, and anti-roll bars were all replaced with race-ready versions. All creature comforts were removed; even the dashboard was replaced with one that was still functional but significantly lighter.

Evidence of the extensive lightening is easy to spot. The door sills, for example, feature Swiss-cheese-like holes to save weight. Fritz estimates their efforts removed around 500 pounds from the car’s stock weight, even after the addition of a roll cage and fire-extinguisher system.

Bob Craige also worked on the car, even though he first met Chinetti as a customer, not an employee. Craige was a contributor to Modern Photography magazine who had bought his first Ferrari from the Chinettis and regularly stopped by the shop. As he recalls, “When the car arrived, Coco called me and said, ‘Get over here and bring your cameras!’”

Born to Race 8

Craige was so excited he cut his usual drive time to the shop almost in half. “Coco, who knew the roads around Greenwich really well and could drive, took me for a ride in the 365 BB. When we got back, smoke was coming from every wheel well!”

Because he had a technical background, Craige was tasked with completely rewiring the car. This meant he had to design and install a wholly new electrical system—something he did, per Fritz, remarkably well and, even more important, very quickly. Craige’s goal was easy serviceability and high reliability, and to that end he moved the fuse box from underneath to on top of the dash and installed U.S.-style Buss fuses instead of the bullet-shaped European fuses. “Every connector and switch I used was Military Spec,” he notes. Also, since the nose and tail could be removed in case of an accident, the wiring between them and the main body was an early form of “plug and play.”

Master bodyworker Randy Randazzo, working with his son Tony, modified the rear and front body panels to accommodate the 512 M wheels and wider tires. They also added small aerodynamic tweaks to the body panels to increase high-speed stability.

During the build, the team encountered one significant surprise: a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency. “That was somewhat amusing,” Chinetti Jr. told Bill Oursler in an interview for _FORZA_ #70’s “The Contender.” Since the BB lineup was never officially imported to the U.S., the EPA “came around while we were still building the car and wanted us to export it out of the country on the grounds that it could be turned back into something you could drive on the road. I finally convinced them that, given the amount of money being spent making it into a racer, there was no way I was going to throw away my investment by transforming it back into what it had originally been.”

Born to Race 9

Government satisfied, there was one area of unresolved concern: the car’s 4.4-liter engine, specifically its relative lack of power. Fritz knew Ferrari had a 5.0-liter version coming out, and that Maranello was known to make 500 hp from 5 liters, but in the meantime the team did what it could with carburetor and exhaust modifications to boost horsepower. This included a set of straight pipes that remains on the car today.

NART’S NEARLY ROUND-THE-CLOCK EFFORTS got them to the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona in time—but then, in an early practice session, the right rear hub carrier failed on the steep banking. Because of the issue, Fritz knew the car wouldn’t be able to finish the race, but he still wanted to get the start money.

“I went to Bill France and I said, ‘Bill, this car’s not gonna make it. Do we really need to run the car [to get the start money]?’” recalls Fritz. “He said, ‘People come here to watch a red Ferrari race. You want the start money, you [have to] start the race. If you run one lap and the car breaks, that’s okay.’”

The team fashioned a fix for the broken carrier, ran the first lap of the race, and then retired. A post-race analysis showed that the casting used for the failed part had suffered core shift, which resulted in differing wall thicknesses in the finished piece; the part failed at the thinnest side. For the next race, the team reinforced the outsides of the carriers to try and prevent future problems. Fritz guesses those modified parts are still on the Ferrari.

Born to Race 10

Otherwise, the team’s brief Daytona experience didn’t provide much development opportunity before Sebring. They did order new shocks from Koni, but even that had its challenges. Fritz remembers picking them up in Hackensack, New Jersey, driving across New York City through Saint Patrick’s Day traffic jams, and getting to the airport just in time to fly them down to Florida.

More adventures ensued at s/n 18139’s second race, including a refueling fire that was put out by the built-in extinguisher designed by Fritz. However, one crew member, mechanic Jean Louis LeBreton, was slightly burned in the incident. He wasn’t seriously injured, and thanked the other crewmembers for putting out the fire, and him, so quickly. From then on, LeBreton was called “pomme frites.”

Because of his burns, LeBreton was unable to handle further refueling chores. When no one else wanted to do it, Fritz stepped in—and of course the fuel splashed out again, due to a sticky check valve, and drenched him. This sent Fritz running to the nearest restroom to wash the gasoline off of his face. The door was locked so he ripped it open, to the great surprise of the woman inside.

There were mechanical problems, too. They replaced the clutch (a known weak spot on the BBs) before the race, but then the alternator failed. Despite all the woes, Milt Minter and Eppie Wietzes drove the car to sixth-place overall, behind four Porsche 911 RSRs and a BMW 3.0 CSL.

Born to Race 11

After Sebring, NART brought the car to Road Atlanta. This time, the left-side rear hub carrier failed and s/n 18139 never started the race. Recalls Fritz, “The good part about that was I had a customer in the liquor business and I said, ‘Can you bring some moonshine?’ He said, ‘Oh, sure.’ So he brought moonshine and we had a great party.”

Then he adds, much more seriously, “That was the only time I ever went to a race with NART and we didn’t race. The only time, of all the races.”

They brought the BB back to the shop, fixed the reinforced hub, then went to Lime Rock. There, the race ended early with flames shooting out from the rear of the Ferrari. Reports of an engine failure are incorrect, according to Fritz: “That’s a bunch of bull!”

What actually happened, he says, is Minter spun off the course, stalled, and was pumping the gas to try and restart the car. When it finally started, the exhaust system was full of fuel and whoomp. “The engine, at that point, wasn’t running right, but it didn’t blow up,” says Fritz.

Born to Race 12

AS THINGS TURNED OUT, this was the last race for s/n 18139 under NART ownership. At the time, the Ferrari factory was focused on Formula 1, and while it would develop its own racing BBs a few years later, at the time it had no interest in supporting the Chinettis’ program and developing a more powerful engine. As a result, the Chinettis decided to sell the car—and then folded the team, making this BB the last race car NART ever built.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not certain that the idea of transforming the street BB into a racer was such a hot idea,” says Chinetti today. “It was unknown and illegal for sale in the USA. But NART just wanted to race, and on a shoestring budget we succeeded with the development of the chassis, suspension, and ancillaries. However, the burden of having to develop an unproven and unique engine/transmission package proved unsurmountable. If we’d had a traditional engine and transmission, in a traditional layout, all under the later BB/LM aerodynamic body, we would have had a real race car!”

The car’s ownership was soon transferred to Howard O’Flynn and his company, Banker’s Discount. Despite the car sitting idle for all of 1976, in 1977 O’Flynn took the Ferrari, still wearing its NART banner and entered by the Chinettis, to the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans. Driven by Lucien Guitteny and Francois Migault, s/n 18139 finished the race fifth in class, 16th overall.

After the race, O’Flynn and NART’s Randy Randazzo went to Maranello to buy a race-prepared engine for the following year’s 24 Hours of Daytona. Despite paying for more power, they discovered the new flat-12’s output was little better than stock. At Daytona, the car finished ninth in class and 22nd overall, mostly due to electrical problems.

Still undeterred, O’Flynn was finally able to obtain a 450-hp 5-liter engine (which is still in the car today) for the 1978 Le Mans race. The team’s driver, Migault, drove to Italy to pick it up, and got back in time to have it installed and used in the race. Despite having only limited support from the factory in terms of important parts like a tuned exhaust and other key pieces, Migault and Guitteny finished ahead of the race’s three other Ferraris—512 BB/LMs, all of which retired—and was classified third in class, 16th overall.

Coates, who’s always good for an interesting anecdote, remarks that, at one of these Le Mans races, s/n 18139 stopped on track with a mechanical problem. The rules stated that unless the car was in the pits, only the driver could work on it, and only with tools and parts carried onboard. As unconfirmed legend has it, since the driver was French and the course workers were French, the latter looked away as the mechanics snuck parts and advice from the pits.

Although it retired from top-level racing many decades ago, s/n 18139 still sees plenty of track time with Coates at FCA events. Due to its rarity, value, and the difficulty involved in repairing a one-off car in case of a shunt, he admits to tiptoeing through the corners before hammering it on the straights. That said, from time to time when he sees someone in his mirror catching up, Coates will put the hammer down and watch the challenger disappear.

“I’ll only do that for a couple of laps,” he chuckles. “As track chairman, I always tell the other drivers to be careful, this is not a race and, above all, bring yourselves and their cars home safely. So I have to set a good example.

“But,” he concludes wistfully, “I’m probably the last person who will ever drive this car in anger. After me, a new owner may drive a few parade laps, but that’s about it.”

It’s clear the thought of this Ferrari becoming a garage queen bothers him. But maybe not too much because, ten minutes later, Coates takes me for a fast ride around Lime Rock—and he doesn’t spare the ponies!

Special thanks to Dick Fritz, Bob Craige, and François Sicard for their assistance in preparing this story.

Also from Issue 171

  • FF Buyer's Guide
  • John Barnard interview
  • Caramulo Motorfestival
  • Making new classic leather
  • Pebble Beach, The Quail concours
  • Toni Vilander interview
  • F1: Raikkonen wins!
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